by Robert Romano
By far the biggest takeaway from the failure of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to establish that there was any coordination or conspiracy with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election by President Donald Trump, his campaign or any American is that we need immediate and swift reform of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court system that was weaponized against a political campaign to investigate a crime that was never committed.
The FISA warrants taken out against the Trump campaign that began in Oct. 2016 relied upon the dossier full of phony allegations by former British spy Christopher Steele that was paid for by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton campaign. It gave the government access to campaign emails, phone calls, text messages and other communications.
This was the same dossier that was briefed to then-President-elect Donald Trump in Jan. 2017 by former FBI Director James Comey, who later told Congress that it was “salacious and unverified” and then was used again when the warrants were renewed.
The dossier alleged that President Trump was a bought and paid for Russian agent, that former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page while on a trip to Moscow where he delivered a commencement address at the New Economic School in July 2016 was involved in a conspiracy with Russia to hack the DNC and put the emails on Wikileaks at the direction of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and that then-Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen had traveled to Prague afterward to meet with Russian agents and mop up the fallout of the supposed operation. Steele said that the hacks had happened with “the full knowledge and support of Trump and senior members of his campaign team.”
In addition, in the Page FISA warrant, but not the Steele dossier, former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos is also named. We now know from the Mueller report that officially the origin of the collusion investigation was into Papadopoulos after he allegedly told Australian diplomat Alexander Downer that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton after he was told by Joseph Mifsud that the Russians had emails from Clinton’s private server.
But after Mueller’s exhaustive investigation and the publication of the Special Counsel’s final report to the Attorney General, the charges could not be proven. Per Mueller, “the Office did not find evidence likely to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Campaign officials such as Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page acted as agents of the Russian government — or at its direction, control or request — during the relevant time period.” As for Cohen, per Mueller, “Cohen had never traveled to Prague…”
To wit, Mueller stated, “the evidence was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.”
Steele had his own doubts, including that the information he gathered might have been Russian disinformation. In court testimony, Steele said “all material contained this risk” of being disinformation. Further, Steele didn’t go to Russia himself, and was said to have relied on a network to relay information, stating that the allegations needed to be “further corroborated and verified.”
Steele said his sources were Russian, but they were not named: Source A was a “former top Russian intelligence officer”; Source B was a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure”; Source C was a “senior Russian financial official”; Source D was a “close associate of Trump” (golden showers source); Source E was an “ethnic Russian close associate” of Trump (golden showers source); Source F was a “female staffer of the hotel”; and source G was a “senior Kremlin official”.
Now, the New York Times’ Scott Shane, Adam Goldman and Matthew Rosenberg reported on April 20 that in Jan. 2017 the FBI interviewed one of the main sources for the dossier and came away with “misgivings about its reliability [that] arose not long after the document became public” in Jan. 2017.
Per the Times report: “By January 2017, F.B.I. agents had tracked down and interviewed one of Mr. Steele’s main sources, a Russian speaker from a former Soviet republic who had spent time in the West, according to a Justice Department document and three people familiar with the events, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. After questioning him about where he’d gotten his information, they suspected he might have added his own interpretations to reports passed on by his sources, one of the people said. For the F.B.I., that made it harder to decide what to trust.”
The FBI appeared to discount the possibility of the dossier being Russian disinformation, per the Times report: “F.B.I. agents considered whether Russia had polluted the stream of intelligence, but did not give it much credence, according to the former official.”
Making matters worse, the FISA court was aware all along that the intelligence was not eye-witness or first-hand information but utilized what amounted to hearsay. The FISA judge who approved the application knew it was second-hand or third-hand information because the Justice Department said so, saying that Steele had “sub-source(s)” indicating that there could have been one or many such go-betweens for the information.
According to the FISA warrant applications by the Justice Department, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch, “Source #1 [Steele] tasked his sub-source(s) to collect the requisite information. After Source #1 received information from the sub-source(s), described herein, Source #1 provided the information to the identified U.S. who had hired Source #1 and to the FBI.”
Also, the FBI may have left out exculpatory information about Page from its application, which would be a violation of Woods procedures by the agency. According to RealClearInvestigations’ Paul Sperry, “The FBI omitted from its application to spy on Carter Page the fact that Russian spies had dismissed the former Trump campaign adviser as unreliable — or as one put it, an ‘idiot’ — and therefore unworthy of recruiting, according to congressional sources who have seen the unredacted document.”
But, wait, it gets better. Per Mueller, the Justice Department was not certain Page was really a Russian agent when it filed the application, it just thought there was a “fair probability” he was. That’s why they needed the surveillance, you see. Just to make sure. According to the Mueller report, “On four occasions, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) issued warrants based on a finding of probable cause to believe that Page was an agent of a foreign power. 50 U.S.C. §§ 1801(b), 1805(a)(2)(A). The FISC’s probable-cause finding was based on a different (and lower) standard than the one governing the Office’s decision whether to bring charges against Page, which is whether admissible evidence would likely be sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Page acted as an agent of the Russian Federation during the period at issue. Cf United States v. Cardoza, 713 F.3d 656, 660 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (explaining that probable cause requires only ‘a fair probability,’ and not ‘certainty, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or proof by a preponderance of the evidence’).”
So, in this case, “fair probability” is Steele being hired by the DNC and Clinton to validate the conspiracy theory that Trump and his campaign were full of Russian agents, citing Russian agents as sources. It could not be fully verified, even by Steele.
And the application was granted. Four times.
It has been suggested, including by Steele himself, that the information he provided could have been Russian disinformation that the FBI then acted on. That is, that Russian President Vladimir Putin simultaneously hacked the DNC and then wanted the FBI to know he did, and he wanted them to think that Trump helped, too, so that they’d go after him and to sow chaos.
If true, that would debunk the “Russia wanted to help Trump” intelligence assessmentof Jan. 2017. Then, Trump would have been the target of the election interference, too, and the FBI and Justice Department were unwitting pawns.
On the other hand, it could have been the Steele report came with a predetermined outcome paid for by the Clinton campaign and DNC, to suit a narrative that Trump was a Russian agent. After being embarrassed, we cannot discount the possibility that those who pulled the Russia collusion hoax may be willing to say anything at this point so the American people don’t figure out this whole thing was a set-up from day one.
It’s like the dog ate my homework.
“Putin made me do it.”
Either way, Attorney General William Barr needs to get to the bottom of it. Were Steele’s sources working for Russia, or towards some other end? This is an area where we really need facts, not speculation.
When the federal government went to the FISA court to spy on a political campaign, in this case the opposition in the 2016 election, the Trump campaign, and American citizens, accusing them of being Russian agents and tearing the entire country in half in the process, it knowingly did so with “salacious and unverified” information from unnamed sub-sources, carried the investigation over into the new administration, had then-FBI Director James Comey lie to the new President about the extent of the investigation and then carried on a nearly two-year special counsel investigation when Trump fired Comey, only to find out it was all a false alarm.
Barr is right, there was spying on the Trump campaign by the Justice Department and intelligence agencies, and it was to investigate a crime, conspiracy with Russia to interfere in the elections, that was never committed. To prevent this from ever happening again, we need a complete review of the FISA court process and real reforms by Congress that guarantee that when an American citizen is put under surveillance, the government can only submit evidence that the judge can verify. How can this be prevented from happening again?
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Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.