Politics

Nunes Memo Alleges Law Enforcement Misled Surveillance Court

But document leaves out key details that led to request for warrant

House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., pushed hard to release a controversial memo slamming law enforcement officials on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A declassified Republican memo cleared for release Friday by President Donald Trump raises concerns with the “legitimacy and legality” of Justice Department and FBI tactics to obtain a surveillance warrant of a then-Trump campaign adviser, although it leaves out key information concerning what led to the request. 

The document, compiled and released by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., highlights what it describes as possibly illegal and misleading “interactions with the Foreign Surveillance Court,” which the memo states “represent a troubling breakdown of legal processes.”

But the House panel’s Democratic members responded with a lengthy rebuttal, saying “none” of the contents Nunes included support his underlying charges. The panel’s minority members alleged the point of the document and its release is to “make the whole [Russia] investigation go away regardless of the Russians’ interference in our election or the role of the Trump campaign in that interference.”

At issue is a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant the two agencies obtained in October 2016 that approved electronic monitoring of Carter Page, who was advising the Trump presidential campaign and whose activities had long previously been of interest to U.S. counterintelligence officials. The crux of much of the Nunes-compiled memo is Justice and FBI officials were not honest with the surveillance court about “relevant fact,” adding those officials omitted “material and relevant information.”

At issue is a dossier of information about Trump and alleged ties to Russians that was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele for research firm Fusion GPS. The firm had initially been hired by the Washington Free Beacon, a right-leaning publication, then subsequently by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Its co-founder, Glenn Simpson, described the document as “a collection of field memoranda, of field interviews” in testimony before the senior staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee in August.

Nunes and his Republican colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee colleagues, all of whom voted to release it on Monday evening, essentially are trying to raise doubts about Justice’s special counsel probe of Russian election meddling by stating DOJ and FBI officials were not honest while seeking the initial warrant; nor about subsequent extensions about what they knew about Steele, his contacts with the media, his financial motivations and his political leanings against a Trump presidency.

For instance, the memo alleges U.S. law enforcement officials knew but did not tell the FISC judges that Steele “was paid over $160,000 by the [Democratic National Committee] and Clinton campaign, via the law firm Perkins Coie … to obtain derogatory information on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.” The Nunes memo does not mention that the initial funding for Fusion GPS's work started with the Washington Free Beacon. 

Nor did the FISA warrant applications spell out the DNC and Clinton campaign as funding sources for the dossier, “even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior DOJ and FBI officials,” according to the memo. Again, no mention of the Free Beacon, though. It also alleges the application never mentioned Fusion GPS or that the bureau had authorized Steele be paid from its coffers. Steele was a long-time informant for the FBI. 

Nunes also hits Steele for his contacts with media members, first Yahoo News and later Mother Jones; he ultimately was terminated as a FBI informant for the latter, but the memo states he should have been axed after the former.

The memo also states that senior Justice and FBI officials knew Steele did not want to see Trump elected but did not disclose his “bias” on “any of the Page FISA applications.”

Nunes attempts to go directly at the legitimacy of the initial FISA warrant on Page and the information in Steele’s dossier when he wrote in the memo that when law enforcement applied for the warrant initially, the FBI’s counterintelligence specialists’ efforts to corroborate the dossier contents were only in their “infancy.” But counterintelligence officials’ interest in Page pre-date the FISA request.

To that end, In fact, Simpson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that when Steele was interviewed by FBI officials in Rome in September 2016, the bureau signaled they had obtained some of the information he had collected prior to him even writing the first memo in his dossier.

“They believed Chris might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing,” Simpson told committee staff after being warned lying could result in jail time. “One of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump organization.” He added that the FBI had a “walk-in” whistleblower who was someone in Trump’s orbit.

The memo’s claims — which have also been uttered and tweeted by Trump — that the Democratic Party paid for the Steele dossier is also murky. Republicans often, as does the Nunes document, exclude any mention of the Washington Free Beacon's funding of Fusion GPS's research even before the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee inquired about retaining its services.

That undercuts the Nunes memo’s claims that the dossier was a product of purely partisan motivations and Democratic dollars.

Former Acting CIA Director John Mclaughlin called what is publicly known about the Nunes-crafted document sounds like a “carefully picked bowl of cherries.” He tweeted Wednesday that FISA warrants are typically much longer than the four pages that constitute the Nunes memo.

Shortly after the document was made public, the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic members issued a scathing response.

“The Republican document mischaracterizes highly sensitive classified information that few members of Congress have seen, and which Chairman Nunes himself chose not to review,” the Democrats wrote in statement. “It 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.

“The sole purpose of the Republican document is to circle the wagons around the White House and insulate the president,” according to the Democrats.

The committee’s minority also attacked the Nunes-crafted document’s underlying premise that law enforcement officials purposely mislead the FISC.

“None of this is true,” the Democrats said. “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.”

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