President Donald Trump on Sunday accused the FBI and Justice Department of misleading a special intelligence court, as both parties wrestled over the details of surveillance requests made in 2016 and 2017 on a one-time Trump Campaign aide, Carter Page, in which the FBI made the case that “Page has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian Government.”
“Witch Hunt Rigged, a Scam!” the President tweeted from his New Jersey golf club, as he again denounced the investigation into Russian interference of the 2016 elections, and any possible ties to the Trump Campaign.
What exactly do the details show? Let’s take an extended look.
1. First, this is a historic move by the FBI. This was the first time that the FBI had ever released details about a surveillance warrant requests under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which are made to a special, secret intelligence court. The release was spearheaded by a lawsuit filed in part by Brad Heath, an investigative reporter with USA Today. As one might expect, much of the document is redacted because of intelligence and investigative reasons, keeping many people guessing about what was actually in the 412 pages released to the public, which you can read for yourself.
2. FBI request came after Page left Trump Campaign. After stories had surfaced in September of 2016 raising questions about Carter Page’s ties to certain Russian interests, Page had left his role as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump Campaign. The FBI did not ask for a surveillance warrant until October of 2016, after Page was already out of his role. That undermines the President’s complaint on Sunday which he aired on Twitter: “Looking more & more like the Trump Campaign for President was illegally being spied upon (surveillance) for the political gain of Crooked Hillary Clinton and the DNC,” the President wrote. But the facts when it comes to the timing of the case don’t bear that out.
3. What did the FBI base its request on? Here we start getting into the meat of the political debate on the Page FISA warrant. The FBI was pretty blunt about what it believed was happening when it came to Russian interference in the 2016 elections: “the FBI believes that the Russian Government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with Candidate #1’s campaign,” the FBI wrote in the original surveillance warrant request. One redacted section sets out “Clandestine Intelligence Activities of the Russian Federation,” before even getting to details about Page. “The FBI believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian Government,” the FISA request states. One name that makes an appearance early on in the FBI request is that of George Papadopoulos, who has already plead guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russians.
4. Zeroing in on the Page FISA request. The FBI sets out that “Page has established relationships with Russian Government officials, including Russian intelligence officers” – and then a redacted session of evidence. The document recounts how two Russian intelligence agents tried to recruit Page in 2015 during meetings in New York. Finally after 15 pages, the FBI gets to a ‘confidential human source (Source #1) – that would be the former British Intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who authored what’s become known as the Steele Dossier, assembled by the company Fusion GPS, and paid for by interests supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
5. The FBI addresses the Steele Dossier. Here is where the two parties will go different ways on what was included in the FBI surveillance request on Carter Page, as it pertains to Steele. In the GOP memo released earlier this year by House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Republicans accused the FBI of not giving the FISC court any information about who was bankrolling the information from Steele – but the document clearly says that a “U.S.-based law firm had hired the identified U.S. person to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s ties to Russia,” and the FBI makes clear what they thought it was for: “The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.” Even with that knowledge, “the FBI believes Source #1’s reporting herein to be credible.”
6. The FBI document undermines Nunes on one point. In the GOP memo released back in February about this FISA request, Republicans state clearly that the “Carter Page FISA application also cited extensively a September 23, 2016 Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff,” making it seem like the FBI was relying on information in that article to support the FBI request for surveillance of Page. Except when you read the actual FISA document, that article is noted under a section headlined, “Page’s Denial of Cooperation with the Russian Government,” as the FBI even includes information from a letter that Page wrote to the FBI Director denying any wrongdoing. The GOP memo is first in the below graphic, followed by the FISA warrant request.
8. The FBI’s bottom line in October 2016. The FBI wraps up its request with a succinct accusation – “the FBI believes that Page has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian Government.”
9. This is really four surveillance applications. While the document begins with the FBI’s initial request for 90 days of surveillance on Carter Page from October of 2016, the 412 pages also include a renewal request from January of 2017, another renewal in April 2017, and a final renewal of the FISA warrant on Page in June of 2017. Each time, the information supporting the request for surveillance increased in length, suggesting that the FBI was including actual intelligence information gleaned from the investigation of Page, and why it supported further monitoring by U.S law enforcement. We don’t get to read any of that, because in those sections, it is page after page of blacked-out materials, making it difficult for us to evaluate what was presented by the FBI, and how the rulings were made by the intelligence court.
10. The four judges involved were appointed by Republicans. For the first time, we learned the identities of the judges on the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court who dealt with the four requests for surveillance on Carter Page – and it turns out that all four were put on the federal bench by Republican Presidents – Reagan, the first President Bush, and President George W. Bush. In a tweet, the President quoted Andrew McCarthy, a legal analyst who often appears on Fox News: “This is so bad that they should be looking at the judges who signed off on this stuff, not just the people who gave it.”