Nunes FBI memo: Yep, it's every bit as terrible as you imagined
The day Congress becomes a supermarket tabloid
Analysis Friday morning, as expected, the US House Intelligence Committee released a four-page memo outlining what it claims is evidence that the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the FBI illegally requested that a former advisor to President Trump be put under surveillance.
The document [PDF] has been the source of frenzied attention and commentary in Washington DC for the past week, not least because it implies that there was a political motive behind the surveillance of Donald's foreign policy advisor Carter Page.
If true, the memo would also implicate senior officials at the DoJ and FBI as having abused their extraordinary powers in order to undermine a presidential campaign: an unprecedented attempt to usurp the democratic process.
There's only one problem: the memo is not worth the paper it's printed on.
Not that it is entirely worthless. It does do two useful things: for one, it puts a spotlight on the secretive and questionable process by which US officials are able to order to broad surveillance on any American citizen, and have that surveillance renewed every 90 days with what, from the outside, looks like insufficient scrutiny.
Second, the memo will serve as an intriguing contemporary document for how the United States government itself got sucked into the era of fake news: an era where a string of tangentially related pseudo-facts can be pulled together and used to promote a false conspiracy. And have people take it seriously.
We have our first Congressionally approved Roswell. It is both extraordinary and deeply embarrassing.
A quick overview of the memo, which was produced by House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes (R-CA):
- It describes the DoJ and FBI-approved surveillance of Carter Page, a former foreign policy advisor to the Trump presidential campaign.
- That surveillance of Page – basically the legal right to intercept and read/listen to any and all of his communications – was approved thanks to legislation known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), approved by a secret court called the FISA Court.
- Such a surveillance order has to be renewed every 90 days, and the memo focuses on when it was renewed on October 21, 2016 – at the height of the presidential campaign.
- The memo claims the FBI relied heavily on the so-called Steele dossier – an extraordinary series of claims and allegations that Donald Trump had been compromised by Russian intelligence services, put together by former British spy Christopher Steele – in order to get Page's surveillance extended.
- The memo then questions the credibility of both Steele and his dossier, noting that his investigation was in part financed by the Democratic National Committee and quoting Steele saying that he was opposed to Donald Trump becoming president.
- The memo notes that the application to extend surveillance on Page also mentions another former Trump campaign advisor - George Papadopoulos – and references a different FBI probe sparked by information supplied by Papadopoulos, which has also been subject to extensive scrutiny over perceived political bias.
While the memo doesn't outright state it, the strong implication is that top officials at the DoJ and FBI knowingly used questionable information in order to extend surveillance on a key member of the Trump presidential campaign.
The further implication, by referencing Steele's alleged comment that he was "desperate that Donald Trump not get elected" and by noting that FBI agent Pete Strzok was in charge of the unrelated Papadopoulos investigation – text messages from Strzok have revealed that he was also opposed to Trump becoming president – is that there was a concerted effort to undermine the Trump campaign. An effort that used the extraordinary spying powers granted to law enforcement.
The truth is, though, that the memo amounts to little more than a hatchet job. It should be on the pages of an alt-right blog or a Mail Online comment section, not released as an official document of the Congressional House Intelligence Committee.
The curious thing about the Nunes memo is that it doesn't actually accuse the FBI or DOJ of violating any particular law. There are legal standards for warrant applications, material omissions, etc., but it doesn't reference them.— Brad Heath (@bradheath) February 2, 2018
What makes this all the more remarkable is that the memo covers the secretive world of counter-intelligence and FISA spying powers: a subject that until now has been so religiously shielded by law enforcement, the White House, and Congress that it has only been possible to piece together an outline of how it all works.
In that respect, as concerned citizens who have seen classified documentation released by Edward Snowden and witnessed the shameful barrage of lies put out by this nation's top security officials when asked about their spying programs, this memo is welcome. It is yet another document that gives us a peek behind the curtains.
And that peek has – yet again – given us cause to question the official version of events.
What does it take for the FISA Court to approve a 90-day extension covering complete surveillance of an individual? Well, we now know that the FBI supplied the court with the Steele dossier in order to argue for Page's continued surveillance.
