Former federal law enforcement officials heaped criticism on the declassified memo released Friday by House Republicans that accuses the FBI and Justice Department of abusing their surveillance powers.
The memo produced by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) alleges that the FBI obtained the warrant to eavesdrop on an adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump on the basis of a dossier of unsubstantiated intelligence about the campaign’s Russia contacts without disclosing to the ultra-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the dossier was financed with $160,000 from Democrat Hillary Clinton’s rival presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
The application itself is classified and may never be seen by the public. But one former high-ranking federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fact that the electronic eavesdropping of former campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page was renewed for three 90-day periods last year “suggests that not only was the original warrant legitimate, but also that they collected something else” that was incriminating. The initial warrant to surveil Page was approved in October 2016, shortly before the election.
Page was not a new subject of the FBI’s interest. His name had surfaced in a separate investigation that concluded Russian intelligence officers had sought in 2013 to recruit him.
The ex-law enforcement officials went to great lengths to defend the bugging of Page as the Republicans put out, with President Donald Trump’s blessing, the politically incendiary four-page memo challenging the legitimacy of the surveillance. The document points to anti-Trump views and appearances of conflicts of interest involving several figures in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 19-month-old investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign collaborated with Russia’s scheme to disrupt the U.S. election. Four of those officials have been removed from the investigation.
It also said the FBI terminated former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier, as a source on Oct. 30, 2016, just nine days after applying for the warrant to monitor Page, because he had leaked information about his FBI informant status to a Mother Jones reporter and others.
Trump and his GOP allies on the House Intelligence Committee contended the bureau’s surveillance of Page in itself was evidence of political bias. After reviewing the memo for several days, the president tweeted shortly after dawn Friday that “the top leadership and investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats.”
“A lot of people should be ashamed,” Trump said, after agreeing to declassifying the memo and sending it back to the House committee.
The Justice Department had argued that declassifying the memo would be “extremely reckless,” and newly installed FBI Director Christopher Wray protested that it contained “omissions of fact” that would distort the truth.
Democrats charged that the memo was intended solely to undermine the investigation that has besieged Trump since he took office.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said earlier this week that the memo relates to law enforcement decisions before Mueller took over the Russia inquiry last May, said Friday that “an American’s civil liberties may have been violated” by the law enforcement failure to give the court “a complete presentation of the facts and circumstances” surrounding the warrant.
Our findings ... represent a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses.
Memo from Republicans on House Intelligence Committee
But California Rep. Adam Schiff, the Intrelligence Committee’s top Democrat, told reporters the memo is “distorted ... misleading” and based on cherry-picked facts from the FBI’s warrant application.
“It would have been derelict for the FBI not to seek a FISA warrant on Carter Page, given what they knew about Carter Page, given what they knew about what the Russians were doing interfering in our election.”
Page, a self-described global energy consultant, took a three-day trip to Moscow in July 2016. In a speech there, he echoed some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attacks on U.S. policies toward the Kremlin. In congressional testimony last fall before the House Intelligence Committee, Page acknowledged meeting some Russian officials during the trip, including Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, as well as an executive for the Russian oil giant Rosneft that has had close ties to Putin.
Mike Carpenter, a former senior Pentagon official who specialized in Russia matters, said Page “espoused such pro-Putin views you’d have thought he worked in the Kremlin.”
In an emailed statement, Page hailed “the brave and assiduous oversight by congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process,” calling it “a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy.”
It would have been derelict for the FBI not to seek a (national security) warrant on Carter Page, given what they knew about Carter Page, given what they knew about what the Russians were doing interfering in our election.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, top Democrat on House Intelligence Committee
To obtain a warrant to surveil a figure such as Page, FBI officials and prosecutors must “demonstrate probable cause that the individual being targeted is an agent of a foreign power violating the criminal laws of the United States,” said Todd Hinnen, a former acting chief of the Justice Department’s National Security Divisioin.
