The much-anticipated memo from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was released to the public Friday after it was declassified by President Donald Trump. In many ways, this four-page document did not live up to its billing but its significance should not be underestimated. Whether through gross negligence or political partisanship, senior FBI and Justice Department officials betrayed the trust placed in them by the American people. Circumventing both legal requirements and sound investigative practices, they created an investigation that might have brought down a sitting president.
It is worth cutting through the noise and the rhetoric to break down exactly what can be learned from this committee memo. It is also worth considering that its release provides nothing in the way of closure; on the contrary, the publication of this document almost certainly sets in motion a fresh round of investigation, recrimination and personnel changes at the nation’s senior law enforcement agency and, possibly, at the Justice Department itself.
Questioning The Motive and Timing of The FISA Warrant
At the center of the whole affair is an order – or warrant – obtained by the FBI from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). That warrant enabled the Bureau to target one individual who served on the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team. His name is Carter Page and those who have sought to downplay allegations of impropriety within the DOJ and FBI point out that Page was on the radar of U.S. counterintelligence officials since at least 2013. His alleged connections to Russia had been a matter of concern, yet the FBI did not apply for the FISA warrant until just weeks before the 2016 election.
“Furthermore, Deputy Director McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.”
Although no such speculation appears in the memo released Friday, it is not unreasonable to question the timing of the application. Given the discussion of an “insurance policy” against a Trump election victory – discovered in text messages sent between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page (no relation to Carter Page) – could it be concluded that the FISA warrant provided the FBI with a pretext to cast a surveillance net that might sweep up other members of the Trump campaign?
The application for that warrant was largely based on an uncorroborated dossier which contained claims – some of them highly spurious – about Donald Trump’s alleged connections to Russia. The dossier was, in fact, opposition research authored by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele and paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
When the FISA warrant was originally obtained in October 2016, the FBI was aware that the information in the dossier was unverified. The Bureau was also aware that Steele was working for Fusion GPS, a Washington D.C. research firm hired by the Clinton campaign to gather opposition research on Trump. None of this was presented in the warrant application, which then-FBI Director James Comey signed off on. Additionally, the FISA application, which is supposed to present evidence justifying the issue of a surveillance order, cited at least one media article, from Yahoo News, that was also based on information provided to the author by none other than Christopher Steele.
“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.”
Steele, for is part, was no neutral participant in this affair; the memo reveals that DOJ official Bruce Ohr – whos wife worked for Fusion GPS – recounted to FBI agents that Steele “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
The Usual SuspectsDevin Nunes
FISA warrants must be renewed every 90 days. Each time a renewal is applied for, an affidavit must be submitted, accompanied by documented evidence to justify the extension of the surveillance operation. The warrant issued to target Page was renewed three times, meaning that it was repeatedly renewed after Donald Trump took office. The application and renewal affidavits must be signed by the Director of the FBI and the Attorney General, or their respective deputies.
James Comey signed the original application and former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe signed all three renewal applications. That McCabe was given his marching orders just days before the release of the committee memo is telling. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also signed at least one of the FISA applications, as did former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama appointee fired by President Trump.
The memo has not shaken the foundations of the American political establishment but it may yet do so. Rather than being the final hammer-blow that some suspected, or even hoped for, it has laid out the case for an in-depth examination of the senior ranks of the FBI and Department of Justice. The memo highlights a pattern of improper behavior and conflict of interest that certainly appears motivated by an intent to undermine those deemed politically undesirable. What must now be determined is how far, and how deep, the political weaponization of these federal agencies has spread.