The year is 2008. Barack Obama has just won a stunning upset over Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination for President. The McCain campaign hires an opposition research firm to dig into Obama’s background, and during the course of that investigation evidence of coordination with factions of the Iranian government is uncovered. A report is prepared detailing numerous meetings between members of the Iranian Government and mid-level members of Obama’s campaign.
The report claims the Iranians have offered to provide money and resources to the campaign, including illegally obtained documents from the RNC showing the primary process was rigged in favor of McCain, as well as contact information and coordination with tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants in the US who can be used in a massive voter fraud effort. In return, Obama agrees to remove all American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, close Guantanamo Bay, and to forge an agreement with the Iranians that will both end sanctions and allow their nuclear weapons program to continue unhindered.
The opposition research firm, realizing the implications this could have on the election process, as well as the country should Obama win the election, decides to contact authorities in the Bush Administration’s FBI. The report is largely unverified, but the information turns up the name of someone the FBI has previously had under surveillance as a possible Iranian asset. Because of this, the FBI makes an application to the FISA court to get permission to begin active surveillance on an Obama campaign member. The information from the report is not the main piece of evidence in determining probable cause, but it is mentioned in the application for the FISA warrant.
Do you think the FBI acted properly in the above scenario? If your answer is yes, then why does the idea that the Steele dossier was used to initiate a FISA warrant on Carter Page get you so upset? After all, this is the main thrust of the now infamous “memo” written by Devin Nunes that has just been released.
Nunes, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has cobbled together a 4 page document that has been described as “earth shattering.” Sean Hannity declared the memo “makes Watergate like stealing a Snickers bar,” and Sebastian Gorka claims the revelations in the Nunes memo are “100 times bigger” than the abuses committed by the British that led to the American revolution. The accusation seems to focus on the idea that the FBI was completely in the tank for Hillary, and used politically charged, unverified information supplied to them by Hillary’s campaign to spy on the Trump campaign and to try and derail his bid for the Presidency.
Nunes is being accused by his detractors of cherry-picking snippets of information from classified sources in order to trash the FBI and the Justice Department in order to present Trump as a sympathetic victim in a conspiracy to de-legitimatize his presidency and remove him from office. For instance, the memo makes the claim that the Steele dossier “formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application.” An even more sensational claim in the memo is that then Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified before the House Intelligence Committee in December of 2017 that “no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.” This seems to clearly be the impetus for McCabe going on leave until his retirement in March soon after FBI Director, Christopher Wray, finally got a chance to read the memo.
These two statements are, in my opinion, at the heart of complaints made by the FBI that the memo has “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
There are a couple of misconceptions that need to get cleared up about this issue. First, “unverified” does not mean “untrue.” Much has been made by Trump defenders about the nature of the Steele dossier being unverified. They throw the term around as if it means the same thing as “false,” or “discredited.” The reality is that, in the intelligence community, unverified simply means the information has not been independently corroborated by other sources. Every word in that dossier may be absolutely true, but since the only source is from someone Steele has communicated with, and some of that comes from second hand communication, there is no way our intelligence community would consider that information verified without working to independently corroborate it.
Second, contrary to popular belief, it is actually harder to get approval for a FISA surveillance warrant than it is to get a regular warrant. The reason for this is because the proceedings are held in secret, and therefore the burden to show probable cause of criminal wrongdoing is much higher for the government. The idea that a FISA warrant could have been issued on simply the allegations of the Steele dossier alone is just not believable.
What you need to know is that Page was previously under FISA surveillance back in 2014 for contact and interactions with known Russian intelligence operatives. A very “pro-Kremlin” individual, Page was considered for recruitment as a Russian asset. In the summer of 2016, Page traveled to Moscow to give a very pro-Russian/anti-American speech. In his speech he declared, “Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.” This is not a man who was unknown to counter-intelligence authorities.
Could the dossier have provided the impetus for an investigation, and subsequent FISA application? Sure. Would it have been the only information provided to the courts? Absolutely not. The FBI could have indeed referred to the Steele dossier as one piece of evidence to establish probable cause, but it would not have been the only evidence. In fact, it is entirely possible the Steele dossier triggered an alarm that coincided with another ongoing investigation, which triggered the request for a FISA warrant. In that case, Nunes and staff could write that the FBI used information produced by a political opponent to obtain authorization to establish surveillance on a member of the Trump campaign, and be factually accurate. He could also get Andrew McCabe to answer direct questions, under oath, that without the Steele dossier, there would be no FISA application and be technically correct, but also presenting a slanted narrative that does not represent the full story.
