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House Republicans Release Secret Memo Accusing Russia Investigators of Bias
House Republicans released a politically charged memo on Friday that accused F.B.I. and Justice Department leaders of abusing their surveillance powers to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser suspected of being an agent of Russia.
The memo alarmed national security officials and outraged Democrats, who accused the Republicans of misrepresenting sensitive government information through omissions and inaccuracies. President Trump declassified it over the objections of the F.B.I., which had expressed "grave concerns" over its accuracy in a rare public break from the White House.
The three-and-a-half-page memo, written by Republican congressional aides, criticized information used by law enforcement officials in their application for a warrant to wiretap the former campaign adviser, Carter Page, and named the senior F.B.I. and Justice Department officials who approved the highly classified application.
But it fell well short of making the case promised by some Republicans: that the evidence it contained would cast doubt on the origins of the Russia investigation and possibly undermine the inquiry, which has been taken over by a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. The Page warrant is just one aspect of the broader investigation.
Instead, the document confirmed that contacts between a former Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, and Russian intermediaries were a primary factor in the opening of the investigation in July 2016.
The memo was outlined in news reports in recent days as Republicans pushed for its release. Several details show that it reflects a line of attack circulating for weeks in conservative news media outlets, which have been amplifying a narrative that the Russia investigation is the illegitimate handiwork of a cabal of senior Justice Department and F.B.I. officials who were biased against Mr. Trump and set out to sabotage him.
Representative Devin Nunes of California, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, portrayed the memo as recounting an "alarming series of events" in which intelligence and law enforcement agencies were "exploited to target one group on behalf of another."
One of its chief accusations centers on the inclusion in the warrant application of material from a former British spy, Christopher Steele. Mr. Steele was researching possible connections between Russia's election interference and Trump associates, but the application to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge did not explain that he was partly financed by the Democratic National Committee and lawyers for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, the memo says.
"Neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the D.N.C., Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele's efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior D.O.J. and F.B.I. officials," said the memo, which was written by committee staff members.
But a 10-page Democratic memo written to rebut the Republican document says that the F.B.I. was more forthcoming with the surveillance court than the Republicans say. The F.B.I. told the court that the information it received from Mr. Steele was politically motivated, though the agency did not say it was financed by Democrats, according to two people familiar with the Democratic memo.
Notably, the Republican memo does not assert that Mr. Steele's information was the fountainhead of the broader Russia investigation as many Republicans and conservative media commentators have insinuated.
By a party-line vote, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release their memo this week and rejected Democrats' appeal to make public their own still-classified memo at the same time. Democrats have accused Republicans of suppressing evidence that would correct what they say are mischaracterizations.
Trump on Memo: 'A Lot of People Should Be Ashamed'
President Trump declassified the highly controversial Republican memo on Friday, despite a plea from the F.B.I. not to release it.
"The sole purpose of the Republican document is to circle the wagons around the White House and insulate the president," Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, said on Friday.
The Republican memo does not provide the full scope of evidence the F.B.I. and Justice Department used to obtain the warrant to surveil Mr. Page, and it is not clear to what extent the application hinges on the material provided by Mr. Steele. In December 2017, the Republican memo said, Andrew G. McCabe, then the deputy director of the F.B.I., told the House Intelligence Committee that no surveillance would have been sought without Mr. Steele's information.
But the people familiar with the Democratic memo said that Republicans had distorted what Mr. McCabe told the Intelligence Committee about the importance of the information from Mr. Steele. Mr. McCabe presented the material as part of a constellation of compelling evidence that raised serious suspicions about Mr. Page, the two people said. The evidence included contacts Mr. Page had in 2013 with a Russian intelligence operative.
Mr. Page's contacts with the Russian operative led to an investigation of Mr. Page that year, including a wiretap on him, another person familiar with the matter said.
Mr. McCabe told the committee that the decision to seek a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, was also prompted by Russia's attempts to target Mr. Papadopoulos, by a trip Mr. Page took to Moscow in July 2016 and by the Russian hacking of Democratic emails that appeared to be aimed at harming the Clinton campaign, the two people familiar with the Democratic memo said.
Among the handful of other details in the memo was that the application also cited a September 2016 article published by Yahoo News. It cited unnamed sources saying that government investigators were scrutinizing Mr. Page's links to Russia.
Mr. Steele was later revealed to be a source for the article, and the memo suggests that law enforcement officials' inclusion of it in their warrant application means they were using the same source twice but presenting him as separate sources.
"This article does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo News," the memo said, underlining the assertion.
Mr. Schiff deemed this claim to be one of several serious mischaracterizations, saying the article was not used to corroborate Mr. Steele's material.
It was more likely to have been included "to show that the investigation had become public, and that the target therefore might take steps to destroy evidence or cover his tracks," said David Kris, a FISA expert and former head of the Justice Department's National Security Division in the first term of the Obama administration.
The Republican memo said the initial FISA warrant for surveillance of Mr. Page was approved by James B. Comey, then the F.B.I. director, and Sally Q. Yates, then the deputy attorney general, both of whom Mr. Trump later fired.
The warrant was renewed three times, which was required every 90 days, meaning Mr. Page was under surveillance for about a year. At various points in the renewals, other law enforcement officials who signed off included Dana J. Boente, now the general counsel of the F.B.I.; Mr. McCabe, the former F.B.I. deputy director who resigned under pressure this week; and Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mr. Mueller as special counsel and has been a target of the president's displeasure over the Russia inquiry.
Under Justice Department regulations, Mr. Rosenstein oversees Mr. Mueller and is the only person who can fire him – and only if he finds that the special counsel has committed misconduct. Mr. Rosenstein has repeatedly said he would refuse any order to fire the special counsel without such a finding, and that he has seen no sign of misconduct.
Asked at the White House on Friday whether he would fire Mr. Rosenstein in light of the Republican memo – a move that would enable him to put someone else in charge of Mr. Mueller – Mr. Trump cocked his head suggestively and said, "You figure that one out."
Pressed on whether he had confidence in Mr. Rosenstein, the president would not answer.
The Republican memo also highlights Bruce Ohr, then an associate deputy attorney general, who has been attacked in conservative news media outlets in recent weeks because his wife, Nellie Ohr, worked as a contractor with FusionGPS, the opposition research firm that hired Mr. Steele. Mr. Ohr also met with Mr. Steele himself. The memo says the Ohrs' relationship with them "was inexplicably concealed" from the intelligence court.
The memo does not mention that Mr. Ohr worked on counternarcotics, not counterintelligence. It does not allege that he played any role in the Russia investigation or the wiretap application.
The document also notes that the FISA application mentions Mr. Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with people connected to the Russian government. The memo said there is no evidence that Mr. Papadopoulos conspired with Mr. Page.
But Mr. Schiff said that the Justice Department was instead providing the court "with a comprehensive explanation of Russia's election interference, including evidence that Russian agents courted another Trump campaign finance adviser" as "the context in which to evaluate Russian approaches to Page."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement on Friday that he would evaluate the Republicans' criticism of the Justice Department.
"I am determined that we will fully and fairly ascertain the truth," he said.
In a message to F.B.I. employees on Friday, Christopher A. Wray, the bureau's director, said he stood behind the agency's employees.
"You've been through a lot in the past nine months, and I know it's often been unsettling, to say the least," he said. "And the past few days haven't done much to calm those waters."
[Source: By Nicholas Fandos, Adam Goldman and Charlie Savage, The New York Times, Washington, 02Feb18]
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