What the battle of memos on FBI surveillance showed
In the battle of the classified memos in the House Intelligence Committee, both sides have now had their say on whether the FBI and Justice Department acted inappropriately as they began investigating President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
A Democratic memo that was declassified Saturday, with sections blacked out and after weeks of delays, aimed to defend the FBI and Justice Department’s conduct. That was after a declassified Republican memo released Feb. 2 implied that the department had conspired against Trump in the investigation.
Some questions and answers on the dueling memos:
Q. Why did Republicans write their memo? And why did the Democrats feel the need to respond?
A. Republicans say they are alerting the public to abuses they say they’ve uncovered at the Justice Department and FBI. The GOP memo describes the department’s use of information compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele in obtaining a secret warrant to monitor the communications of onetime Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Steele’s anti-Trump research was paid for by Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The warrant was first obtained in 2016 and then renewed three times by a secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Democrats say the unprecedented four-page memo written by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee “cherry picked” information from the classified FISA warrant and other sources to make a political point. Led by California Rep. Adam Schiff, Democrats wrote a 10-page rebuttal memo to add detail and context to what the Republicans had written.
Both classified memos had to be approved by President Donald Trump for release. Trump declassified the GOP memo with no redactions over the objections of the Justice Department, but initially blocked the Democrats’ document and forced them to negotiate with Justice over what should be blacked out. The final Democratic memo has several redactions.
Q. Did the Justice Department and FBI use political opposition research, at least in part, to obtain a surveillance warrant on a former Trump adviser?
A. Yes. It’s clear from both memos that Steele’s material was used as part of the initial FISA application. The application itself remains classified, so the public can’t assess on its own how much it was used. The Republican document says the compilation of memos drafted by Steele, now known as the Trump-Russia “dossier,” made up an “essential part” of the surveillance application. The Democratic memo says the FBI “made only narrow use of Steele’s sources” in the government’s FISA application for Page.
The Democratic memo says the Justice Department provided “additional information from multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting” in the dossier. Most of the details of the corroborated information are blacked out, but they appear to reference Page’s meeting with Russian officials. The Democratic document also asserts that the FBI’s concerns about Page long predate the dossier and that the government’s application to monitor Page’s communications details suspicious activities he undertook during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Q. Did the Justice Department omit important information about the funding of Steele’s research when it obtained the secret surveillance warrant on Page?
A. According to the Democratic memo, the Justice Department disclosed Steele’s political motivations, telling the secret court that Steele was hired to research Russian ties to a candidate and that he was likely hired by someone “looking for information that could be used to discredit” that candidate’s campaign. The GOP memo focuses on the fact the application does not specifically mention Clinton or the Democratic National Committee.
Trump seized on that point in a tweet Saturday evening: “Dem Memo: FBI did not disclose who the clients were – the Clinton Campaign and the DNC. Wow!”
In an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, Schiff said the Republicans’ complaint about the missing identifiers is “ironic” given a separate investigation by Republicans on the panel into whether Obama administration officials inappropriately made requests to “unmask” identities of Trump campaign officials in intelligence reports.
Q. What’s next for the House Intelligence Committee?
A. Democrats say they hope the end of the protracted memo saga will mean more of a focus on the panel’s own investigation into Russian interference. Schiff said in his interview with The AP that there are additional witnesses scheduled.