A former senior FBI official who oversaw the bureau’s politically sensitive investigations in 2016 into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and Donald Trump’s ties to Russia had “extensive contacts” with the news media in violation of FBI policy, a Justice Department watchdog report found.
A Justice Department Inspector General review released in 2018 and an investigative summary issued last year did not name the former official, but the report made public Monday identified him as Michael Steinbach, who served as the executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Bureau.
“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 up the senior national security role, according to the report from Inspector General Michael Horowitz. “This media contact included social engagements outside of FBI headquarters without any coordination from Office of Public Affairs (OPA), involving drinks, lunches and dinners.”
The heavily redacted 27-page report, released to POLITICO under the Freedom of Information Act and dated July 2021, does not accuse Steinbach of unauthorized disclosures to the media. However, Horowitz’s office has expressed concerns that extensive, unsupervised contacts between FBI officials and the media can lead to such leaks and make them harder to investigate.
The OIG’s 2018 report looking at the Bureau’s actions during the 2016 presidential election said the FBI’s policy on media contacts was being “widely ignored” and said violations of that policy appeared to emanate from a “cultural attitude.”
One passage in the newly released report says that “prosecution was declined,” but the remainder of that line is redacted from the copy made public Monday.
Steinbach, who retired from the FBI in February 2017 after a 22-year career at the law enforcement agency, did not respond to email and social media messages seeking comment on the report.
The inspector general report also faults Steinbach for accepting free tickets to two big Washington media galas: the Radio & Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2015 and the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2016. The report says he was obliged to get approval from ethics officials at the FBI and failed to do so. He also failed to report the tickets on his annual financial disclosure form, the report says.
The report says Steinbach had at least 27 in-person meetings with seven reporters from 2014 through his retirement three years later. They frequented various restaurants near FBi headquarters, including Capital Grille, Gordon Biersch, Asia Nine, and Central, according to the report, which says investigators “were unable to determine who paid for the drinks or meals during these social engagements.”
The report concedes that Steinbach did engage with FBI public affairs officials about a “limited” number of the interactions, but said that in many instances there were no records of any such coordination.
Steinbach declined to be interviewed by the inspector general’s office, which has no way to compel such an interview after an official retires or resigns. However, he did answer questions in another FBI inquiry a few months after his retirement and maintained that his interactions with journalists were approved.
“Steinbach stated that he was authorized, while EAD of NSB, to provide non-case related information to the media as background,” the report says. “Steinbach said he was frequently contacted by the media for comment and questions relative to a variety of national security issues, and the media was ‘relentless’ and ‘aggressive’ in their attempts to get a story.”
While the inspector general report called the FBI’s media policy “unambiguous,” some FBI officials interviewed during the investigation disagreed.
“The policy was not clear on what was required or considered approved and that ‘coordination with OPA’ was completely undefined,” said one official whose name was deleted from the report.
One official said Steinbach told him that former FBI Director James Comey urged top officials to be more engaged with the press.
“Comey’s approach entailed proactively trying to find media sources that the FBI could trust to get stories right and to protect the brand of the FBI,” one unnamed official said.
The report includes numerous text and email exchanges between Steinbach and various reporters, whose names and news organizations were blacked-out in nearly all instances.
However, the report quotes one unnamed CNN reporter ribbing Steinbach by text about attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with another journalist.
“I put you on the map and now you’re cheating on me with” another reporter, the CNN journalist wrote.
“I kept waiting for my invite from you,” Steinbach replied, according to the report.
A CNN spokesperson had no immediate comment Monday night.
FBI spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment Monday, but Director Christopher Wray — who was confirmed in August 2017 following Trump’s firing of Comey — stressed following the release of the 2018 inspector general report that the FBI had become too relaxed in its dealings with the media.
“We issued a new media policy that’s much stricter and much more clear than has been in place before,” Wray said then. “We will make painfully clear to everybody that we won’t tolerate non-compliance.”
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