- The House Intelligence Committee on Friday released a declassified and controversial memo that accuses the FBI and the Department of Justice of abusing their surveillance authority in targeting a former aide to President Donald Trump’s campaign.
- Drawing on a frequent Republican talking point, the memo also raises questions about the explosive dossier laying out ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
- “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves,” Trump said after he signed off on the memo’s release.
The House Intelligence Committee on Friday released a highly controversial memo spearheaded by its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, after President Donald Trump authorised its declassification.
The memo claims, among other things, that several top officials at the Justice Department and the FBI acted improperly when they signed off on so-called FISA applications seeking extended surveillance of Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.
Trump said after announcing its declassification that “a lot of people should be ashamed of themselves,” while top Democrats and current and former intelligence committee officials both blasted its release and portrayed it as much ado about nothing.
“That’s it?” tweeted James Comey, the former FBI director.
Here’s the key section of the memo that alleges improper targeting:
“The FBI and DOJ obtained one initial FISA warrant targeting Carter Page and three FISA renewals from the FISC. As required by statute (50 USC 1805(d)(1)), a FISA order on an American citizen must be renewed by the FISC every 90 days and each renewal requires a separate finding of probable cause. Then-Director James Comey signed three FISA applications in question on behalf of the FBI, and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe signed one. Then-DAG Sally Yates, then-Acting DAG Dana Boente, and DAG Rod Rosenstein each signed one or more FISA applications on behalf of DOJ.”
Though Trump and his allies have repeatedly accused the FBI and the DOJ of relying on insufficient evidence to monitor and investigate campaign associates, the excerpt appears to indicate the opposite.
The FBI obtained the first FISA warrant targeting Page in October 2016. Five officials subsequently signed off on applications to continue surveilling Page after they all separately found probable cause to do so.
The memo also seems to throw cold water on the claim that the FBI used a dossier laying out ties between the Trump campaign and Russia as an excuse to surveil campaign associates and launch what Trump and his Republican allies have characterised as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
The dossier, compiled by the former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, was originally funded by a group of Republicans who opposed Trump during the Republican primaries. After Trump became the party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee hired the Perkins Coie law firm, which in turn retained the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS to fund the dossier’s production.
But the memo appears to suggest that it wasn’t the dossier but an interaction involving George Papadopoulos, another former Trump campaign adviser, that triggered the Russia investigation and the FISA warrant targeting Page.
“The Page FISA application also mentions information regarding fellow Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, but there is no evidence of any cooperation or conspiracy between Page and Papadopoulos,” the memo says. “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Peter Strzok.”
The “Papadopoulos information” most likely refers to an interaction in May 2016 during which Papadopoulos is said to have boasted to a top Australian diplomat about Russia’s “kompromat” on Clinton while he was drinking at a swanky London bar.
In July 2016, the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks posted a trove of hacked emails from the DNC. Australian officials informed their American counterparts of Papadopoulos’ conversation with the diplomat, Alexander Downer, The New York Times reported last year.
The FBI began scrutinizing the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia that same month.
All about the dossier
The memo raises more questions about Steele’s dossier, saying it “formed an essential part” of the FISA application for Page.
“Steele was a longtime FBI source who was paid over $US160,000 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,” it says.
It continues: “Neither the initial 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 DOJ and FBI officials.”
Legal experts and former intelligence officials, however, have argued that who funded the dossier doesn’t matter as much as the veracity of its claims. Much of it remains uncorroborated, but both the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee are using the document as a “roadmap” while they investigate Russia’s election interference.
The memo also says the FBI ended its relationship with Steele after it learned he had made an “unauthorised disclosure” to members of the media about that relationship. But The Atlantic on Friday described two people familiar with Steele’s actions as saying he never misled the FBI about his interactions with the media.
Nunes has drawn sharp criticism from Rep. Adam Schiff, his Democratic counterpart on the House Intelligence Committee, who said in a statement Friday that though Nunes’ memo sought to show that the FBI and the DOJ improperly sought a FISA warrant targeting Page, Nunes had not seen the underlying intelligence on which it was based.
Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed Schiff’s criticisms in a separate statement.