Hinnen and another former high-ranking law enforcement official said Steele’s unverified information could never alone have been the anchor for the warrant application in the rigorous, heavily lawyered process under which requests to spy on U.S. citizens are scrutinized. These applications require signoffs from top officials of both the FBI and the Justice Department. In Page’s case, the memo says, former FBI Director James Comey approved three applications for electronic surveillance and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, signed one. It said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, her temporary replacement Dana Boente and current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also each approved at least one of the applications.
In a phone interview, Hinnen said the warrants then had to be approved by a judge appointed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who appointed all 11 judges currently serving on the secret court. Roberts was named to the bench by former President George W. Bush.
“I would be very, very surprised to learn that the numerous FBI and Department of Justice officials, and likely several judges appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts, had subverted the safeguards of the FISA system and were pursuing a political agenda,” Hinnen said. “All three branches of government have worked very hard to develop a system of integrity that’s subject to safeguards and the rule of law.”
As for the failure to disclose the Democratic financing of Steele’s work, Hinnen said that would only be necessary if the FBI lacked corroborating information about his allegations.
I would be very, very surprised to learn that the numerous FBI and Department of Justice officials, and likely several judges appointed by Chief Justice John Roberts, had subverted the safeguards of the (national security warrant) system and were pursuing a political agenda.
Todd Hinnen, former acting chief of Justice Department National Security Division
The memo quoted McCabe as telling the committee, in previously undisclosed classified testimony in December, that no surveillance warrant would have been sought without the unverified informatioin from Steele’s dossier. But Schiff said that McCabe merely meant that each application would not be complete if any of its components were absent.
McCabe abruptly retired weeks ahead of schedule earlier this week in the face of allegations that, despite the appearance of a conflict of interest, he participated in both the Trump inquiry and a separate one examining Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server while secretary of state. McCabe’s wife received more than $600,000 when she was running for state office from a political committee tied to the state’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton ally.
Trump’s decision to allow the memo to come out puts him squarely at odds with Wray and with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, a Trump appointee who oversees Mueller’s inquiry.
The developments once again put the FISA court, which grants about 1,500 warrants each year, at the center of controversy. Criticism of the court has see-sawed over the last 20 years between charges from civil rights groups that it has allowed the trampling of Americans’ privacy protections and counter-critiques that its tough thresholds have sometimes inhibited the FBI from pursuing national security threats.
Perhaps the biggest lapse occurred after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, when FBI headquarters repeatedly rebuffed requests for a warrant from Minneapolis agents seeking to search the belongings of Zacarious Moussaoui, the since-convicted al-Qaida operative who was arrested while learning to fly a 747 jumbo jet weeks before the terror attacks. McClatchy reported in 2007 that a notebook in Moussaoui’s duffel bag that was introduced as evidence, but not mentioned, during his celebrated death penalty trial, contained a Western Union money transfer number that could have enabled investigators to identify as many as seven of the 19 suicide hijackers and foil the plot.
The former federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid discussing sensitive matters publicly, dismissed concerns about the Democratic backing of Steele.
“Most sources, their motives are suspect,” this official said. “They’re motivated by greed, by revenge like with a rival gang, by political partisan purposes. If we were only to use choir boys, we’d have very few cases.” The official said FBI agents dig deeply into the allegations to form their own conclusions.
The preparation of the Republican memo sent “a lot of warning signs that there’s something else going on besides a thoughtful, fact-based criticism of the FISA process,” the official said.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee drafted their own memo that they say pokes big holes in the GOP version, but the committee’s Republican majority has so far declined to release it. Democrats also have charged that Nunes modified the memo after the committee’s party-line vote and before sending it to the White House.
Wray sent an internal message Friday urging thousands of bureau employees to shrug off the controversy.
“While there’s no shortages of opinions about us right now, nobody has the same vantage point on the FBI that I do,” he said. “… We stay laser-focused on doing great work, even when it’s not easy, because we believe in the FBI. We believe in what it stands for and in what this institution means to people, and nothing is going to change that.”
McClatchy Washington correspondents Anita Kumar and Lesley Clark contributed
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent