The Washington Post used anonymous sources to report last week that the FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to spy on U.S. citizen Carter Page, an unpaid and informal adviser to the Donald Trump campaign, as part of an investigation into links between Russia and the Trump campaign. CNN used anonymous sources to report this week that the infamous “golden showers” dossier was used as part of the justification to win approval to monitor the Trump associate.
These latest leaks of classified information appear to be in response to Sen. Charles Grassley’s inquiry to FBI Director James Comey on behalf of the Senate Judiciary Committee he chairs. Grassley noted a February 28 Washington Post report, which used anonymous sources to report the FBI had made plans to pay dossier author Christopher Steele to continue investigating Trump before the election.
Paying an opposition researcher to investigate the Republican nominee for president in the run-up to the election “raises further questions about the FBI’s independence from politics, as well as the Obama administration’s use of law enforcement and intelligence agencies for political ends,” Grassley wrote.
Grassley demanded that the FBI turn over all records relating to the agreement, interviews of Steele, information on any government officials outside the FBI discussing the agreement with Steele, information on how the FBI obtained the dossier, any official reports that used Steele-collected information, any indication the FBI used the information before verifying it, and various other information, including:
9. Has the FBI relied on or otherwise referenced the memos or any information in the memos in seeking a FISA warrant, other search warrant, or any other judicial process? Did the FBI rely on or otherwise reference the memos in relation to any National Security Letters? If so, please include copies of all relevant applications and other documents.
These latest leaks answer that question. And the leaks about what intelligence agencies were doing during the presidential campaign begin to answer questions about whether the U.S. government has hard evidence that the Trump campaign had foreknowledge of Russian meddling and coordinated with Russians about that meddling, or whether there was rampant abuse of power in stripping an innocent U.S. citizen of his right not to be surveilled by his own government.
Much of the media response has remained incurious about the latter question and inclined toward the former claim. “We just got a huge sign that the US intelligence community believes the Trump dossier is legitimate,” wrote one reporter in response to the latest leaks, citing a former CIA general counsel as saying unconfirmed information about a potential target would not be included in the application for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) surveillance.
Leaks Contradict Recent Intelligence Agency Claims
But if information about Page from the dossier was confirmed by the FBI before seeking the surveillance, it contradicts what former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said publicly and on the record when its existence came to light in January: “The [Intelligence Community] has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions.”
Confirmation of the dossier’s allegations against Page would also contradict Clapper’s repeated claims that “we had no evidence of such collusion” between Trump and Russia. In an interview on “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd asked him if the intelligence agencies’ report on Russia had gotten “to the bottom of this,” and Clapper responded, “It did — well, it got to the bottom of the evidence to the extent of the evidence we had at the time,” Clapper said. While Clapper has a history of not telling the truth, even under oath, he’d have little incentive to downplay evidence of Russia colluding with the Trump campaign.
Former acting CIA director and Hillary Clinton campaign surrogate Michael Morrell said, “On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all. … There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.” He went on to note that Steele used intermediaries to gather information from Russian sources, and that he paid people for information.
“Then I asked myself, why did these guys provide this information, what was their motivation? And I subsequently learned that he paid them. That the intermediaries paid the sources and the intermediaries got the money from Chris. And that kind of worries me a little bit because if you’re paying somebody, particularly former [Russian Federal Security Service] officers, they are going to tell you truth and innuendo and rumor, and they’re going to call you up and say, ‘Hey, let’s have another meeting, I have more information for you,’ because they want to get paid some more,” Morrell said.
The Dossier’s Many Problems
Was the dossier used to secure a warrant against an American citizen in an opposing party’s campaign for president? Here are just a few problems with the dossier’s veracity and reliability.
- Basic facts are in error.
As Owen Matthews wrote in January, “[T]here are several places where the author seems weirdly ignorant of basic facts about Russia. He or she refers to Alpha Bank rather than Alfa, and seems to be under the impression that the suburb of Barvikha on the tony Rublevskoe highway is a closed government compound, instead of just an expensive vacation home area favored by the new rich. The author also misspells the name of Trump associate and Azeri real estate mogul Aras Agalarov, and reports his association with Trump as news in August 2016—when Agalarov publicly organized Trump’s visit to the Miss Universe pageant in 2013 and arranged a meeting with top Russian businessmen for Trump afterward, both of which were widely reported at the time.”
- Claims that are verifiably wrong.
Much of the report was vague or unverifiable. One of the few claims that could be easily checked turned out to be extremely wrong. Steele claimed that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had met with Duma foreign affairs head Konstantin Kosachev in Prague “to clean up the mess left behind by western media revelations of…[former Trump campaign manager Paul] Manafort’s corrupt relationship with the former pro-Russian Yanukovych regime in Ukraine and Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page’s secret meetings in Moscow with senior regime figures in July 2016.” The only problem was that Cohen had never been to Prague and Kosachev said he hadn’t been there in five years.
- Financially outlandish claims.
The dossier claimed Igor Sechen, who runs the Russian oil giant Rosneft and is a friend of Vladimir Putin, had a secret meeting with Page in which he offered Page a 19 percent stake in Rosneft in return for Trump lifting sanctions. That works out to $11 billion or so. The idea that Sechen would make this opening bid to an unpaid, informal advisor to a candidate observers thought was going to lose bigly, is ludicrous. For what it’s worth, Page has denied ever meeting Sechen, last year or any previous year. Page is the founder and managing partner of an investment fund and consulting firm specializing in the Russian and Central Asian oil and gas business.
- Sexually outlandish claims.
