According to a Justice Department watchdog report, a former senior FBI official who oversaw the bureau’s politically sensitive investigations into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and Donald Trump’s ties to Russia in 2016 had “extensive contacts” with the news media in violation of FBI policy.
The former official was not named in a Justice Department Inspector General review released in 2018 or an investigative summary released last year, but the report made public Monday identified him as Michael Steinbach, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Bureau.
According to Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report, “Steinbach had hundreds of contacts with the media for several years” while heading up the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, and then continued such interactions in 2016 when he took on the senior national security role. “This media contact included drinks, lunches, and dinners outside of FBI headquarters without any coordination from the Office of Public Affairs (OPA).”
The heavily redacted 27-page report, made available to POLITICO under the Freedom of Information Act and dated July 2021, does not accuse Steinbach of making unauthorized media disclosures. However, Horowitz’s office has expressed concern that extensive, unsupervised contact between FBI officials and the media could lead to such leaks, making them more difficult to investigate.
According to the OIG’s 2018 report on the Bureau’s actions during the 2016 presidential election, the FBI’s policy on media contacts was “widely ignored,” and violations of that policy appeared to be the result of a “cultural attitude.”
The newly released report states that “prosecution was declined,” but the rest of that line is redacted from the copy made public on Monday.
The inspector general’s report also criticizes Steinbach for accepting complimentary tickets to two major Washington media galas: the Radio & Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2015 and the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2016. According to the report, he was required to obtain approval from FBI ethics officials but did not do so. According to the report, he also failed to report the tickets on his annual financial disclosure form.
According to the report, Steinbach had at least 27 in-person meetings with seven reporters between 2014 and his retirement three years later. According to the report, they frequented various restaurants near FBI headquarters, including Capital Grille, Gordon Biersch, Asia Nine, and Central, and investigators “were unable to determine who paid for the drinks or meals during these social engagements.”
The report acknowledges that Steinbach did consult with FBI public affairs officials about a “limited” number of interactions, but claims that there were no records of such coordination in many cases.
The inspector general’s office, which has no authority to compel such an interview after an official retires or resigns, declined to interview Steinbach. He did, however, respond to questions in another FBI investigation a few months after his retirement and maintained that his interactions with journalists were authorized.
According to the report, “Steinbach stated that he was authorized, while EAD of NSB, to provide non-case related information to the media as background.” “Steinbach said he was frequently contacted by the media for comment and questions on a wide range of national security issues, and the media was ‘relentless’ and ‘aggressive’ in their efforts to get a story.”
Although the inspector general’s report described the FBI’s media policy as “unambiguous,” some FBI officials interviewed during the investigation disagreed.
“The policy was not clear on what was required or considered approved, and ‘coordination with OPA’ was completely undefined,” one official whose name was removed from the report said. According to one official, Steinbach told him that former FBI Director James Comey urged top officials to engage with the press more.
“Comey’s approach entailed proactively seeking out media sources that the FBI could trust to get stories right and protect the FBI’s brand,” one unnamed official said.
The report contains numerous text and email exchanges between Steinbach and various reporters, the names and news organizations of whom were blacked out in almost all cases.
However, according to the report, one unnamed CNN reporter texted Steinbach about attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with another journalist.
The CNN journalist wrote, “I put you on the map, and now you’re cheating on me with” another reporter. “I kept waiting for my invite from you,” Steinbach replied, according to the report.