NEW YORK — Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee on Saturday released a purported rebuttal to a four-page House Republican memo from earlier this month that alleges abuse of surveillance authority on the part of Obama-era federal agencies.
The Democratic rebuttal contains misleading claims, omits key details, and, perhaps unintentionally, actually proves the FBI and Department of Justice utilized the infamous, largely discredited 35-page anti-Trump dossier to obtain a FISA court warrant to monitor an individual formerly associated with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Here are seven key problems with the claims made inside the Democrats’ rebuttal memo.
1 – The House Democratic rebuttal opens with a seemingly deceptive statement that Steele’s dossier “did not inform” the FBI’s decision to start its investigation into Trump’s campaign in late July.
This is the first contention in the rebuttal, which relates it is trying to “correct the record.” However, the Republican memo did not assert that the dossier informed the FBI’s decision to launch its investigation in late July or anytime. Instead, the GOP memo documented that Steele’s dossier formed an “essential part” of the FISA court applications submitted by Obama-era federal agencies to monitor the communications of Carter Page, who briefly served as a volunteer foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, even though House Democrats seem to be rebutting a contention that was not made in the Republican memo, there are possible issues with the rebuttal’s claim that the FBI’s investigative team only received Steele’s “reporting” in mid-September, ostensibly referring to the written dossier. The Democrats entirely ignore that last July, Steele reportedly traveled to Rome, where he met with an FBI contact to supply the agency with alleged information he found during the course of his anti-Trump work. The Washington Post reported that Steele met with the FBI on July 5, 2016. The Democratic memo reveals that the DOJ “accurately informed the court that that the FBI initiated its counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016.” That is 26 days after Steele met with the FBI in Rome.
2 – While perhaps not intending to, the Democratic memo actually confirms that the Obama Justice Department did use Steele’s largely discredited dossier for FISA court applications to monitor Page.
The memo contains a sentence stating that “as DOJ informed the court in subsequent renewals”; but the rest of that sentence is redacted. The next sentence states that “Steele’s reporting about Page’s Moscow meeting,” with the remainder of that sentence also redacted. The next sentence states that “DOJ’s applications did not otherwise rely on Steele’s reporting, including any ‘salacious’ allegations about Trump…” The word “otherwise” indicates that, according to the Democratic memo, DOJ did indeed rely on Steele’s dossier for something.
As a side note, interestingly, the Democrats only use the term “salacious” regarding the dossier, not fully quoting from former FBI Director James Comey’s famous remarks in which he testified that the anti-Trump dossier contained “salacious and unverified” material.
Meanwhile, the Democratic rebuttal goes on to cite specific instances of the FISA applications utilizing Steele’s dossier, with the applications citing Steele’s alleged sources reporting that Page took meetings in Russia.
In a clear attempt to minimize the importance of the dossier, the Democratic memo refers to a 2013 case in which Russian agents allegedly targeted Page for recruitment. In that case, Page was identified in court documents made public as “Male-1” in reference to a case involving three Russian men identified as Russian intelligence agents. The spy ring was accused of seeking information on U.S. sanctions as well as methods of developing alternate sources of energy. The FBI court filings describe “the attempted use of Male-1 as an intelligence source for Russia,” but Page was not accused of having been successfully recruited or spying. The court documents cite no evidence that “Male-1” knew he was talking with alleged Russian agents. That the Obama-era federal agencies needed to still use the dossier in light of that 2013 case may show that the 2013 episode was not enough to obtain a FISA warrant on Page. Steele’s dossier contains claims of updated meetings between Page and Russians that went into the year 2016.
The House Republican memo and a subsequent criminal referral authored by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) both state that the FISA applications relied heavily on the dossier. Grassley and Graham both reviewed the original FISA applications.
The Grassley-Graham memo relates (emphasis added):
On March 17, 2017, the Chairman and Ranking Member were provided copies of the two relevant FISA applications, which requested authority to conduct surveillance on Carter Page. Both relied heavily on Mr. Steele’s dossier claims, and both applications were granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). In December of 2017, the Chairman, Ranking Member and Subcommittee Chairman Graham were allowed to review a total of four FISA applications relying on the dossier to seek surveillance of Mr. Carter Page, as well as numerous other documents relating to Mr. Steele.
3 – The rebuttal leaves out key information that may dispute the Democratic document’s claim that the FISA warrant was “not used to spy on Trump or his campaign.”
