Christopher Wray’s FBI Stonewall
Christopher Wray was supposed to bring a new candor and credibility to the FBI after the James Comey debacle, but the country is still waiting. The director’s testimony Thursday to the House Judiciary Committee suggests he has joined the Justice Department effort to stop the public from learning about the bureau’s role in the 2016 election.
Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte invited Mr. Wray to answer the multiplying questions about the bureau’s 2016 political interference. This includes the role that the Steele dossier—opposition research financed by the Clinton campaign—played in the FBI’s decision to investigate the Trump presidential campaign. The committee also wants answers about reports that special counsel Robert Mueller demoted Peter Strzok, a lead FBI investigator in both the Trump and Hillary Clinton email investigations, after Mr. Strzok exchanged anti-Trump texts with his mistress, who also works at the FBI.
Mr. Wray spent five hours stonewalling. The director ducked every question about the FBI’s behavior by noting that the Justice Department Inspector General is investigating last year’s events.
Is Mr. Wray concerned that Mr. Strzok edited the FBI’s judgment of Mrs. Clinton’s handling of her emails to “extremely careless” from “grossly negligent” in a previous draft? The grossly negligent phrase might have put Mrs. Clinton in legal jeopardy, but Mr. Wray said he couldn’t answer because that is subject to the “outside, independent investigation.”
Is Mr. Wray taking steps to ensure his top ranks are free of political “taint”? He couldn’t say because of the “outside, independent” investigation.
Ohio Republican Jim Jordan noted that the only way for Congress to know if the FBI used the Steele dossier to obtain a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign is for the FBI to provide its application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. “Is there anything prohibiting you from showing this committee [that application]?” Mr. Jordan asked.
Mr. Wray’s answer was dismissive. “I do not believe that I can legally and appropriately share a FISA court submission with this committee,” said Mr. Wray. “When I sign FISA applications, which I have to do almost every day of the week, they are all covered with a ‘classified information’ cover.”
This is an excuse, not a serious reason. The IG is a watchdog created by Congress to investigate executive misbehavior. It was never intended to supplant congressional oversight, much less be an excuse for executive officials to protect their decisions from scrutiny.
As for hiding behind “classified information,” the House Intelligence Committee that is investigating Russian campaign meddling has appropriate clearances. Mr. Goodlatte reminded Mr. Wray that the Judiciary Committee also has primary jurisdiction over the FISA court.
The FISA application is central to the issue of Russian meddling and whether the FBI used disinformation to trigger a counterintelligence investigation of a U.S. presidential candidate. Congress and the U.S. need to know not only if Trump officials were colluding with Russians but also if Russia and the Clinton campaign used false information to dupe the FBI into intervening in a U.S. election. Yet the FBI and Justice have been stonewalling House Intelligence for months.
The lack of cooperation has become more troubling amid reports that senior career Justice officials have a partisan motivation. Judicial Watch last week released emails showing that Mr. Mueller’s top lieutenant, Andrew Weissmann, praised Obama holdover and acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January for defying Mr. Trump on his travel ban.
Justice also confirmed a Fox News report last week that one of its top lawyers, Bruce Ohr, was in contact with Christopher Steele (the dossier author) before the election, and after the election with Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, the opposition-research firm that hired Mr. Steele. Mr. Ohr was demoted, which suggests his contacts were unauthorized.
By the way, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States is the President. This means he has the legal authority through his deputies at the White House and Justice to see the FISA application. AG Jeff Sessions is recused from the Russia probe, which complicates his access because we don’t know the extent of his recusal. But Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein supervises the FBI when Mr. Sessions does not.
Mr. Rosenstein can and should order the FBI to meet Congress’s document requests including the FISA application. If he refuses, then Mr. Trump through White House counsel Donald McGahn can order him to do so. Mr. Rosenstein could choose to resign rather than comply, but he will not have the law on his side.
The easy way to solve this standoff is for executive officials, including the FBI, to do their duty and cooperate with the duly elected Members of Congress. If they don’t, sterner measures like a finding of contempt of Congress will be needed.