The most exciting claim in the dossier was that Trump had paid prostitutes to urinate on a bed used by President and Mrs. Obama in a Moscow hotel. The dossier alleged various other perversions that had been explicitly enabled by Russian officials, adding that a former top-level Russian intelligence officer “asserted that Trump’s unorthodox behavior in Russia over the years had provided the authorities there with enough embarrassing material on the now Republican presidential candidate to be able to blackmail him if they so wished.”
It’s not even that these reports were unverifiable, it’s that they show no understanding of Trump’s public image as a sexual pervert. In what way would learning about his infidelities or indiscretions be a blackmailing situation? Particularly since the coordination with Russian officials would mean Trump was aware of the supposedly compromising information.
- Claiming Russians had been cultivating, supporting, and assisting Trump for more than five years.
At the time the dossier claims Russians began cultivating him, Trump was a reality TV star who was just coming out of bankruptcy. Another part of the report claimed that the Kremlin had been feeding Trump information on Clinton and other opponents for “several years,” a bizarre thing for the Kremlin to do with someone who only announced his candidacy in June 2015.
- Contradictory information on business deals.
The dossier claimed Trump was working hard to meet with Russian business leaders but that “so far Trump has declined serious sweetheart real estate business deals offered him in Russia.”
- Questionable claims of collusion.
The report claimed that Trump and his team accepted a regular flow of intelligence on Democratic and other political rivals. Sure, but then why did they never use any of it?
- Claiming a communications official controlled a dossier of compromising information on Clinton
As Matthews notes, “Why would such a dossier be controlled by [Dmitry] Peskov, whose job is to talk to the press, when it must have originated with the FSB and/or FAPSI, the federal electronic surveillance service? Peskov is a Kremlin courtier, the charming public face of the regime, not a spy.”
- Claiming Manafort and Page’s views were bought.
The dossier claimed that Page and Manafort agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine and raise NATO defense commitments in exchange for the WikiLeaks operation. But Page and Manafort have publicly expressed these foreign policy views going back years. Page lived and worked in Russia for years, and is a vocal critic of anti-Russian foreign policy. Manafort worked in the Ukraine for Russian-allied political groups.
Using a document riddled with so many errors and logical flaws to justify state surveillance on a U.S. citizen is not a great look for intelligence agencies. To be sure, opposition research is always like this. Any political journalist can tell you stories about outlandish claims that they are pitched, only to find out the claims are made up in whole or part. But the idea that intelligence agencies were using such opposition research, paid for by opponents of Trump’s campaign, and considering paying the person who claimed to collect it, is something that should at least set off journalistic alarms about political use of intelligence agencies.
Media Must Ask What Justified the Warrant
The New York Times also used anonymous sources to report on the U.S. government’s surveillance of Page. The article claims “when [Page] became a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign last year and gave a Russia-friendly speech at a prestigious Moscow institute, it soon caught the bureau’s attention. That trip last July was a catalyst for the F.B.I. investigation into connections between Russia and President Trump’s campaign, according to current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials.”
If this is true that this was the catalyst, it is concerning. The Times article explains at great length how little a role Page had in the campaign and how far from central he was, to put it mildly. It notes that he worked in Russia and was critical of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia. At no point is anything illegal alleged. To be clear, since many in the media are not clear on this point, it is still legal in this country to be critical of U.S. foreign policy toward another country.
According to The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, federal agents need to demonstrate probable cause to believe that the “target of the surveillance is a foreign power or agent of a foreign power.” Carter Page is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, businessman, and academic who will tell anyone who will listen his views that NATO enlargement was a mistaken foreign policy, and that hostility to Russia is a bad strategy for the United States.
These things are not illegal or evidence of being an agent of the Russians. In fact, going to Moscow after being named in major media as a foreign policy advisor to the president to loudly proclaim a pro-Russian line critical of existing policy at a prominent university is not exactly top spycraft. Yes, it could be double-super-secret-spycraft, and perhaps the U.S. government, which has now been revealed to have spied on a U.S. citizen, has evidence to support such surveillance. Did the FBI go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) after corroborating the claims of the dossier? Or did the agency go to the court and characterize the information as credible based on the fact its paid opposition researcher had been an MI6 spy?
Defenders of the FBI say that the FISC judge wouldn’t have issued warrant without strong corroborating evidence and that the courts reviewing applications are very strict. However, securing warrants from a judge does not appear to be as difficult as some claim. Some 38,365 applications for FISA surveillance were made through 2015. Courts denied only 12 requests since 1979. That’s a rejection rate of .03 percent.
Until evidence is provided, journalists who care about privacy and abuse of power should be asking tough questions of everyone involved. Despite a nearly year-long campaign of leaks and innuendo to tie Trump to Russia, nothing has been provided to support the claim of collusion. Until and unless any of the people making such claims produce actual evidence of Trump associates having knowledge of Russian actions beforehand, and coordinating the placement and timing of leaks for political effect, the proper focus of journalists should be on the rampant abuse of power in a political opponent being surveilled by his own government.
Reporters like to present themselves as advocates of civil liberties. Journalism awards were thrown around for work done exposing government surveillance of U.S. citizens leading up to the Church Committee report. Democracy dies in darkness, we’re told, but who is championing the right of individuals against the overweening central power of the surveillance state?
Again, maybe the U.S. government has every reason to be spying on Carter Page. But if he was spied on for having political views or associates at odds with the Obama administration, that’s a problem. Like-minded people favoring a change in U.S. foreign policy should not be illegal. That’s politics, and precisely why elections are held in a free country. Government resources, law enforcement, and surveillance powers simply shouldn’t be put to partisan use. If nothing comes of this nearly year-long investigation into a political campaign, accountability must be demanded.