Controversial Republican memo alleges FBI abuses during 2016 campaign, but appears to be no smoking gun

  • Devin Nunes listens to testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence related to the Russian cyber attack and investigations into wiretapping, on Capitol Hill on March 20, 2017, in Washington, D.C. THS FILE PHOTO

  • Carter Page makes a presentation titled "Departing from Hypocrisy: Potential Strategies in the Era of Global Economic Stagnation, Security Threats and Fake News" during his visit to Moscow on Dec. 12, 2016. (Artyom Korotayev/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS) Artyom Korotayev/TASS

Tribune Washington Bureau
Friday, February 02, 2018

WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee released a controversial classified memo Friday that Republicans say reveals improper government surveillance during the 2016 presidential race — which President Donald Trump said shows a pro-Democratic tilt at the FBI and Justice Department — but that the FBI warned is inaccurate.

Given the intense partisan furor that preceded its release, the top-secret document seems far less explosive than Republicans had claimed, and far less dangerous to national security than Democrats had asserted. It neither proves an anti-Trump bias at the FBI and Justice Department nor reveals previously unknown intelligence sources and methods.

The findings “raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality” of FBI and Justice Department interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and represent “a troubling breakdown” of legal processes to protect the American public from surveillance abuses by the government, the memo’s Republican authors wrote.

Critics, including some leading Republicans, fired back that the memo shows no wrongdoing or misdeeds, and that it served only to undermine the ongoing special counsel investigation into whether anyone in Trump’s orbit assisted Russian meddling in the 2016 election or sought to obstruct justice later.

At its heart, the four-page memo says that Justice Department and FBI officials relied in substantial part on research funded by Democrats to obtain a surveillance warrant to secretly eavesdrop on New York energy consultant Carter Page because of his meetings with Russian officials.

Page already had stepped down as a foreign policy adviser to then-candidate Trump when the warrant application was filed on Oct. 21, 2016, less than a month before the election.

The memo asserts that material collected by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele on Trump’s ties to Russia formed an “essential part” of the FBI and Justice Department application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA.

That warrant authorized government surveillance of Page for 90 days. It was reauthorized three times, including after Trump took office last year. A senior Democratic staffer on the House Intelligence Committee said each authorization came from a different member on the 11-judge bench.

The three renewals may indicate that the FISA court judges believed the counterintelligence operation was bearing fruit. But the memo faults the FBI for failing to tell the judges that Steele, who is identified in the memo as “a longtime FBI source,” was working for Fusion GPS, a company hired by lawyers for Hillary Clinton’s campaign to collect opposition research on Trump.

The memo says Steele was paid more than $160,000 for his research, which later appeared in a much-criticized dossier that was leaked to the media. The memo says Steele was suspended and then terminated as an FBI source after he disclosed his FBI ties to a reporter for Mother Jones magazine on Oct. 30, 2016.

Arguably the memo’s strongest claim is that Andrew McCabe, then deputy director of the FBI, testified to the House committee last December “that no surveillance warrant would have been sought ... without the Steele dossier information.”

The memo doesn’t quote McCabe, however, and Democrats immediately said that it gave a misleading account of his classified testimony. McCabe, whom Trump had repeatedly criticized in recent months, abruptly stepped down from the FBI this week ahead of his planned retirement.

The memo confirms for the first time, however, that the criminal investigation now led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was begun not as a result of the spying on Page, but from a separate inquiry into another Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos.

The Papadopoulos information, reportedly his claims to an Australian diplomat in July 2016 that the Russians had obtained damaging emails from the Clinton campaign, “triggered the opening” of the broader FBI investigation, the memo says. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last October to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials, and is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

In a statement Friday, Page applauded the memo’s release. “The brave and assiduous oversight by Congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy,” he said.

Trump declassified the memo on Friday and gave the green light for the House Intelligence Committee to make it public. “It’s a disgrace what’s happening in this country,” he told reporters in the Oval Office.

Earlier, the president tweeted that the “top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people!”

Democrats, in turn, accused the White House and Republicans of using the memo to politicize a legitimate investigation into a foreign power’s attempt to influence a U.S. presidential election, and of undermining public confidence in the criminal investigation led by Mueller.

“Unlike almost every House member who voted in favor of this memo’s release, I have actually read the underlying documents on which the #NunesMemo was based,” tweeted Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “They simply do not support its conclusions.”

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the GOP attacks would benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin by raising doubts about the U.S. justice system.

“The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests — no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s. ... If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him,” McCain tweeted.