Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Nunes memo is a Trumpist-McCarthyist attack on our intelligence oversight system

The Daily Star published the “Nunes Memo” and provides this analysis in What the GOP memo says (and doesn’t say). If you’ve already read the Star’s report, scroll on down for other analyses of the damage this groundless memo is inflicting on the national trust of the FBI and our intelligence oversight system.

WASHINGTON (AP) — After more than a week of partisan bickering and social media-fueled buildup, the #releasethememo crowd got their wish.

President Donald Trump declassified it. The GOP majority of the House intelligence committee released it. And the public dissection of the four-page, GOP-authored document began.

Here are a few key takeaways:

WHAT’S THE GIST?

The memo makes a series of allegations of misconduct on the part of the FBI and the Justice Department in obtaining a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to monitor former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

Specifically, it takes aim at the FBI’s use of information from a former British spy, Christopher Steele, who compiled a collection of memos containing several allegations of ties between Trump, his associates and Russia.

The memo says the FBI and the Justice Department didn’t tell the FISA court enough about Steele’s role in an opposition research effort. The research was funded by Democrat Hillary Clinton through a Washington law firm.

The document also takes aim at several senior FBI and Justice Department officials. Among them is former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, who it says knew of Steele’s anti-Trump leanings and whose wife worked at the firm behind the opposition research effort.

WHAT’S NEW?

The memo provides the first formal government confirmation of the secret FISA warrant and that Page was the person being monitored.

Information like that is ordinarily considered among the most tightly held national security information, and it almost never gets released to the public.

Though the memo takes issue with the FBI’s methods, it also confirms that the FBI and Justice Department believed there was probable cause that Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power and a judge agreed — four times over.

The memo fills in the timeline of the Russia investigation, showing that Page was under surveillance for months.

According to the memo, the Justice Department and FBI obtained the FISA warrant on Page on Oct. 21, 2016, and then had it reauthorized three additional times.

Given that FISA warrants must be renewed every 90 days, the memo indicates that the government monitored Page’s communications for nearly a year.

IT STARTED WITH PAPADOPOULOS

The whole Russia investigation, that is.

According to the memo, information about former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos “triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016.”

That’s significant because Trump and his allies in the GOP have tried to undermine the Russia investigation by saying it all stems from the Steele dossier.

The memo doesn’t provide further details about the information the FBI received about Papadopoulos. But it appears to confirm in part reporting by The New York Times late last year that FBI concerns about Papadopoulos started the investigation.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI last year. Court papers show he had several contacts with people representing themselves as being tied to the Russian government starting in the spring of 2016.

Court papers show that Papadopoulos learned the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” prior to that information becoming public.

THE FBI DID USE INFORMATION FROM STEELE, THOUGH

The memo says Steele’s collection of reports “formed an essential part” of the FISA application for Page, but it doesn’t specify exactly what information was used or how much.

It also says that the FISA application relied on a September 2016 Yahoo News article, and claims that the information in the article also came from Steele.

The document quotes former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe as telling the House intelligence committee in December that “no surveillance warrant would have been sought” from the FISA court “without the Steele dossier information.”

According to the memo, the application also included “Steele’s past record of credible reporting on other unrelated matters.”

NO UNDERLYING INFORMATION RELEASED

The accuracy of the memo is hard to assess because the majority of the underlying contents are classified or confidential.

The memo cites an initial FISA warrant application — a document which usually has dozens of pages — as well as three additional renewals by the court. None of those documents are public.

The same is true of the transcripts of the committee’s closed-door interviews with McCabe and other senior FBI officials who had contact with Steele.

On Friday, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, took issue with the memo’s characterization of McCabe’s comments, saying the former FBI deputy director was speaking generally about how any FISA application relies on “each and every component” included.

But the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, said late Friday on Fox News the description of McCabe’s comments is “a summation of a long interview and that’s definitely what he said.” He noted that other witnesses have said “similar things.”

‘MINIMALLY CORROBORATED’

It’s been a burning question ever since the dossier was published by Buzzfeed News last year: How much did the FBI corroborate?

According to the memo, not much at the time the FBI obtained the FISA warrant on Page. The memo cites FBI Assistant Director Bill Priestap as saying FBI corroboration of the dossier was in its “infancy” when the court authorized the first FISA warrant.

It also says an “independent unit” in the FBI conducted a “source validation report” on Steele’s reporting and found it “only minimally corroborated.”

But without the underlying documents or transcripts of Priestap’s testimony, it’s hard to judge the accuracy of the memo’s description.

Nunes memo is a McCarthyist attack

The thing is, Nunes, Trump, and the Republican House members are all acting out a McCarthyist attack on our intelligence oversight system, specifically targetting the FBI. By declassifying just Republican talking points, Trump et al. leave the charges against the FBI to stand without any supporting evidence - because the underlying evidence is itself classified.

Zack Beauchamp at vox.com reviews the legal, political, and security matters and concludes that The Nunes memo is a dud. Devin Nunes’s memo allegedly exposing anti-Trump bias at the FBI does nothing of the kind. (h/t AZBlueMeanie) Snippets from the vox.com article follow.

Rep. Devin Nunes’s infamous memo — the document numerous House Republicans claimed would demonstrate fundamental anti-Trump corruption at the FBI — was released early Friday afternoon. The entire thing is three and a half pages and only takes a few minutes to read closely and carefully.

After doing that, there is only one conclusion a fair reader could draw: There is absolutely nothing here.

There is no proof in the memo that the FBI is biased against Trump, no proof of abuse of surveillance powers by the FBI, and no proof that the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia is fundamentally flawed. The memo is a piece of partisan spin, and not a particularly compelling one at that.

Republicans who claimed it was anything else have been egregiously misrepresenting what the memo actually says.

This post at lawfareblog.com, Thoughts on the Nunes Memo: We Need to Talk About Devin, charges those involved with the creation and dissemination of the memo with betraying the intelligence oversight system. (h/t AZBlueMeanie). It concludes:

Ironically, the clearest analytical takeaway from the facts recounted in the memo is that repeated combinations of FBI and Justice Department officials sought and received FISA court approval for surveillance of Carter Page. What this means, we do not purport to know. But it seems most unlikely, in our judgment, to suggest a sustained misleading of the court by the department and the FBI on a matter of high political sensitivity and extreme publicity.

At the end of the day, the most important aspect of the #memo is probably not its contents but the fact that it was written and released at all. Its preparation and public dissemination represent a profound betrayal of the central premise of the intelligence oversight system. That system subjects the intelligence community to detailed congressional oversight, in which the agencies turn over their most sensitive secrets to their overseers in exchange for both a secure environment in which oversight can take place and a promise that overseers will not abuse their access for partisan political purposes. In other words, they receive legitimation when they act in accordance with law and policy. Nunes, the Republican congressional leadership and Trump violated the core of that bargain over the course of the past few weeks. They revealed highly sensitive secrets by way of scoring partisan political points and delegitimizing what appears to have been lawful and appropriate intelligence community activity.

It was a heavy blow to a system that has served this country well for decades, and it is one that will not be forgotten any time soon.

This McCarthyist attack is like most actions of Trump and his minions. Trump is about Trump. Everything he does is in service of his narcissism and this leaves a trail of carnage wreaked on our instutitions and our democracy that will long outlast Trump.

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