Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made big news on Nov. 20 when he announced on Fox News in an interview with Sean Hannity that the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz would be releasing his report on Dec. 9 on FBI and Justice Department surveillance of the Trump campaign in 2016 under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), with Horowitz set to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 11.
The Horowitz report should cover how false allegations made by the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department that President Donald Trump and his campaign were Russian agents managed to get approved four times by the nation’s most top secret federal court without the claims ever being verified.
On Sept. 25, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec confirmed the investigation into the counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign, “A Department of Justice team led by U.S. Attorney John Durham is separately exploring the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.”
The worst possible outcome of the FISA abuse scandal would be that no laws were broken, and thus there won’t be any criminal accountability. Because it would mean the law designed to prevent this sort of abuse is toothless.
But laws were broken. And now we know that in October that the investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham has been expanded into a criminal probe and a grand, and now CNN has reported on Nov. 21 that there is at least one criminal referral coming from the Horowitz report: “An FBI official is under criminal investigation after allegedly altering a document related to 2016 surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser, several people briefed on the matter told CNN… The finding is expected to be part of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s review of the FBI’s effort to obtain warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide.”
This is not really a surprise, though.
We already know from the Oct. 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court that the government relied on the DNC and Clinton campaign-funded dossier from Fusion GPS and British spy Christopher Steele in order to spy on the Trump campaign. This gave the Obama administration, the incumbent party, unprecedented access to the Trump campaign and the GOP, the opposition party, in an election year, including access to emails, phone calls, text messages and other documents.
This was the same dossier that FBI Director James Comey had testified in Jan. 2017 as being “salacious and unverified.”
The last renewal, at least as we can see in the FOIA response, came in June 2017, after Special Counsel Robert Mueller had been appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The Steele dossier pinned the alleged Russian intelligence hack of the DNC and John Podesta emails, which were published on Wikileaks, on the Trump campaign. Steele alleged his source had said “there was a well-developed conspiracy of co-operation” between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russia.
Steele elaborated, stating in July 2016, “This was managed on the TRUMP side by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Paul MANAFORT, who was using foreign policy advisor, Carter PAGE, and others as intermediaries. The two sides had a mutual interest in defeating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON, whom President PUTIN apparently both hated and feared… Inter alia, Source E, acknowledged that the Russian regime had been behind the recent leak of embarrassing e-mail messages, emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to the WikiLeaks platform. The reason for using WikiLeaks was ‘plausible deniability’ and the operation had been conducted with the full knowledge and support of TRUMP and senior members of his campaign team.”
But after Special Counsel Robert 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.”
Meaning it was all made up by someone.
Raising the stakes, Congress is presently considering reauthorizing FISA as a part of the omnibus appropriations bill at the end of the year. Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning stated that FISA renewal should be pushed off until March: “A longer time window will also give Congress an opportunity to review the findings of the Justice Department on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuses that occurred in the 2016 elections, when the Trump campaign, the opposition party, was placed under surveillance by the Obama administration in an election year, and give time to put in place real reforms so that political spying never happens again. We have to make sure we get this right, and rushing to reauthorize FISA would be foolish when we’re still waiting on these findings.”
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”.
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.”
So, if Steele’s sources were not senior Russian officials, as he alleged, then who were they? Also, who was the “Russian speaker from a former Soviet republic who had spent time in the West”? The FBI knew who it was. And the reliability of those sources should most certainly be covered by Horowitz.
Were there sources in Ukraine? That’s what U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes thinks. In questioning U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland on Oct. 17, Nunes asked, “Were you aware that the origins of the Steele dossier were from Ukraine, many of the origins in the original Steele dossier were from Ukraine, the politicians within Ukraine?”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff actually interrupted Nunes and would not allow that characterization: “I would posit that this is the ranking member’s view. We cannot accept that as an actual or factual representation.”
Nunes went on to note that “in the Steele dossier itself it does source information from Ukraine.” That included allegations against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and supposed “kickbacks”.
Another question the Horowitz report might cover is whether the Steele Dossier was used in the Jan. 6, 2017 intelligence assessment by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that stated the DNC and John Podesta hacks had been perpetrated by Russia, and the emails put on Wikileaks, in order to help President Trump win the elections.
The intelligence assessment stated, “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump… We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Critically, the version of the assessment that was given to former President Barack Obama and then-President-Elect Trump on Jan. 5, 2017 also reportedly included some of the allegations leveled by former British spy Christopher Steele in his infamous dossier, paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, that Trump was a Russian agent.
A Jan. 20, 2017 email that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice sent to herself on the day Trump was inaugurated about a Jan. 5, 2017 meeting in the Oval Office, detailed the White House’s interaction with that assessment, in which Rice wrote, “On January 5, following a briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election, President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and I were also present.”
According to Rice, former President Barack Obama wanted to make certain that the investigation, which was about to be carried over to the Trump administration, would be done “by the book.” Per Rice’s email to herself, “President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities ‘by the book’. The President stressed that he is not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective. He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book. From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.”
The email continued, “The President asked [then-FBI Director James] Comey to inform him if anything changes in the next few weeks that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team. Comey said he would.”
The email was uncovered from the National Archives by then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and the current Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Feb. 12, 2018, who wrote a letter to Rice.
Note that it was Comey’s job to brief then-President-elect Trump on the assessment, and that it was Comey who lied to President Trump after he was inaugurated repeatedly about the extent of the investigation. Comey assured Trump he wasn’t under investigation, and that was a lie. That’s why Comey was fired.
As for the assessment, the publication of that report was arguably the original sin of the Obama administration, as it set the stage publicly for an investigation of the President of the United States, newly sworn in, on allegations he was really a Manchurian candidate. This put the American people through what would be another two-and-a-half years of a national nightmare that absolutely undermined President Trump’s ability to do his job — and probably future presidents who think they have their own ideas to implement, especially in areas of foreign policy.
Trump, with Flynn as his campaign advisor, ran on the idea of calming tensions between the U.S. and Russia. What the intelligence community did with that assessment, and the Justice Department with its investigations into false charges he and Flynn were Russian agents, was to undermine the pursuit of that policy even though under Article II of the Constitution, the executive power is vested in the President. He sets the foreign policy. Not alphabet soup intel agencies.
What this essentially undermined is the cornerstone of a republican government: the peaceful transfer of power after elections. It was arguably an act of war. How do we put the genie back in the bottle?
Sometimes revolutions are born out of necessity. Rome never had a republic until the first Brutus slayed the last Roman king, and it was the king’s tyrannical rule that gave cause to do so. Afterward, Brutus made the people of Rome swear an oath they would never again suffer a tyrant. More than two millennia later, it was the tyranny of the British Parliament and King George that gave rise to the American Revolution.
Eventually, the weak Articles of Confederation gave rise to the Federal Constitution with the separation of powers, including a strong executive, which was supposed to prevent or at least mitigate this sort of thing from happening, with essentially two or more executive branches seeking primacy. It was a coup.
And now, after this ordeal, the Constitution hangs by a thread. Attorney General William Barr can rescue it, but he must act skillfully and wisely. And quickly. We cannot assume President Trump will be reelected in 2020, meaning the window of opportunity is now to hold those who abused their spying powers accountable. Or else this will happen again.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.