DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz displayed considerable political savvy testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week about his latest report into the FBI’s investigation of President Trump’s 2016 campaign. The report and his testimony broadly debunked the President’s oft-repeated claims that the Bureau improperly opened the investigation, “spied” on his campaign, and were part of some sort of “Deep State” conspiracy. On the other hand, the OIG did uncover numerous irregularities in the investigations and serious flaws in the FBI’s usage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process.
Mr. Horowitz’s investigation was thorough and even-handed, a hallmark of an “independent” OIG. He even garnered praise and thanks for his efforts from both Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ranking Member Diane Feinstein (R-CA), not to mention Senators with such disparate views as Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-CT). This makes it all the more disappointing when President Trump, Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham (tasked by Barr to conduct an alternative investigation) publicly refused to accept the OIG’s finding that the FBI investigation was not initiated for partisan political reasons. The AG’s public statement disputing that conclusion was nothing less than an attack on the independence and credibility of the OIG.
Wasting the opportunity to build on a unique moment of bipartisan agreement in extremely difficult circumstances, Attorney General Barr’s conduct calls into question his own independence as the head of a Cabinet office tasked with impartially enforcing the nation’s laws. Instead of accepting professional and impartial oversight, the AG decided to “fuel ‘deep state’ conspiracy theories” and further weaponize the president’s twitter feed. This should have been the moment to build a consensus to reform the FISA process. Instead, the AG decided that his political interests were more important than America’s national security and civil liberties.
What can we take away from this? As an independent, presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed officer within the Department of Justice, the Inspector General has significant discretion into what to investigate. However, Attorney General Barr’s demonstrated proclivity to amplify and weaponize OIG findings makes it even more urgent that Mr. Horowitz resist pursuing conservative conspiracy theories and spend more time investigating substantive allegations of misconduct within the Department under Mr. Barr and his immediate predecessor, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. Unlike virtually every other establishment OIG, Mr. Horowitz has yet to report on corruption or potential abuse of power by officials actually appointed by President Trump. To safeguard his independence, ensure his work is taken seriously as intended, and prevent himself from becoming mere fodder for the President’s bully pulpit twitter feed and the social media echo chamber that amplifies it, Mr. Horowitz should not be afraid to take on the politicizing of the Department under the current administration.
A man of impeccable integrity, Mr. Horowitz works in a hot-house environment. Those of us who appreciate the crucial importance of oversight, and the work of IGs in particular, can be thankful for his objective review of “Crossfire Hurricane.” But the way the Attorney General chose to politicize those findings makes us fearful that Mr. Horowitz won’t get a fair hearing in today’s media hurricane and that his office may not have enough real independence to take on more fundamental corruption issues in the Department. The time for more proactive and overtly independent oversight is now.