Why House Republicans kicked off their ‘weaponization’ probe by interviewing a little-known retired FBI official
By Marshall Cohen, Sara Murray and Annie Grayer, CNN
House Republicans investigating what they believe are political abuses inside the Justice Department got to work this week, securing a private interview with one of their top targets.
But the witness, former FBI official Jill Sanborn, is far from a household name. Perhaps hoping to change that are the House Republicans on the recently launched subcommittee investigating the alleged “weaponization” of the federal government against conservatives.
They’ve publicly claimed Sanborn is a key player in a so-called “deep state” plot to use federal law enforcement to target and harass conservatives. She’s just the starting point of what Republicans have argued is a far-reaching “rot” of politicization within the FBI, which they hope to put on full display.
The interview with Sanborn — who fully denies the GOP allegations — is the first known interview by the panel. It shows how the subcommittee is starting to ramp into gear. The first public hearing will be next week, and some in-person witnesses are expected, though the participants haven’t been announced.
Unproven whistleblower allegations
The Republican-controlled panel met Wednesday with Sanborn for roughly four hours, a source familiar with the matter said. She’s a veteran FBI agent who spent 24 years in various national security and counterterrorism roles, including overseas postings in Iraq and Pakistan. She retired last year and is now an executive at Roku.
The interview, which GOP Rep. Jim Jordan demanded for months even before he became committee chair, was among those at the top of his wish list for witnesses from the Justice Department and FBI. Jordan has accused Sanborn of being part of a group of politically biased FBI employees who abused their law enforcement powers to boost Democrats and demonize Republicans.
Lawyers for Sanborn have previously said she “vigorously denies” these allegations. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment to CNN about the GOP claims and Sanborn’s interview.
In a report released last year, Jordan claimed Sanborn and other FBI officials pressured agents to manipulate government statistics about domestic terrorism, to falsely bolster President Joe Biden’s rhetoric about the rise of right-wing extremism. Jordan’s report claimed an anonymous FBI whistleblower implicated Sanborn in efforts to “manufacture” cases to “feign a national problem.”
One of the FBI whistleblowers cited in Jordan’s report claimed that the bureau “has not followed regular procedure” when opening criminal cases against January 6, 2021, US Capitol rioters.
Instead of opening the cases in Washington, DC — where the crimes occurred and where the cases are being prosecuted in federal court — FBI agents were told to open the case files in the rioters’ home districts, according to the GOP report. By doing this, Jordan says, FBI leadership used the January 6 insurrection to create the “illusion” of a “groundswell of domestic terrorism” across the country.
Justice Department officials have said the US Capitol riot investigation is the largest criminal probe in US history. The workload has created a strain on the FBI’s field office in DC, which might explain why case files were opened in rioters’ home districts. Furthermore, FBI agents at field offices across the country have been directly involved in the sprawling probe, by executing search warrants and interviewing possible suspects in their hometowns.
More than 950 Capitol rioters from 47 states and DC have been arrested so far, including dozens of members of right-wing paramilitary groups, according to CNN’s analysis of Justice Department court filings. Under Biden and former President Donald Trump, top federal national security officials have warned about the rise of far-right extremism, pointing to racially motivated mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and El Paso, Texas.
Small part of a bigger probe
The Sanborn interview was videotaped and primarily led by committee staff, though Jordan and GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz both made appearances during the interview, the source said.
House Democrats are already irked that they only received a 24-hour heads up, leaving them little time to prepare. These skirmishes are an early sign of the panel’s many partisan battles to come.
The Sanborn saga is just one tentacle of what Republicans have characterized as a systemic problem of political bias within the Justice Department and FBI. Other targets of the panel’s probe are alleged efforts by the FBI to suppress news coverage of Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings, and supposed efforts to target conservative parents who speak up at school board meetings.
There is little public evidence supporting these lofty claims, which Jordan says are backed up by unnamed whistleblowers. Some claims have been debunked by fact-checkers or news reports, and Jordan has falsely claimed for years that there is an anti-GOP “deep state” within the FBI.
House Democrats have panned the sheer existence of the subcommittee, and some Democrats have accused Jordan of doing Trump’s bidding by baselessly attacking the Justice Department and FBI — which have multiple ongoing criminal investigations touching Trump.
GOP already facing pushback
In a letter to House Republicans last year regarding the interview, Sanborn lawyer Carter Burwell said the whistleblower claims were false but that Sanborn would cooperate with the committee because she “supports and respects” congressional oversight. Burwell also hailed her “long service as a public servant who defended our national security and the rule of law.”
Her lawyers also said that throughout her decadeslong FBI career, there was never “any credible allegations or findings of misconduct by the FBI, the Inspector General of the DOJ, Congress, or any other investigative body.”
Emails between FBI counsel and Republican Judiciary staff obtained by CNN also reveal how up until Tuesday, both sides were arguing over whether Sanborn could bring both her private counsel along with FBI lawyers to the transcribed interview.
“Witnesses appearing for transcribed interviews can attend with personal or agency counsel, but not both. It’s up to the witness,” general counsel for the Republicans on Judiciary said in a Tuesday email.
Megan Louise Greer, a senior FBI lawyer, replied, “Respectfully, the FBI does not agree that a former public servant is required to choose between personal counsel (to represent his or her own personal interests), and agency counsel (who represents the interests of the Executive Branch).”
Ultimately, only Sanborn’s personal attorney was present for the interview, according to a source familiar with the matter.
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CNN’s Lauren Fox contributed to this story.