The rebuttal claims this is the case because Page “ended his affiliation with the campaign months before DOJ applied for a warrant.” This is misleading. The FISA warrant givesaccess to phone calls, email, web browsing history and other electronic records, meaning agents can retrieve any emails or recorded communications from the period Page was affiliated with the campaign and would be able to access any recorded communications with the campaign from that period. Also, according to reports, the FBI monitored Page while he spoke to then-Trump adviser Steve Bannon about Russia in January 2017.
4 – The rebuttal tries to give legitimacy to the possibly illicit surveillance of Page by noting that two of the presiding federal judges were appointed by President George W. Bush and one by President Ronald Reagan.
However, the Republicans’ issue has never been claims of partisanship on behalf of the judges, but rather the charge that key information was withheld from the judges, primarily the origins of the dossier, which was produced by the controversial Fusion GPS and paid for by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Republicans also charge that the FISA court was not told about credibility issues related to Steele.
5 – The Democratic memo raises immediate questions about the possible use of a second dossier authored by Cody Shearer, a shadowy former tabloid journalist who has long been closely associated with various Clinton scandals.
The rebuttal states that the DOJ provided the FISA court with “additional information obtained through multiple independent sources that corroborate Steele’s reporting.” The rebuttal does not mention the names of the other “independent sources.”
Shearer reemerged in the news cycle last month when the Guardian newspaper reported that the FBI has been utilizing a second dossier authored by Shearer as part of its probe into Trump and alleged Russian collusion.
The Guardian reported the so-called Shearer memo was given to the FBI by Steele in October 2016 to back up some of his claims.
According to the Guardian report, the FBI is still assessing portions of the Shearer memo. The newspaper reported that, like Steele’s dossier, Shearer’s memo cites an “unnamed source within Russia’s FSB” alleging that Trump was compromised by Russian intelligence during a 2013 trip to Moscow in which the future president purportedly engaged in “lewd acts in a five-star hotel.”
Shearer’s name was reportedly associated with the Grassley-Graham criminal referral of Steele, which contains redacted information that Steele received information from someone in the State Department, who in turn had been in contact with a “foreign sub-source” who was in touch with a redacted name described as a “friend of the Clintons.”
Numerous media reports have since stated that the second dossier author mentioned in the Grassley-Graham memo was Shearer, an associate of longtime Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal.
According to sources who spoke to CNN, Shearer’s information was passed from Blumenthal to Jonathan Winer, who at the time was a special State Department envoy for Libya working under then-Secretary of State John Kerry.
Citing the same source, CNN reported that Shearer’s dossier is “actually a set of notes based on conversations with reporters and other sources.” CNN reported that Shearer had “circulated those notes to assorted journalists, as well as to Blumenthal.”
National Review previously dubbed Shearer a “Creepy Clinton Confidante” and “The Strangest Character in Hillary’s Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy.”
6 – While trying to argue otherwise, the Democratic rebuttal actually confirms the key contention in the Republican memo that the FBI and DOJ failed to inform the FISA court that Steele’s dossier was funded by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) via the Perkins Coie law firm.
In an attempt to rebut the Republican argument that the FISA court was not informed about the dossier’s specific origins, the Democratic memo quotes from an explanation to the court that Steele:
was approached by an identified U.S. person who indicated to Source #1 [Steele] that a U.S.-based law firm had hired the identified U.S. person to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s ties to Russia. (The identified U.S. person and Source #1 have a long-standing business relationship.) The identified U.S. person hired Source #1 to conduct this research. The identified U.S. person never advised Source #1 as to the motivation behind the research into candidate #1’s ties to Russia. The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.
Contrary to the rebuttal’s characterization, this paragraph is a far cry from informing the court that the dossier utilized in the FISA warrant was paid for by Trump’s primary political opponents, namely Clinton and the DNC. Also, the general mention of “a U.S.-based law firm” does not identify to the FISA court the actual firm, Perkins Coie, which is known for its representation of Clinton and the DNC. Further, informing the FISA court about “an identified U.S. person” who hired Steele fails to actually identify that U.S. person as Glenn Simpson, founder of the controversial Fusion GPS.
The Democrats claim that the above-referenced paragraph proves the Obama-era agencies informed the FISA court about the “political” origins of the dossier. However, the Republican memo specifically and apparently correctly charged that “neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts.” The Democratic memo fails to dispute that charge.
7 – The Democratic rebuttal omitted key details about the FBI’s internal assessments of Steele and his reporting.
The Democratic memo claims that the Obama-era agencies “repeatedly affirmed to the Committee the reliability and credibility of Steele’s reporting, an assessment also reflected in the FBI’s underlying source documents.”
Actually, the House Republican memo documents that a “source validation report conducted by an independent unit within FBI assessed Steele’s reporting as only minimally corroborated.”
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