The Federal bureau of dirty tricks

This month’s bombshell indictment of Igor Danchenko, the Russian national who is charged with lying to the F.B.I. and whose work turns out to have been the main source for Christopher Steele’s notorious dossier, is being treated as a major embarrassment for much of the news media — and, if the charges stick, that’s exactly what it is.

Put media criticism aside for a bit. What this indictment further exposes is that James Comey’s F.B.I. became a Bureau of Dirty Tricks, mitigated only by its own incompetence — like a mash-up of Inspector Javert and Inspector Clouseau. Donald Trump’s best move as president (about which I was dead wrong at the time) may have been to fire him.

If you haven’t followed the drip-drip-drip of revelations, late in 2019 Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, published a damning report detailing “many basic and fundamental errors” by the F.B.I. in seeking Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrants to surveil Carter Page, the American businessman fingered in the dossier as a potential link between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Shortly afterward, Rosemary Collyer, the court’s presiding judge, issued her own stinging rebuke of the bureau: “The frequency with which representations made by F.B.I. personnel turned out to be unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession, and with which they withheld information detrimental to their case, calls into question whether information contained in other F.B.I. applications is reliable,” she wrote.

Here a question emerged: Were the F.B.I.’s errors a matter of general incompetence or of bias? There appears to be a broad pattern of F.B.I. agents overstating evidence that corroborates their suspicions. That led to travesties such as the bureau hounding the wrong man in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

But it turns out the bureau can be both incompetent and biased. When the F.B.I. applied for warrants to continue wiretapping Page, it already knew Page was helping the C.I.A., not the Russians. We know this because in August 2020 a former F.B.I. lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, pleaded guilty to rewriting an email to hide Page’s C.I.A. ties.