“Unlike almost every House member who voted in favour of this memo’s release, I have actually read the underlying documents on which the memo was based,” he said. “They simply do not support its conclusions.”
Further, Schiff said, the memo “fails to provide vital context and information contained in DOJ’s FISA application and renewals, and ignores why and how the FBI initiated, and the Special Counsel has continued, its counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s election interference and links to the Trump campaign.”
He added that the committee’s Democrats made clear in a document they compiled rebutting the claims in the Republican memo that the “FBI had good reason to be concerned about Carter Page and would have been derelict in its responsibility to protect the country had it not sought a FISA warrant.”
He said the committee’s Democrats submitted their memo to the DOJ and the FBI – a move its Republicans did not make. He added that Democrats would release their document only after the White House approved it and it went through a significant redaction process to protect intelligence sources and methods.
Schiff also accused Nunes of mischaracterizing part of testimony before the committee in December from Andrew McCabe, who stepped down as the deputy director of the FBI earlier this week.
The memo says McCabe said the FISA warrant would not have been sought without information from the dossier. Schiff said that part was “cherry-picked” and taken out of context, arguing that McCabe meant that the raw intelligence Steele had obtained regarding Page was part of the FISA application and that it would not have been complete without it.
“Only very select components of what Steele reported about Page were included in the [FISA] application,” Schiff said.
The memo says Bill Priestap, who heads the FBI’s counterintelligence division, noted that corroboration of the dossier was in its “infancy” at the time of the first FISA application seeking to surveil Page.
But previous reports have suggested that the dossier was not the primary driver of the decision to file the application and that the warrant included information beyond what was in it. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Page had been a source of concern for US counterintelligence officials since 2013, more than three years before he joined the Trump campaign.
In a statement to Business Insider on Friday, Page said he approved of 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.
“Now that a few of the misdeeds against the Trump Movement have been partially revealed, I look forward to updating my pending legal action in opposition to DOJ this weekend in preparation for Monday’s next small step on the long, potholed road toward helping to restore law and order in our great country.”
White House says it ‘raises serious concerns’
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said the memo “raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the Government’s most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens.”
She said Trump decided to declassify the memo after consulting his national security team and members of law enforcement and the intelligence community.
Addressing the memo’s release on Friday, Trump said, “I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country.”
The New York Times reported last weekend that Republicans were likely to use the memo to contend that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein acted improperly in approving an application to extend surveillance of Page that was partly based on dubious research funded by Democratic organisations.
Asked on Friday whether the memo affected his confidence in Rosenstein or increased the likelihood that he would oust him, Trump said, “You figure that one out.”
Rosenstein oversees the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election and whether members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to tilt the election in his favour. Mueller is also examining whether Trump sought to obstruct justice when he fired James Comey as FBI director in May.
If Trump were to fire Rosenstein, Rachel Brand, the associate attorney general, would assume oversight of the Russia investigation.
The memo and its release have sparked a firestorm on Capitol Hill and within the intelligence community.
Republicans said they wanted to release the document to promote transparency and hold law enforcement accountable, but Democrats have characterised it as a thinly veiled attempt to distract the public and discredit the agencies investigating the president and his associates.
Top officials in intelligence and law enforcement had cautioned against the memo’s release.
FBI Director Christopher Wray and Rosenstein met on Monday with the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, to argue against releasing the memo, saying the document contained several inaccuracies and that releasing it could expose sources and methods, The Washington Post reported earlier Friday.
When Kelly didn’t budge, Wray again called him on Monday night but was unsuccessful, The Post said, citing administration officials.
The next day, at least five FBI officials travelled to the White House to speak with Kelly about the memo, the report said. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, had also cautioned the chief of staff against releasing the document.
The Justice Department, meanwhile, had said it would be “extraordinarily reckless” for the House Intelligence Committee to approve the memo’s release without giving the department enough time to review it and advise lawmakers about national-security implications.
The FBI also weighed in, saying in a rare statement on Wednesday that it had been “provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it.”
“As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the statement said.
CBS News reported on Thursday that Wray – who has mostly expressed reservations about the memo behind closed doors – was prepared to publicly issue a rebuttal.