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Former FBI official had extensive unauthorized contact with media during 2016 campaign, watchdog says

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 expressed concern that extensive, unsupervised contact between FBI officials and the media could lead to such leaks and make them more difficult to investigate.

The OIG’s 2018 report examining the Bureau’s actions during the 2016 presidential election said the FBI’s policy on contact with the media was “largely ignored” and said violations of this policy appeared to emanate from a “cultural attitude”.

A passage from the newly released report says “prosecutions were denied,” but the rest of that line is redacted from the copy made public on Monday.

Steinbach, who retired from the FBI in February 2017 after a 22-year career with the law enforcement agency, did not respond to emails and social media posts seeking comment. on the report.

The inspector general’s report also faults Steinbach for accepting free tickets to two major Washington media galas: the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2015 and the Association’s dinner. White House correspondents in 2016. The report said he was required to obtain ethics approval. FBI officials and did not. He also failed to report the notes on his annual financial disclosure form, the report said.

The report says Steinbach had at least 27 in-person meetings with seven journalists from 2014 to 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 said investigators “were unable to determine who paid for drinks or meals during of these social commitments”.

The report admits that Steinbach spoke to FBI public affairs officials about a “limited” number of interactions, but said that in many cases there was no record of 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 answered questions for another FBI investigation a few months after his retirement and maintained that his interactions with reporters were approved.

“Steinbach said he was authorized while EAD of the NSB to provide non-case related information to the media,” the report said. “Steinbach said he was frequently contacted by the media for comment and questions relating to a variety of national security issues, and the media were ‘relentless’ and ‘aggressive’ in their attempts to get a story.”

While the inspector general’s report called the FBI’s media policy “unambiguous,” some FBI officials interviewed during the investigation disagreed.

“The policy was unclear as to what was required or considered approved and this ‘coordination with the OPA’ was completely undefined,” said an official whose name has been removed from the report.

An official said Steinbach told him that former FBI Director James Comey urged senior officials to engage more with the press.

“Comey’s approach involved proactively trying to find media sources that the FBI could trust to obtain correct information and protect the FBI brand,” an unnamed official said.

The report includes numerous text and email exchanges between Steinbach and various journalists, whose names and news outlets have been withheld in almost all cases.

However, the report quotes an anonymous CNN reporter quoting Steinbach via text message about his attendance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with another reporter.

“I put you on the map and now you’re cheating on me with” another reporter, the CNN reporter wrote.

“I continued to wait for my invitation from you,” Steinbach replied, according to the report.

A CNN spokesperson had no immediate comment Monday night.

FBI spokespersons did not respond to requests for comment on Monday, but Director Christopher Wray — who was confirmed in August 2017 following Comey’s firing by Trump — pointed out after the report was released. 2018 Inspector General that the FBI had become too relaxed in its dealings with the media.

“We have released a new media policy which is much stricter and much clearer than what was in place before,” Wray said at the time. “We will make it clear to everyone that we will not tolerate non-compliance.”

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