Given that Christopher Steele was a former head of MI6's Russian branch, and that Carter Page was a key intermediary in a series of secret meetings between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, snooping on Page would appear to be a reasonable use of extraordinary foreign spying powers.
It's worth remembering one detail of the Steele dossier: that Page and his associates were given an extraordinary offer of 19 per cent of Russian oil and gas company Rosneft in return for sanctions being lifted by the US government – and he reacted favorably, allegedly. Page, we must make clear, runs a consultancy biz in New York that brokers energy deals with Russian and central Asian organizations.
How it works
Frankly, provided with credible information that that was the case, the US authorities would be failing in their jobs if they hadn't put Page under surveillance. He has not been charged with any suspected crimes.
But what is extraordinary is that, according to the Nunes memo, the FBI also included a media report – written by Yahoo! News – about Page and his business links with Russia as a backup source when going to the FISA Court for permission to snoop on Page.
What the FBI appeared not to have known at the time, but which has since emerged, is that the source of that Yahoo! News story was in fact Christopher Steele, who had secretly briefed several media outlets on his material.
The memo makes big play of this information – suggesting it shows Steele cannot be trusted, and implying that the Feds are either incompetent in not knowing that the Yahoo! story was based on Steele's information, or that it did know and misled the court to get the extension. The article is not much of a second source to the Steele dossier if the story was sourced from Steele, is the argument.
Here, the memo arguably has a valid point. Why did the FBI feel the need to include a Yahoo! News story at all? Was it a second-source requirement of the FISA Court? The Feds have troves of intelligence at their fingertips, but instead went to their RSS reader? It's weird.
Perhaps the bureau wanted to let the court know that Carter may, at the time, have been alerted by the news article to the fact that he was under suspicion.
Other questions also result. Page has been on the g-men's radar since 2013. Page was under surveillance for many months prior to Steele producing his dossier, and well before Page became part of the Trump campaign. Why wasn't any of the intelligence from that earlier snooping sufficient to persuade the court to extend the spying further?
Maybe it was.
When the FBI and the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have complained bitterly that Nunes' memo has "material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy" – they might well be referring to the results of previous FISA surveillance on Page, also provided to the court.
The Steele dossier may have simply been the cherry on top of the cake. Or, it may be that the NSA's surveillance of Page, who previously worked in Moscow, had failed to pick up any of the information that was included in Steele's dossier.
If that’s the case then the Nunes memo may have just let the Russian intelligence services know that their counter-surveillance methods worked.
The other big question is: were others named in the Steele dossier – former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and long-term Trump lawyer Michael Cohen – also all put under surveillance on the basis of the allegations?
These are the interesting questions that are raised by this unprecedented insight into the secretive spying operations of the US government, as provided by the House Intelligence Committee.
The actual memo itself, twinned with determined efforts to use it to provide political cover to attack senior officials at the DoJ and FBI, is garbage.
It is a depressing sign of just how far the partisan nature of Washington DC has gone that politicians are willing to undermine confidence in government's highest and most important organs in an effort to score a political win.
Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman, cracked a good one on the memo's quality:
If this memo resulted in an in-depth and much more honest appraisal of spying laws in the United States, and the seemingly low bar of proof required by the FISA Court, it might even be worth the damage caused to key institutions.
But there is next to no chance of that actually happening – because the very people who wrote this memo and pushed for it to be published are the exact same people who prevented debate of one of America's most controversial spying programs – Section 702 – and who prevented additional safeguards from being implemented.
Safeguards that would have limited the potential for abuse that this memo purports to demonstrate and is so upset about. The hypocrisy is gut wrenching.
Just to be clear though, this memo does not demonstrate any political bias on the part of the FBI or the DoJ, despite its best efforts. The g-men did their job using the powers that Congress gave them.
And if some intelligence officials didn't want Trump elected president, this whole episode has unfortunately demonstrated why: as president, Donald Trump was in a position to prevent the release of this appalling memo and he chose not to.
He put his own personal goals ahead of the country's. And frankly no patriot wants to see that in their president. ®