A bombshell just dropped on Washington. A newly released memo from Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham reveals that officials within the Obama administration used hearsay from an unreliable source to justify surveilling associates of the Trump campaign.
It’s an enormous story. Or at least, it should be. Unfortunately, it works better as a salacious, and almost unbelievable, plot for a season of House of Cards rather than a digestible news bit for today’s 24-hour news cycle. It’s a twisty fact pattern that isn’t conducive to hot-takes or hashtags. Hillary Clinton’s private server this is not.
But make no mistake: This is huge. It began with the Nunes memo, which revealed that the Obama Justice Department and FBI marketed Clinton campaign-funded innuendo, gathered by a former British spy named Michael Steele, as fact in an attempt to convince the FISA court to allow them to surveil Carter Page. But it stopped short of articulating how much the Obama Administration relied on Steele’s information in pursuing the FISA warrant. In other words, it left open the possibility that the Justice Department and FBI presented more than enough information, separate and apart from the Steele dossier, to support the warrant.
Grassley-Graham memo puts that question to bed. It reads:
“[O]n March 17,2017, the Chairman and Ranking Member were provided copies of the two relevant FISA applications, which requested authority to conduct surveillance of Carter Page. Both relied heavily on Mr. Steele’s dossier claims, and both applications were granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).”
“Indeed, the documents we have reviewed show that the FBI took important investigative steps largely based on Mr. Steele’s information—and relying heavily on his credibility. . . The application appears to contain no additional information corroborating the dossier allegations against Mr. Page, although it does cite to a news article that appears to be sources to Mr. Steele’s dossier as well.”
That’s a damning finding for multiple reasons. First, the FISA application, which should have been based on whether there was probable cause that Carter Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, relied almost completely on the Steele dossier. Second, the only other information cited for the warrant was a news article that was the result of Michael Steele linking his findings to the media, which is stupefyingly circular logic. And third the FBI and DOJ relied “heavily” on Steele’s credibility in justifying their actions.
That last point hammers home just how irregular the Obama Administration’s investigation and the FISA court’s decision making really were.
As former assistant U.S. attorney Andrew McCarthy writes for National Review:
“[I]n applying for a warrant, the government must establish the reliability of the informants who witnessed the alleged facts claimed to support a probably cause finding. Steele was not one of those witnesses. He is not the source of the facts. He is the purveyor of the sources – anonymous Russians, much of whose alleged information is based on hearsay, sometimes multiple steps removed from direct knowledge.”
There were plenty of reasons to distrust Steele. After all, just a month before the Obama Administration filed its FISA application, Stele was quoted as telling a senior Justice Department Official that he was “desperate” not to see Trump win the election. Although the FISA court may have not known of the quote, they should have known that a former foreign intelligence officer, who was now working on behalf of, and being paid by, a private client whose motive was to dig up dirt on Donald Trump.
Should have, except that it was never disclosed in any of the three warrant applications to the FISA court that the client was the Clinton campaign. It was also never disclosed that Steele was essentially fired by the FBI for lying about leaking information to the press, a detail that surely would have impacted his credibility before the court.
And that’s to say nothing of another of the bombshell revelations in the Grassley-Graham memo: That some of the information included in Steele’s dossier didn’t come from Russian sources at all, but instead came from Clinton associates. As it turns out, two Clinton cronies were working on their own anti-Trump dossier, fed it to Steele, who then reported it to the FBI. Again, the FISA court was unaware.
Is this misconduct part of a conspiracy, either by Russia, or by the Clinton campaign, to muddy the political waters and undermine a presidential campaign? Let’s hope not. But it nevertheless should raise questions about whether the FISA court is just a rubber stamp for government surveillance at the expense of American’s civil liberties. Either way, a crucial piece of our democracy is at stake and it’s worth a serious investigation and debate.
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