A controversial memo written by the Republican staff of the House Intelligence Committee under the direction of committee chairman Congressman Devin Nunes revealed how high officials of the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) used unverified allegations to convince a secret FISA court to approve a wiretap on Trump campaign advisor Carter Page in October 2016.
The so-called “Trump dossier” was bought and paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC. It was compiled by discredited former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele for use as opposition research against Donald Trump. It was based upon second or third hand information Steele received from unidentified Russian sources. As recently as June 2017, former FBI director James Comey said in Senate testimony that the dossier’s allegations were “salacious and unverified.”
The Nunes memo limits itself to describing the specific “abuses” by senior members of the DOJ and FBI which resulted in a warrant being issued to wiretap Page without adequate legal justification. The memo states that the process of obtaining the warrant “represent[s] a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process.”
The subterfuges used to obtain the warrant against Page are important mainly because they undermine the credibility of all the senior FBI and the DOJ officials who have been helping the Democrat “resistance” effort to discredit Trump’s presidency.
They are, for the most part, the same FBI and DOJ officials whose extreme pro-Clinton and anti-Trump political biases have been revealed in recent weeks. Their strong support for Mrs. Clinton and opposition to Trump have raised serious questions about the objectivity of their investigations of the 2016 election, as well as the ongoing special counsel investigation of Robert Mueller.
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, fought a running political battle with Chairman Nunes, objecting to the release of his memo.
Schiff and Nunes have been battling for almost a year over the significance of the evidence uncovered by the House Intelligence Committee, with Schiff suggesting that it would inevitably lead to President Trump’s ouster from office. Schiff accused Nunes of violating congressional ethics by revealing information uncovered by the committee to the White House, and forced the Republican to step aside temporarily as committee chairman subject to the ruling of the House Ethics Committee. Nunes resumed his chairmanship upon being cleared in December, and soon thereafter ordered committee staff to draft the memo challenging the methods used to obtain the FISA warrant against Page.
NUNES VS. SCHIFF
After the Nunes memo was cleared by a House vote to be circulated among members of Congress two weeks ago, Schiff wrote a memo of his own to counter the allegations of improper procedures by the FBI and DOJ, but was unable to meet the security requirement for its quick release. As a substitute, New York City Democrat Congressman Gerald Nadler wrote a second memo, based solely on unclassified information, in an effort to refute the conclusions in the Nunes memo.
Nadler wrote that Steele’s credibility as a former intelligence agent makes up for the many glaring problems with the dossier’s credibility, and the dishonesty in its use to obtain the warrant against Page. Nadler warns Trump and his supporters against using the more disturbing points made by the Nunes memo to challenge the effort by Democrats and the media to sell the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory to the public, and to justify an investigation which has gone for 18 months without producing a single piece of hard evidence that such a conspiracy ever existed.
WHO IS CARTER PAGE?
Carter Page was an investor in Russian energy projects and apologist for the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a volunteer foreign policy advisor, he was never more than a peripheral figure in the Trump campaign. The campaign publicly severed its relationship with him shortly before the FISA court authorized his surveillance in an order issued on October 21, 2016.
The Trump dossier claimed that during a trip to Moscow in July 2016, during which Page delivered the commencement speech at the New Economic School, he secretly met with senior Russian officials. They allegedly promised him an enormous brokerage fee from a pending sale of Russian energy assets if he used his so-called influence with Trump to roll back existing U.S. economic sanctions on Russia. Page denies such a meeting ever took place.
The FBI submitted other evidence against Page to the FISA court, in addition to the Trump dossier, to justify the surveillance warrant. However, according to the House Intelligence Committee memo, Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe admitted that “no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the [FISA Court] without the Steele dossier information.”
FAILING TO MEET THE FISA COURT STANDARD
The crux of the accusations in the Nunes memo is that FBI and DOJ officials knew that the claims in the Trump dossier were not verifiable and came from politically tainted and highly suspect sources, yet they did not disclose these shortcomings to the judges of the FISA court.
Because the subject of a request for a FISA warrant is unaware of the proceedings against him, the law requires the government to produce a very high standard of evidence that an American citizen committed federal crimes in the service of a foreign power to justify placing that person under surveillance.
The information against Page in the Trump dossier failed to meet that test on several counts. According to the House Committee memo, “the dossier [was] compiled by Christopher Steele on behalf of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton campaign. . . Steele was a longtime FBI source who was paid over $160,000 by the DNC and Clinton campaign, via the law firm Perkins Coie and research firm Fusion GPS, to obtain derogatory information on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.”
WHAT THE FISA APPLICATION DIDN’T SAY
“Neither the initial [FISA] application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior and FBI officials,” the memo says.
