A hot new document offers a sliver of new understanding to the Russia imbroglio — but has not dislodged warring partisans from their long-term deadlock about evidence and surveillance in the case.
What is it?
The FBI has released an application to conduct surveillance of an American under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It’s heavily redacted but still significant — these are some of the most secret papers in official Washington and very seldom ever seen by people without specialized security clearances.
The dispute over the document boils down to this: did the Justice Department and the FBI violate the rights of a onetime junior foreign policy aide to the Donald Trump campaign, Carter Page?
Page, Trump and Republicans say yes — federal law enforcement officers abused their power.
DOJ and FBI officials say no. They’ve defended the practices of investigators and officials who, in the autumn of 2016, asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to begin collecting Page’s electronic communications.
The FBI was investigating the Russian attack on the election and it believed that Page — and potentially other people working for Trump — were conspiring with that attack.
Trump, then and now, denies there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia’s active measures. He also has been waging a months-long attack of his own against federal law enforcement, including most recently with snicker quotes in a tweet that alluded to the Department of “Justice.”
The FBI’s Russia investigation began in the summer of 2016 when investigators learned that a Trump campaign foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos, had been importuned by Russian intelligence operatives in London. They offered him “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and “off-the-record” meetings with Russian officials.
Counterintelligence officers began to look into what was going on. By October, they were focusing on Page, who had left the Trump campaign earlier in the year after he too had served as a foreign policy aide.
In the new document from that month, the FBI not only argues that Page might have been conspiring with the Russians, it wrote that it believed he was a full-blown Russian agent.
In the filing, investigators cited a number of reasons they believed it, including the FBI’s past experience in dealing with Page — who had been targeted for recruitment by Russia’s foreign intelligence service — and then-new reports the FBI was getting from a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele.
Steele was commissioned by a political intelligence firm, Fusion GPS, to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia — a project that was being underwritten by Democrats.
In investigating, Steele assembled the body of documents that has become infamous as the Russia dossier. Steele passed them to his employers and to the FBI, with which he’d had a preexisting relationship. According to Simpson, he was alarmed by what he’d learned.
The material suggested that Russia had launched a war of influence against the United States — which investigators have subsequently confirmed — and that the Russian government had compromising material on Trump and Clinton that it could use to blackmail them — which has not been confirmed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told a reporter in Helsinki last week who asked whether he had compromising material on Trump to “disregard these issues.”
Even though the payment for Steele’s work had come from Democrats, the Justice Department and FBI considered Steele trustworthy enough to include his reporting in their application to surveil Page. That’s one lesson in the new documents:
“The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign,” it says.
The document avoids making many direct references to people or institutions as part of national security Washington’s practices called “minimization.”
The application continues: “Notwithstanding Source #1’s reason for conducting the research into Candidate #1’s ties to Russia, based on Source #1’s previous reporting history with the FBI, whereby Source #1 provided reliable information to the FBI, the FBI believes Source #1’s reporting herein to be credible.”
This is where Trump’s supporters blow the whistle. Many Republicans argue the DOJ and FBI officials appear to have deliberately concealed from the FISA judge that “Source 1” wasn’t just someone with an ax to grind — he was being paid by one of the two major-party campaigns in the United States.
And more basically, some critics also argue, the allegations in the dossier were not solid enough to merit being included in this request for surveillance. The FBI has substantiated some of them, but the details remain classified as to what it has verified and what it has debunked.
House intelligence committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has pointed out how much information the FBI had about Steele’s opposition to Trump that it omitted, including Steele’s own conversations with Justice Department officials and others about his personal opposition to Trump.
Now that portions are public, it is clear that the FISA application does not name Trump or Clinton or Fusion GPS or Simpson or Steele nor detail the political background.
Nunes argued in February that law enforcement officials should have included these details many times but didn’t:
“In the case of Carter Page, the government had at least four independent opportunities before the FISC to accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts,” Nunes wrote. “However, our findings indicate that, as described below, material and relevant information was omitted.”
The Justice Department and FBI responded before the release of Nunes’ memo that, in fact, he was the one who had omitted important information about the way FISA process works — which the agencies said gave them “grave concerns.”
Democrats argued in their countermemo that law enforcement had made the appropriate disclosures given the expectations involved with FISA applications:
DOJ appropriately upheld its longstanding practice of protecting U.S. citizen information by purposefully not ‘unmasking’ U.S. person and entity names, unless they were themselves the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. DOJ instead used generic identifiers that provided the court with more than sufficient information to understand the political context of Steele’s research.
That’s why “Steele” is “Source #1” and “Trump” is “Candidate #1” and so forth. Republicans argue this document should have contained much more detail. Democrats, the Justice Department and the FBI argue that what’s included, and how, was appropriate.
Nunes and Republicans also complained about a section of the FISA application that cites a news story to buttress information from Steele — even though it has since become clear that Steele also was the source for that story.
Many of these arguments were aired earlier this year in dueling memoranda from the Republicans and Democrats on the House intelligence committee.
Those documents both alluded to the document released on Saturday, which was then classified but which is now public for the first time — albeit with heavy redactions. So the arguments by Trump and his supporters versus those of Democrats already have gotten a significant airing.
What the document released on Saturday does not detail is much of the rest of the story, or how much the FBI knew about Page’s activities in 2016 that did not involve the reporting from Steele.
Entire sections of the file, including one under the heading “Clandestine intelligence activities of the Russian Federation,” are blacked out.