The “Democratic memo” — one of two memos addressing the FBI’s investigation of a Trump campaign official — has been out for a few days, enough time for citizens to begin to absorb it. The memo fails to exonerate the FBI, or to reassure Americans about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Further, the two partisan sides in this matter have merely doubled down, insisting on their own truths, while huge questions about our civil liberties remain unanswered, even unacknowledged.
Released Feb. 24, the Democratic memo did not refute the key claim made by Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In their own “memo,” the Republicans contend that in seeking a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant, primary weight was given by the FBI to what’s known as the Steele dossier. That was the opposition research collected by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, hired by the American firm Fusion GPS. It purported to show links between Donald Trump and various Russians. James Comey called key parts of it “salacious and unverified.”
This document was used to justify the FBI’s successful request for a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign starting in March 2016 and ending in September 2016. It was sought and approved in October 2016 — after he left the campaign.
The memo seeks to make two main points: First, that the FISA court was, in fact, informed that the Steele dossier was opposition research. Second, that Carter Page was already a target of FBI interest in its Russian spying investigation. But neither point was made with definitive persuasion.
According to the Democratic memo, the FBI acknowledged the document’s origins by stating that whoever paid for his research was “likely looking for information that could be used to discredit” Trump. That’s putting the matter mildly. In fact, Steele was known to be firmly opposed to the idea of Trump becoming president. His dossier was raw assertions, not vetted intelligence. Yet according to the Republicans on the committee, it was an essential part of the warrant, which means the FBI and the FISA judge both were wrong.
Democrats claim Republicans cherry-picked facts for their memo, also called the “Nunes memo,” released by the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee. That may be so. But the FBI’s FISA warrant application cherry-picked facts, a far more serious matter. The FISA warrant application was the basis for secret wiretapping — the intrusion of the state into a citizen’s privacy.
Another contention in the Democratic memo is that Page was not a new target for the Justice Department. Page had been a “person of interest” to the FBI for his Russia connections since at least 2013 and had been interviewed by the FBI more than once.
But that too fails to vindicate the FBI. Indeed, it could lead to the inference that the FBI and the Justice Department used their existing interest in Page as a vehicle to justify snooping on the Trump campaign.
At this point, the House Committee on Intelligence is so fractured that a bipartisan investigation of the FBI’s and Justice Department’s use of the FISA process is now all but impossible. That is what truly matters here. Both the Nunes memo and the Democratic memo show how the FISA process can be abused and the top echelon of the FBI was highly politicized. As a result, the power of the federal government was highly misused and the FBI’s reputation has been degraded.