Just hours after the Justice Department’s internal watchdog issued a scathing report on how senior officials within the FBI and Justice Department handled several matters tied to the 2016 presidential election, FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday offered an unequivocal defense of the agency he now leads.
“[It’s] important to note what the Inspector General did not find,” Wray told reporters inside the FBI, marking one of the first times he’s taken questions from media representatives since becoming the agency’s director. “This report did not find any evidence of political bias or improper considerations actually impacting the investigation under review,” namely the FBI’s probe of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
“The report does identify errors of judgment, violations of or even disregard for policy, and decisions that at the very least — with the benefit of hindsight — were not the best choices,” Wray said, noting that he was “disappointed” by the report’s findings and takes them “very seriously.”
The nearly 500-page report took former FBI director James Comey to task for publicly announcing in July 2016 that Clinton would not face charges, even as he accused her of mishandling classified information. The report also rebuked Comey for disclosing just days before the election that the FBI was reopening the Clinton case to review hundreds of thousands of newly-discovered emails — emails that turned out to be of little consequence.
The report offered harsh criticism for senior FBI agent Peter Strzok, who exchanged a trove of text messages with an FBI colleague in the months before the presidential election. In one August 2016 text message, Strzok – as he was leading the Clinton probe and the FBI investigation of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election – said he and his team would “stop” Trump from becoming president if necessary. Inspector General Michael Horowitz said such statements from Strzok and others helped create a “cloud” over the FBI, and Horowitz said he could not discount that political bias played a role in at least one of Strzok’s missteps during the Clinton case.
Wray, meanwhile, said the FBI is going to review the inspector generals’ findings and will take any appropriate action to hold people accountable.
“The [inspector general] makes clear that we’ve got some work to do,” Wray said. “But let’s also be clear on the scope of this report. It’s focused on a specific set of events back in 2016, and a small number of FBI employees connected with those events. Nothing, nothing in this report impugns the integrity of our workforce as a whole, or the FBI as an institution.”
More than 37,000 people work for the FBI, and the agency has already started to take steps to address issues raised in the inspector general’s report, he added.
“There are some sobering lessons in there. We’re going to learn those lessons,” including “the importance of trying to make sure that we avoid even the appearance of bias in all of our work,” Wray vowed. “Objectivity and the appearance of objectivity matter.”
However, Wray declined to criticize President Donald Trump and others for their public statements blasting the FBI as “rigged” and poisoned with bias.
Wray said the only opinions that matter are those of the people that FBI agents and personnel deal with every day to “protect lives” and “uphold the Constitution.”
“In the past few months, we’ve disrupted terrorist plots from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to a crowded shopping mall in Miami,” he said. “We deployed more than 600 FBI folks from around the country in the recent investigation of the package bombs in Austin. This year alone, we’ve recovered 1,305 kids from child predators – some as young as seven months old. We’ve arrested more than 4,600 violent gang members in just the past several months … [and] the FBI’s men and women are doing all this work with the unfailing fidelity to our Constitution and laws that it demands, the bravery that it deserves, and the integrity that the American people rightly expect.”