WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — House Democrats have released a declassified version of their memo rebutting Republican claims of abuse of surveillance powers by the FBI after its review by the White House.
President Donald Trump had rejected an earlier version of the memo two weeks ago, saying it was “very political and long” and revealed sources and methods of intelligence. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, has been working with officials since then to redact it for release.
CNN reported Saturday that the White House returned the memo to House Democrats for release.
Schiff’s memo was a response to a four-page memo prepared by Republican staff for Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., that claimed FBI officials misled a FISA court to obtain a surveillance warrant on former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
According to Nunes, the FBI relied heavily on a dossier of information compiled for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign and did not sufficiently inform the judge of its political nature.
"The Democrats are not only trying to cover this up, but they're also colluding with parts of the government to cover this up," Nunes said at the Conservative Political Action Conference Saturday in response to the memo's impending release.
“FBI and DOJ officials did not ‘abuse’ the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process, omit material information, or subvert this vital tool to spy on the Trump campaign,” the memo states.
The Democratic memo directly contradicts many of the claims the Nunes memo made, insisting that the FBI followed appropriate procedures and made all necessary disclosures to the court.
The document claims the FBI would have been remiss in not seeking to surveil Page based on evidence of Russian election interference, Russian outreach to Trump campaign officials, Page’s own history with Russian intelligence, and his “suspicious” activities in 2016. It also reveals that the FBI interviewed Page in March 2016 about his contacts with Russian intelligence, the same month Trump's campaign hired him.
According to the memo, the FISA application “made only narrow use" of information in the dossier provided by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, specifically the part relating to Page's summer 2016 visit to Moscow.
It also states the DOJ informed the court that the FBI terminated its relationship with Steele as a source because he disclosed information to the media and detailed “the assessed political motivation of those who hired him.”
“DOJ told the court the truth,” the memo says. “Its representation was consistent with the FBI’s underlying investigative record.”
The FISA application and three subsequent renewals were approved by four different judges, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents.
The memo emphasizes that since all parties agree Page no longer had any role in Trump’s campaign at the time, it is inaccurate to say FISA was used to spy on Trump or his campaign.
Democrats say the Steele memo was cited to detail alleged meetings between Page and two Russians with ties to the Kremlin, including one who supposedly claimed to have compromising information about Clinton. They also maintain that DOJ provided additional independent information in the renewal applications that corroborated Steele’s work, and the renewals demonstrate that the FBI obtained important investigative information from monitoring Page.
The memo quotes from the FISA application’s description of Steele’s employer, stating that he was hired by a “U.S. person” to research Trump’s ties to Russia, likely for the purpose of discrediting Trump’s campaign, but it also says Steele himself was never told of the motivation for the research.
As Republicans stressed in their memo, Steele was hired by research firm Fusion GPS, which was being paid by an attorney who represented Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Steele was not ever paid by the FBI for his dossier-related information, though a payment was at one point authorized and canceled.
Republicans have also made much of the FISA application’s inclusion of a September 2016 Yahoo! News article apparently derived from information leaked by Steele, claiming the FBI dishonestly used an article based on the dossier to corroborate the dossier. Democrats say that article and another article were cited “to inform the court of Page’s public denial of his suspected meetings in Moscow,” not to corroborate anything.
Democrats accuse Republicans of “doing a grave disservice” to Bruce Ohr, a career DOJ official who had spoken to Steele about Trump and whose wife had done contract work for Fusion GPS. They say Republicans mischaracterized Ohr’s role in the investigation and misled the public about the timeline of his involvement.
According to the memo, Ohr’s work involved drugs and organized crime, so there is no evidence he was aware of the Carter Page FISA applications at all. Ohr spoke to the FBI in late November 2016 about his interactions with Steele, after the election, after the first FISA application was approved, and after the FBI severed its relationship with Steele.
Ohr was demoted after details of his meetings with Steele were made public.
The Democratic memo goes to great lengths to emphasize that the impetus for the investigation of Russian interference in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign was unrelated to Page or the evidence obtained through the FISA warrants.
“The FBI’s—and subsequently the special counsel’s—investigation into links between the Russian government and Trump campaign associates has been based on troubling law enforcement and intelligence information unrelated to the ‘dossier,’” the memo states.
The counterintelligence probe was launched in July 2016, two months before the investigative team received Steele’s research, due to information about another Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos and the covert Russian interference campaign the FBI was already monitoring.
In a tweet on Saturday evening, Trump called the Democratic document "a total political and legal BUST."
Intelligence Committee Republicans released a response soon after the Democratic memo was made public insisting that its contents do not undermine their core contention that the DOJ and FBI wrongly cited material funded by the Clinton campaign and the DNC in court filings.
While Democrats say the dossier was only used in a “narrow” way, House Republicans quote Senate Republicans Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham, who wrote in a criminal referral to the Justice Department that Steele’s research made up “the bulk of the application.”
“The Democrat memo fails to explain why, if evidence of Page’s past activities was so compelling, the Steele dossier was used in the FISA application at all,” Intelligence Committee Republicans say. They note that the warrant to surveil Page was not sought until after the FBI received Steele’s information.
The Republican response also reiterates the point from their memo that Page cooperated in the FBI’s prosecution of the Russian intelligence officer who tried to recruit him, and that that officer later called Page “an idiot” in a recorded conversation.
Even if the only information from the dossier used in the application was about Page allegedly meeting with Kremlin-linked Russians Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin in Moscow in July 2016, Republicans say that information remains uncorroborated and unconfirmed by any other sources.
Republicans allege that the footnote in the application regarding Steele’s employer “obscures rather than clarifies” his political ties. They also dispute the application’s claim that Steele was unaware of the motivation behind the research.
In addition, they criticize the DOJ for repeating a claim that Steele had not shared the information in the dossier beyond his clients in all of their applications, even though Steele confirmed in British court filings that he spoke to several reporters about his work. Grassley and Graham accused Steele of lying to the FBI about his contacts with the media in their criminal referral.
Though Democrats say there is no evidence Bruce Ohr was aware of the FISA applications and he did not speak to investigators until November 2016, Republicans still question why his interactions with Steele were not mentioned in the initial October 2016 application. They also say Steele’s comments to Ohr about being “desperate” to defeat Trump and Ohr’s wife’s ties to Fusion GPS should have been included in subsequent renewal applications.
President Trump released the Nunes memo over the objection of the Department of Justice and the FBI after the FBI warned it contained material omissions that impacted its accuracy. Once it was made public, Trump claimed it “vindicated” his stance that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian ties to his presidential campaign is a witch hunt.
Nunes and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have said they believe the memo details serious abuses of power by the FBI but it does not have any bearing on Mueller’s probe.