A Trifecta of Fact Checker Error on IG Report

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The so-called “elite three” mainstream fact checkers, FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and the Washington Post Fact Checker, all followed the mainstream press in making a serious error reporting on the Inspector General’s report on the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation.

What the IG Report Said

The IG report repeatedly said investigators failed to find “documentary or testimonial evidence” of political bias.

But the report’s early section on methodology explained its approach to the question of political bias:

If the explanations we were given for a particular decision were consistent with legal requirements, policies, procedures, and not unreasonable, we did not conclude that the decision was based on improper considerations in the absence of documentary or testimonial evidence to the contrary.

The report’s description of its methodology colors every use of the repeated phrase “documentary or testimonial evidence.” Mainstream news reports, as in this example from National Public Radio, tended to misleadingly translate “no documentary or testimonial evidence” as “no evidence.”

In effect, the IG Report gave the FBI a wide realm within which it could exercise politically biased discretion, as this line from the report illustrates (bold emphasis added):

(G)iven the low threshold for predication in the AG Guidelines and the DIOG, we concluded that the FFG information, provided by a government the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) deems trustworthy, and describing a first-hand account from an FFG employee of a conversation with Papadopoulos, was sufficient to predicate the investigation.

The IG report, then, would not conclude that a thin predicate for investigation represented political bias unless it had documentary or testimonial evidence to the contrary.

We find nothing from the report where it would conclude bias was absent from FBI decision-making.

The Senate Testimony of Inspector General Michael Horowitz

If the IG’s report failed to make its conclusions clear, Inspector General Horowitz did much to correct the problem with his testimony before the Senate.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) questioned Horowitz regarding the FISA applications leading to the surveillance of Trump advisor Carter Page (via C-SPAN):

SEN. PETERS

So, if I recall from your testimony here today, is that the errors that were occurring, the fundamental errors, the basic errors related to the FISA process, you didn’t find any evidence that there was political bias there–no documentary evidence. The errors occurred, and those are troublesome, but you didn’t necessarily link those to any political bias, is that accurate?

IG HOROWITZ

So, I want to draw a distinction now. We did not, what we didn’t find was they were considering in August and September whether to seek a FISA, we didn’t see evidence there in those communications, but as to the failures that occurred, we didn’t find any of the explanations particularly satisfactory, in fact unsatisfactory across the board. In the absence of satisfactory answers I can’t tell you as I sit here whether it was gross incompetence, and I think with the volume of errors you could make an argument that would be a hard sell that it was just gross incompetence, to intentional, to somewhere in between and what the motivations were. I can think of plenty of motivations that could have caused that to occur, but we didn’t have any hard evidence that I can sit here and tell you why did these occur. I can tell you they occurred, I can tell you we didn’t get good explanations, but I can’t tell you why.

IG Horowitz, in short, did not conclude that political bias played no role in the Carter Page FISA applications.

Horowitz’s response to questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.) likewise conveyed his report’s true position on the question of political bias (C-SPAN):

SEN. PAUL

I would say that, um, when we look at bias I guess the first question would be a short question to reiterate and make sure it’s very clear. You did find evidence of biased individuals who were involved with the, uh, involved with the investigation.

IG HOROWITZ

That’s correct.

SEN. PAUL

Okay. I think that’s very clear, and is it difficult to determine what people’s motives are and whether they’re biased or not biased?

IG HOROWITZ

It’s very difficult.

SEN. PAUL

Right. And so just by saying you didn’t find it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, it doesn’t mean you couldn’t have had 15 people very biased who influence every one of their decisions, you just can’t prove it.

IG HOROWITZ

We could not prove it. We lay out here what we can prove.

SEN. PAUL

One specific instance I’d like to ask you about, though. The OGC attorney is the one I think you’ve referred for criminal evaluation. Correct?

IG HOROWITZ

I’ll just say we’ve referred to the Attorney General and FBI–

SEN. PAUL

Okay. Right. For possible criminal evaluation. He also had text messages that said, uh, viva the resistance. Did you interpret those to be, or what was your opinion? Does that show that he might have had some bias? Against the Trump administration?

IG HOROWITZ

Well, he was one of the individuals last, in last year’s report precisely for those text messages that we referred to the FBI, precisely for that concern.

SEN. PAUL

So you interpreted that as an evidence of bias. But I guess my question would be if you saw that he was biased, he’s obviously made errors that you think actually may have been intentional, why in that instance would you not be free to say that there’s documentary evidence of not only bias but then malfeasance?

IG HOROWITZ

That’s precisely why we don’t say that, as to the errors, the failures in the FISA process.

SEN. PAUL

Well, could you then specifically say the opposite, that actually in this instance there actually was evidence of political bias and evidence of record changing that looks like malfeasance?

IG HOROWITZ

There’s evidence of both, I agree with you, but we will let–I want to make sure there’s a fair process–

SEN. PAUL

That’s fine. And I think the Chairman’s very correct that the media has [sic] misinterpreted what you’ve said and drawn conclusions that I don’t think are accurate as to what you’re saying.

Though Horowitz admitted to seeing evidence of political bias in the FBI’s handling of the Carter Page FISA applications, the IG report made that point only subtly and implicitly.

The mainstream media overlooked it, often in favor of seeing the report’s statements about lack of evidence as an evidence of lack (the fallacy of appeal to ignorance).

We found mainstream fact checkers no better than the mainstream media at reporting on the IG report (see Page 2).

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