Democrats claim the original application for the FISA warrant by the FBI and DOJ did include a vague reference to the fact that the dossier was a byproduct of the presidential campaign, which the House memo did not mention. But the application did not disclose to the judges on the FISA court the known fact that the dossier was a piece of opposition research paid for by the Democrats and the Clinton campaign to use against Trump and his allies.
STEELE’S MEDIA LEAKS
Another flaw in the original FISA warrant application noted in the House memo was its citation as supporting evidence of a Yahoo News article published on September 23, 2016, by Michael Isikoff. It makes the same allegations about Page’s July visit to Moscow. Steele admitted in filings to a British court that he was Isikoff’s source for that article. The FBI should have at least suspected that when it filed the original FISA warrant application, instead of presenting the article to the FISA judges as independent verification of the dossier’s allegations.
However, the FBI did become aware that Steele was the source for an article in Mother Jones magazine which was published on October 30, 2016, a week before the election, which publicly revealed for the first time the existence of the dossier.
As the House memo notes, “Steele was suspended and then terminated as an FBI source for what the FBI deigns as the most serious of violations, an unauthorized disclosure to the media of his relationship with the FBI.”
The House memo adds, “Steele should have been terminated for his previous undisclosed contacts with Yahoo and other outlets in September before the Page application was submitted to the FISC in October, but Steele improperly concealed and lied to the FBI about those contacts.”
At the same time, Steele kept his paymasters from Fusion GPS, the Clinton campaign and the DNC fully informed about his media contacts.
Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham sent a criminal referral against Steele to the DOJ for having made false statements to the FBI about his communications with the media.
STEELE’S FUSION GPS BACK CHANNEL
Even after Steele was fired as an official FBI source, he continued to feed it information on behalf of his paymasters through his informal contacts with then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, the fourth highest ranking DOJ official, who then passed it along to the FBI.
According to the House memo, as early as September 2016, “Steele admitted to Ohr his feelings against then-candidate Trump when Steele said he was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president. This clear evidence of Steele’s bias was recorded by Ohr at the time and subsequently in official FBI files but not reflected in any of the FISA applications.
“During this same time period, Ohr’s wife was employed by Fusion GPS to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump. Ohr later provided the FBI with all of his wife’s opposition research, paid for by the DNC and Clinton campaign via Fusion GPS. The Ohrs’ relationship with Steele and Fusion GPS was inexplicably concealed from the [FISA court.]”
MISTAKES WERE NEVER CORRECTED
The FISA warrant on Page was reissued three times at 90-day intervals, at which times the FBI and DOJ were required to submit evidence of probable cause to continue the surveillance. The warrant renewal applications were signed by then-FBI Director James Comey, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The House memo notes that the subsequent applications failed to inform the FISA judges about all the problems with the credibility of the dossier that had come to light since the first warrant was issued.
Carter Page was never charged by the federal government with a Russian-related crime. Defenders of the FISA warrant issued against him note that he had been involved in a 2013 FBI investigation of Russian spying against the U.S., but it appears that in that case he helped the FBI by coming forward as a friendly witness.
Page has sued Christopher Steele in the British courts for libeling him with the accusations in the dossier. Steele’s response to that lawsuit has further undermined the credibility of its dossier’s allegations.
STEELE DISOWNS HIS OWN DOSSIER
Steele has taken the legal position that he cannot be held accountable for the truthfulness of the allegations in the dossier he produced because he never personally verified them. He says they were hearsay claims that he passed along from unidentified Russian sources to the FBI because they seemed to be alarming.
It appears the FBI decided to act on the allegations in the dossier without making a serious effort to verify them first. The Nunes memo says that according to the head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, Assistant Director Bill Priestap, efforts to corroborate the dossier’s accusations were only in their “infancy” at the time the first FISA warrant was sought. Subsequent efforts to confirm the information in the dossier never yielded anything more than “minimal” verification.
COULD THE DOSSIER BE KREMLIN DISINFORMATION?
Critics of the Trump-Russian conspiracy theory point to the glaring weaknesses of the Steele dossier upon which the theory was largely built. The dossier was based upon anonymous and unverified rumors, and written by an intelligence agent determined to prevent Trump from being elected. The dossier bought and paid for by the Democrats and the Clinton campaign and its accusations were eagerly disseminated by the anti-Trump mainstream media.
According to former CIA agent Daniel Hoffman, the fact that Steele did not got to Russia to verify the stories he was getting from his informants suggests that they could have been feeding him disinformation supplied by the Kremlin as part of its larger effort to undermine the American public’s trust in the electoral process.
Russia’s internal police service, the FSB, is notorious for its skill in planting false information using credible sources and conduits, such as WikiLeaks or Facebook, to undermine the social and political infrastructure of democratic countries throughout the West.
