The heavily redacted 27-page report, issued to Politico under the Freedom of Information Act of July 2021, does not accuse Steinbach of unauthorized disclosure to the media. However, Horowitz’s office has expressed concerns that extensive, unmonitored communications between FBI officials and the media could lead to such leaks and make them more difficult to investigate.
The 2018 FBI report looking at the bureau’s actions during the 2016 presidential election said the FBI’s policy on media communications is “widely ignored” and said violations of that policy appeared to stem from a “cultural attitude.”
One passage in the newly released report says that “prosecution is denied,” but the remainder of that line has been omitted from the version published on Monday.
Steinbach, who retired from the FBI in February 2017 after 22 years in a law enforcement agency, did not respond to emails and social media requests for comment on the report.
The inspector general’s report also miscalculated Steinbach for accepting free tickets to two major Washington media interests: the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in 2015 and the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2016. The report says he has to seek approval from ethics. FBI officials have failed to do so. The report says he also failed to report tickets on his annual financial disclosure form.
The report says Steinbach had at least 27 in-person meetings with seven reporters from 2014 until his retirement three years later. They frequented several restaurants near the FBI headquarters, including Capital Grill, Gordon Burch, Asia Nine and downtown, according to the report, which says investigators “were unable to determine who paid for drinks or meals during these social engagements.”
The report acknowledges that Steinbach has engaged with FBI public affairs officials about a “limited” number of interactions, but said that in many cases there are no records of any such coordination.
Steinbach declined to be interviewed by the IGO, which has no means to enforce such an interview after an official retirement or resignation. However, he answered questions in another FBI investigation a few months after his retirement and confirmed that his interaction with reporters had been approved.
“Steinbach stated that he was authorized, while EAD of the NSB, to provide information unrelated to the case to the media as background,” the report read. Steinbach said he was frequently contacted by the media for comment and questions on 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 described the FBI’s media policy as “unequivocal,” some FBI officials interviewed during the investigation disagreed.
“The policy was not clear about what was needed or approved and the ‘coordination with OPA’ was not quite specific,” said an official whose name was deleted from the report.
One official said Steinbach told him that former FBI Director James Comey urged senior officials to be more interactive with the press.
“Comey’s approach involves a proactive attempt to find media sources that the FBI can trust to get the news right and to protect the FBI’s brand,” an unnamed official said.
The report includes numerous text messages and email exchanges between Steinbach and various reporters, whose names and news organizations have been withheld in almost all cases.
However, the report quotes an unnamed CNN reporter teasing Steinbach with a text about attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with another journalist.
Another CNN journalist wrote, “I put you on the map and now you’re cheating on me with.”
Steinbach responded, according to the report, “I kept waiting for my invitation from you.”
A CNN spokesperson had no immediate comment Monday night.
FBI spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment Monday, but Director Christopher Wray — confirmed in August 2017 after Trump fired Comey — stressed after the release of the 2018 inspector general report that the FBI had become very comfortable in its dealings with the media.
“We have issued a new media policy that is much tougher and clearer than it was before,” Ray said at the time. “We will make it painfully clear to everyone that we will not tolerate non-compliance.”
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