By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department has told a court it did not have enough evidence to justify continued surveillance of one of President Donald Trump’s former campaign advisers in 2017, in a sign it believes the FBI on occasion went too far when it investigated Russian influence in the 2016 election.
The department’s assessment, made public on Thursday, came after an in-depth review by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog found the FBI manipulated evidence and otherwise overstepped its bounds as it explored possible links between the Trump campaign and Moscow in 2016.
The watchdog’s review, made public in December, found that FBI agents acted legally when they asked in 2016 for court approval to begin surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. But it determined that they left out evidence that could have weakened their case against Page as they sought renewed approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the months that followed.
The Justice Department has since tried to set the record straight, telling the secretive surveillance court that in the later stages of surveillance “there was insufficient predication to establish probable cause to believe that Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power,” according to a court opinion released in an unclassified version on Thursday.
Based on that assessment, Judge James Boasberg wrote that he thought the Justice Department no longer viewed some of the continued surveillance of Page in 2017 as legitimate.
“The Court understands the government to have concluded, in view of the material misstatements and omissions, that the Court’s authorizations … were not valid,” Boasberg wrote.
The Justice Department has not concluded whether its prior surveillance of Page was justified, he wrote in an opinion dated Jan. 7.
The Justice Department and Page did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The FBI declined to comment. The agency’s chief, Christopher Wray, has said he has taken steps to fix problems highlighted in the review.
The FBI investigation was taken over in May 2017 by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
His report, released in April 2019, detailed a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States and help Trump defeat Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Mueller documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign figures and Moscow but found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Bill Berkrot)