Four FBI wiretap applications targeting a Trump campaign volunteer were more inaccurate than previously known based on subsequent investigative information, an analysis shows.
The FBI applications to federal judges under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) are a central focus of the Justice Department’s special review of how the Obama administration started its probe into the Donald Trump campaign.
Obtaining four surveillance warrants on Carter Page from October 2016 to September 2017 was one of the FBI’s most aggressive steps to try to prove that Trump associates conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 election. The FBI asserted that Mr. Page was a foreign agent for Russia and helped it interfere in the election.
In the end, special counsel Robert Mueller’s March report said that his 22-month investigation didn’t find any such conspiracy. He essentially cleared Mr. Page.
The FISA warrants first came to public light in July 2018, when the FBI reluctantly declassified 412 pages of four highly redacted applications signed by senior FBI and Justice Department officials.
At the time they were released, Republicans leveled two main complaints: dubious corroboration of allegations against Mr. Page and the FBI’s use of Democratic Party opposition research, known as the dossier, to justify spying on the Trump campaign.
President Trump approved the release based on efforts by Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and then-chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Mr. Nunes’ principal complaint was that agents relied on the 35-page dossier compiled by ex-British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was paid with funds from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party.
What is known more fully today about the FISA applications’ accuracy comes from three main sources: a formal investigation by congressional Republicans into FBI actions, the Mueller report and court filings by Mr. Steele in London. He is being sued by Russians named in his infamous dossier.
Here are six FISA application discrepancies, based on an analysis by The Washington Times. The applications state at the beginning that they are “verified.” The four documents were submitted to a FISA judge under penalty of perjury.
⦁ The FBI told judges the bureau had “closed Mr. Steele out as an active source” after agents discovered he violated its rules and leaked information to a news outlet right before the election.
This is misleading. The Republican investigation showed that the FBI continued to solicit and rely on Mr. Steele via two go-betweens — a special agent and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr — well into 2017.
⦁ Fusion GPS, Mrs. Clinton’s opposition research firm that handled Mr. Steele, never told the British ex-spy the “motivation” behind the investigation into Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia, the FBI told judges.
But Mr. Steele appeared to have a firm understanding that his work was partisan, according to his August 2018 court filing. His research was to help Mrs. Clinton file a legal challenge if she lost the Nov. 8 election. The challenge would be based on Russia helping Mr. Trump.
Mr. Steele was paid by the law firm Perkins Coie, which represented the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party.
Mr. Steele declared in court: “Fusion’s immediate client was law firm Perkins Coie. It engaged Fusion to obtain information necessary for Perkins Coie LLP to provide legal advice on the potential impact of Russian involvement on the legal validity of the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. Based on that advice, parties such as the Democratic National Committee and HFACC Inc. (also known as Hillary for America) could consider steps they would be legally entitled to take to challenge the validity of the outcome of that election.”
In addition, Mr. Steele took his dossier material in October 2016 to a senior State Department official. According to a State Department memo, he said his research was “at the behest of an institution he declined to identify that had been hacked.”
This would suggest Mr. Steele knew he was working for Democrats whose computers were hacked by Russians.
⦁ As corroboration of Mr. Steele’s allegations, the FBI cited a Sept. 23, 2016 Yahoo News story that essentially said the same thing — that Mr. Page had met with two high-level associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss removing U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russian oligarchs and businesses. Mr. Steele said Mr. Page agreed in exchange for a brokerage fee — in other words, a bribe.
The FBI told the judges that Mr. Steele wasn’t a source for the story because Mr. Steele said he only provided his information to Fusion.
“The FBI does not believe that [Steele] directly provided this information to the identified news organization that published the September 23rd news article,” the FBI told the judge.
The FBI was wrong. Mr. Steele was the exclusive Yahoo source, so there was no corroboration.
By the time the FBI filed its fourth wiretap request in June 2017, it had ample opportunity to find out that Mr. Steele had in fact contacted the press in Washington.
He filed a declaration in a London court in April that read: “Save that it is admitted that the Second Defendant [Mr. Steele] gave off the record briefings to a small number of journalists about the pre-election memoranda in late summer/autumn 2016.”
One of the reporters he briefed, Michael Isikoff, wrote the Yahoo story.
That declaration became public in an April 25 story in The Washington Times, headlined “Christopher Steele admits dossier charge unverified.”
The story was widely circulated. The Times published the Steele document. The FBI had weeks to review the Steele case in London and amend its June application to reflect that Mr. Steele had spoken to reporters before the Yahoo story ran.
⦁ The FBI never told judges that Democrats funded Mr. Steele.
Instead, the FBI wrote in all four applications, including the June 2017 one: “The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person [Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS] was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #l’s campaign.”
Former FBI Director James B. Comey testified to Congress in December 2018 that he knew Democrats funded the dossier before the first FISA application was submitted in October 2016.
⦁ The FBI told judges that Mr. Page coordinated with Russia to influence the election.
“The FBI believes that Page has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government,” the FBI said in the FISA application.
“The FBI believes that the Russian Government’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election were being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with Candidate,” the FBI told judges.
These may be a reference to Mr. Steele’s allegation that former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Mr. Page worked together with the Kremlin.
In fact, no evidence ever surfaced that the two men knew each other, much less worked tougher.
Months later, the Mueller report found no such conspiracy.
“The investigation did not establish that Page coordinated with the Russian government in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election,” Mr. Mueller said.
⦁ The FBI told FISA judges that Mr. Steele was “credible” based on previous research as a paid human source.
The applications’ uncensored sections don’t disclose that the FBI did a report card on Mr. Steele. It said it had only “minimally corroborated” the dossier and had only “medium confidence” in his work.
The grade was contained in a “Human Source Validation Report,” a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times under an open-records request.
The assessment was written after the FBI fired Mr. Steele in November 2016.
In closing his case, Mr. Mueller came to this conclusion regarding Mr. Steele’s dozen or so felony accusations against Mr. Trump and associates that had circulated in the Obama administration: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Today, the dossier and Mr. Steele have gone from FBI source to an investigative focus.
Attorney General William Barr, alarmed that the Obama administration put the Trump campaign under investigation, has tapped John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, to review how the FBI conducted the probe.
“These counterintelligence activities that were directed at the Trump campaign were not done in the normal course and not through the normal procedures, as far as I can tell,” Mr. Barr told CBS News on Friday.
There are conflicting media reports that Mr. Steele has agreed or refused to meet with Mr. Durham in London.
The first dossier verdict will likely come from Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general. He has been investigating what Republicans call “FISA abuse” since last year.
At one time, Mr. Trump was set to declassified larger FISA application portions. But he backed off in September 2018 partly because allies objected.
That would indicate that the FBI tapped Western intelligence sources to fill out the wiretap applications.
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