In fact, lost in the accusations of this memo is one important detail that should strike real fear into the hearts of many people close to the Trump campaign. The memo states that an initial warrant was received on October 21, 2016, and that there were three renewals of the warrant. According to the memo, these FISA warrants “must be renewed every 90 days and each renewal requires a separate finding of probable cause.” Since the initial accusation of possible wrongdoing would not be sufficient to continue surveillance, it means the FBI must have been able to demonstrate actual intelligence stemming from their surveillance. It also implies that Carter Page was under active surveillance for the better part of a year, from late 2016 going into late 2017.
Just what does the FBI have on Carter Page?
The impetus for this memo seems to be pretty obvious. It looks designed to give Trump political cover to fire Robert Mueller, or to fire Rod Rosenstein (who appointed Mueller in the first place) and replace him with someone who will fire Mueller for him. This would be a move more colossally stupid then Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” where he kept firing Justice Department officials until he found one willing to fire Archibald Cox, the special counsel investigating him. At that point, no matter what the truth is, the idea would be solidified in the minds of most Americans that Trump is guilty of everything Democrats are accusing him of, and that Mueller was getting too close and needed to go.
The release of the memo, against the wishes of the Trump controlled Justice Department, and the Trump appointed head of the FBI, has already caused the FBI Agents Association to issue an unprecedented statement:
“The men and women of the FBI put their lives on the line every day in the fight against terrorists and criminals because of their dedication to our Country and to the Constitution. The American people should know that they continue to be well-served by the world’s preeminent law enforcement agency. FBI Special Agents have not, and will not, allow partisan politics to distract us from our solemn commitment to our mission.”
The questionable nature of this memo is compounded by the fact that, not only has Devin Nunes apparently not read the underlying classified information that is used as the basis for this memo, he refuses to say whether or not his staff worked with, or consulted, White House staff in the creation of this document.
I seriously worry about the damage this could do to the Republican party. In an attempt to protect the political future of one man, the Republican party seems willing to go on record accusing the FBI, the Justice Department, and our intelligence agencies of corruption and bias, incapable of being trusted. In order to provide political cover to end the special counsel investigation, the Republican party seems ready to undermine the trust we place in the very people we rely on to protect this nation against enemies, both foreign and domestic.
That’s quite a reversal for the party that has been the natural defender of the rule of law.
What makes this worse is that some of the loudest voices condemning the FBI for having the temerity to investigate the Trump campaign during the middle of the Presidential election (secretly, by the way. not a word of this investigation, or the Steele dossier, ever saw the light of day until after Trump won), are equally furious that the FBI did not lead Hillary Clinton away in handcuffs over the very public email investigation that went on during the middle of the presidential election. You can’t have it both ways.
I believe in the rule of law. I believe that people should be held accountable no matter what party they belong to. I am still waiting for Jeff Sessions to initiate investigations into the criminal activities of Hillary Clinton (email-gate), Lois Lerner (IRS abuses), Eric Holder (Fast and Furious), and all the others who have escaped justice for the last 8 years. I also believe there are too many questions surrounding the role Russia played in our elections, and I believe the Mueller investigation needs to be allowed to run to its conclusion.
In just 6 months Mueller has already produced two indictments, two guilty pleas, and two cooperating witnesses. I expect when all is said and done, Paul Manafort and his crony, Rick Gates, will go to jail for money laundering and racketeering, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos will be the latest examples of why you don’t lie to federal investigators, and the Trump family will get a scolding for coming too close to an attempt by the Russians to infiltrate the campaign or compromise Trump family members, but no charges of wrongdoing. Any attempts to short circuit this investigation will set in motion a chain events that I believe will be incredibly damaging to our country.
As for the FBI and the Justice Department, the Inspector General will soon be issuing a report on the activities surrounding the handling of the Clinton email investigation. That report should be used to hold any guilty people accountable. I think it is incredibly dangerous, and highly improper to impugn the dignity and reputation of the two departments we rely on to uphold the laws of this country, simply to provide political cover for one man, no matter what office he holds.
It appears there is a third problem with the memo I did not catch, but luckily David French over at National Review did. At the end of the Nunes memo, there is an extraneous paragraph that really has nothing to do with the FISA warrant on Carter Page. It says that information about George Papadopolous “triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok.” This paragraph was presumably added so that discussion of the salacious text messages between Strzok and Lisa Page could be included in the memo as a further example of the bias rampant in the FBI. Unfortunately, this paragraph also inadvertently confirms a NY Times story that details a drunken Papadopolous telling the top Australian Diplomat in London that the Russians had political dirt on Hillary Clinton, and when the DNC emails started appearing on Wikileaks two months later, the Australians contacted the FBI.
If the Nunes memo is to be believed, and Nunes and his allies have claimed the FBI found the memo to contain “no factual errors,” then the Trump campaign was the subject of investigation months before Christopher Steele came calling with his memo paid for by the DNC, which ends up blowing the whole premise of this memo (that the entire Russia investigation was concocted by the Clinton campaign) out of the water.