The Kremlin method is to disseminate disinformation with embedded nuggets of verifiable truth to give their more outrageous charges credibility. For example, in the case of Carter Page, Steele’s Russian sources built a convincing tale of conspiracy around the fact that Page, who was known for his pro-Putin sentiments, did visit Moscow in the summer of 2016.
The unverifiable accusations in the Steele dossier remain the foundation of the case being made by Trump’s enemies to try to justify his removal from office.
Hoffman notes that the Russians are still reaping great rewards for their efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. For more than a year, the American government and people has been increasingly divided by the controversy over the Russian collusion theory. While Democrats and Republicans continue to trade charges of collusion, obstruction and conspiracy, the Russians have been able to sit back and watch as their chief rival in the world tears itself apart over the controversy.
IT STARTED WITH PAPADOPOULOS
The Nunes memo notes that the original FISA application for the surveillance of Page was joined to the counterintelligence operation which the FBI had opened in July 2016 triggered by the claims of another low-level Trump campaign advisor, George Papadopoulos. That May, he boasted to an Australian diplomat in London that his Kremlin contacts had thousands of emails that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. After hacked DNC emails began to be published in July, Australian intelligence told FBI agent Peter Strzock about Papadopoulos’s claim. That gave Strzock the basis for launching the original probe into the Trump campaign.
Papadopoulos was an even less important player in the Trump campaign than Page was. The FBI did not even bother to interview him until January 2017, seven months after his boast launched the endless Russian witch-hunt. Papadopoulos was duped by the Russian agents who recruited him to try to get gain access to the leaders of the Trump campaign. When Mueller’s investigators caught Papadopoulos in a lie that they could to prosecute him for a “process” crime, he tried to save himself by agreeing to help Mueller and his investigation develop evidence against more important targets.
THE DOSSIER’S SIGNIFICANCE
According to a New York Times report, Carter Page’s trip to Moscow in July, 2016, was a major focus of the dossier’s narrative. It was “a catalyst for the FBI investigation into connections between Russia and President Trump’s campaign.” While Page is of no real importance to the investigation, questions about the legal validity of the FISA warrants permitting his surveillance could have serious repercussions if Mueller and his prosecutors want to use the evidence the warrant produced against other Trump targets.
WHAT HAPPENED TO DEMOCRAT CONCERN FOR CIVIL RIGHTS?
Democrats are disingenuous when they criticize Republicans such as Nunes for exposing the violation of private citizen Page’s civil rights by the FBI and the DOJ when they misled the FISA court to obtain a surveillance warrant. Members of Congress have a clear constitutional duty to provide oversight to expose such abuses of power by federal agencies and to hold public officials accountable when they misuse their authority.
Congressional investigations, led by Republicans and Democrats, have resulted in necessary reforms to stop abuses by the CIA and the FBI in the past, as well as legislation such as the 1978 law which created the FISA courts to balance the interests of national security with the protection of civil rights.
WILL TRUMP TAKE THE DEMOCRAT BAIT?
Democrats may be trying to bait Trump into making a drastic move, which they would then try to exploit to re-ignite the fading “resistance” movement.
The Trump White House has become more effective at managing delicate transitions, such as the recent forced early retirement of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who had long been a target of Trump’s criticism.
Trump understands that any move on his part to fire Mueller or Rosenstein would turn them into instant political martyrs for the “resistance” movement.
Politically, Trump might be better off by allowing Republicans to continue to expose the unscrupulous tactics being used by his political opponents and the media against him.
The media’s treatment of the points in the Nunes memo largely reflected the overall attitude of each media outlet towards Trump’s presidency. The New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC and CNN concentrated their coverage on Democrat criticisms of the memo, while denying Trump’s claim that it shows he is the victim of a witch hunt. The pro-Trump media outlets, such as Fox News, played up the significance of the abuses the memo exposed in the process used by the FBI and the DOJ to secure a FISA warrant, and by, implication, casting doubt on the way that the Russian collusion investigations are being carried out.
TRUMP’S POPULARITY RISING
Meanwhile, President Trump’s job approval levels are slowly recovering, rising above the 40% level for the first time since September. He has benefitted from the positive reaction to the Trump tax cut passed in December and stands to benefit further from the positive reaction to his State of the Union message and increases in worker take-home-pay due to lower withholding rates which became effective this month.
Looking forward to the November midterm election, odds that Republicans will be able to maintain majority control of the House have improved to about 50-50 as more voters express their support for the Republican tax cut bill.
Last month’s battle between Trump and the Democrats over the immigration bill leading to a short-term partial shut-down of the federal government showed that the president has grown adept at playing the Washington partisan game.
Despite a sharp downward correction in stock market prices, economic growth appears to be accelerating, with businesses and consumers optimistic about the future. While the Mueller investigation still lingers as a potential legal threat in the background, Trump’s immediate political prospects appear to be brighter today than they have at almost any time during his presidency so far.