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FBI director pushes back on Republican criticisms in first testimony after release of watchdog report

The head of the FBI on Wednesday batted back criticism from House Republicans that he hadn’t done enough to reform the law enforcement agency after the release of a report that detailed the bureau’s failures in the Russia investigation.

In his first public testimony on Capitol Hill since the release of the Justice Department’s inspector general report late last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray was critical of the officials accused of wrongdoing in the report, and outlined a number of steps he was making to change protocol at the agency as a result.

But his response before the House Judiciary Committee was too tepid for a number of conservative lawmakers, who demanded a “thorough and complete public house cleaning” and a “clear, unambiguous expression of moral outrage.”

President Donald Trump and his allies in Congress have seized on the findings in the inspector general report about a series of errors made by the FBI as it sought a surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign aide under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

The Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, has said that he did not have enough evidence to conclude the motivation behind those errors, and the attorney general has suggested they could have been made in “bad faith.”

Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, drew audible protests from lawmakers after declaring he’d lost trust in the agency after the findings of the Horowitz report.

“I don’t trust your agency anymore. And that’s a profound thing for me to say, because I was raised to revere the FBI,” McClintock said.

Wray has said that he implemented more than 40 changes in the wake of the Horowitz report, including ones that aimed to make the FISA application process more stringent.

There have also been consequences for the individuals accused of wrongdoing by the inspector general, Wray said.

FBI employees who were criticized by Horowitz and are still at the bureau — mostly lower level officials — are going through an internal disciplinary process. Wray said the “vast majority” of the group has since left the FBI, including some who were fired.

“My leadership team and I are fiercely focused on preventing these kind of failures from happening again,” Wray said.

Over more than four hours of testimony, Wray was also grilled about political influence at the FBI, as well as domestic terrorism and foreign election interference — threats that he said are top priorities for the law enforcement agency.

Asked by House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, if he’d been asked to open an investigation into targets of the President who were involved in the impeachment effort — including former Vice President Joe Biden, former national security adviser John Bolton, and members of Congress — Wray demurred, while noting that he has not been asked to improperly open an investigation.

“I have assured the Congress and I can assure the Congress today that the FBI will open investigations based on the facts and the law and proper predication,” Wray said. “No one has asked me to open up an investigation based on anything but the facts, the law and proper predication.”

Wray praised the FBI’s improved relationship with social media companies that has allowed them to fight back on persistent attempts by Russia to sew discord and mistrust in American institutions online.

The FBI has not seen an ongoing effort to target election infrastructure, like what was done in 2016, he said.

As FBI statistics show hate crimes at a heightened level nationally, Wray said he had directed counterterrorism teams in the field to have domestic terrorism “squarely in their sights”

Wray also confirmed that the FBI has a number of open domestic terrorism investigations into people associated with the so-called Black Hebrew Israelites group.

Authorities have linked members of the group to the shooting spree at a Kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey, last year, as well as the Hanukkah party stabbings in New York.

In his criticism of Wray and the FBI’s use of FISA surveillance in the Russia investigation, Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, a vocal ally of Trump, signaled changes at the FBI could be tied to an upcoming legislative battle over separate FISA provisions that are set to expire.

Republicans elsewhere in Congress, namely Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said they intend to hold hearings in the coming weeks on FISA reform.

At the House hearing Wednesday, Jordan floated a number sweeping changes to the way the FBI gets warrants to wiretap targets under FISA, including measures that would add more oversight to the court process, like inserting a third-party in the historically secret hearings and making transcripts of the proceedings available to lawmakers on the intelligence committees.

Wray expressed skepticism to both proposals, and argued that most of the requests the FBI made to the surveillance court were not controversial.

“The vast majority of the FISAs we do, both the initial applications and the renewals, are the kinds of applications that I am quite confident — we don’t know each other, but you wouldn’t lose any sleep over, and we wouldn’t want to grind to a halt,” Wray told Jordan.

Article Topic Follows: Politics

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