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Former FBI director James Comey speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
The House Intelligence Committee memo on abuse of power by the Federal Bureau of Investigation appeared just after 12:00 p.m. Eastern time, and American political life never will be the same. The House Republicans make a persuasive if not prima facie case that senior FBI officials used a fake dossier paid for by the Democrats to get a court order for electronic surveillance of the Trump campaign. If the charge sticks, America will have a real-life instance of the sort of scenario found in pulp thrillers—a rogue intelligence agency operating in the darkness and abusing its power to manipulate elections.
Senior FBI and CIA officials (as well as a number of prominent Democrats) accused Trump of endangering national security by releasing the memo. This recalls the old Soviet-era joke about the Radio Yerevan listener who calls into ask whether it’s a crime to call Brezhnev an idiot. The answer: “Yes, because it’s a state secret.”
This is political plutonium.
Here are the basic facts:
Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the U.S. counterintelligence service cannot surveil American citizens without a court order. The FBI obtained such a warrant in October 2016 to eavesdrop on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.
The evidence that FBI presented to the FISA court came from the now infamous “Steele Dossier,” an amalgam of Russian-supplied rumors collected by a former British intelligence agent that among other things claimed that Trump had engaged in perverse acts with Russian prostitutes.
The Steele dossier was compiled at the behest of the Washington consulting firm Fusion GPS, and paid for by the law firm Perkins Coie on behalf of the Democratic National Committee. In other words, it was a political hit job paid for by Trump’s opponents. The FBI concealed this information when applying for the FISA warrant.
The memo adds, “The Carter Page FISA application also cited extensively a September 23, 2016 Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff, which focuses on page’s July 2016 trip to Moscow. This article does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo News….Steele has admitted in British court filings that he met with Yahoo News—and several other outlets—in September 2016 at the direction of Fusion GPS [the firm paid by the Democrats to get dirt on Trump]. Perkins Coie [hired by the Democratic National Committee] was aware of Steele’s initial media contacts because they hosted at least one meeting in Washington, D.C. in 2016 with Steele and Fusion GPS where this matter was discussed.”
In other words, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign paid for a pile of inflammatory rumors about Trump, which it then sold to the press. The FBI—in full knowledge of this—then took the press reports to a court as “evidence” to obtain permission to surveil the Trump campaign.
Apart from the payment he received for the hit job, Steele told a top Justice Department official in September 2016 that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
Without the Steele dossier, no American court would have allowed the FBI to wiretap a presidential campaign. The memo states, “[then] Deputy Diretor McCabe testified before the [House Intelligence] committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought…without the Steele dossier information.”
There is more in the terse four pages of typescript, but that’s the gist of the matter.
Earlier in the day, President Trump tweeted, “The top leadership and investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigation process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans – something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.”
The United States is spending over $57 billion a year on intelligence. In response to the September 2011 terror attacks and other threats, it has created vast, overlapping and reduplicative bureaucracies that by their nature are remote from central oversight and difficult for the House and Senate intelligence committees to monitor. They have fostered the careers of thousands of senior civil servants whose advancement depends to one extent or another on being on the right side of politics.
Angelo Codevilla, a top staffer at the Senate Intelligence Committee during the Reagan years, observes that the intelligence services have vast powers to cover up their own errors.
No foreign intelligence service could learn anything from the House Republicans’ memo except that the FBI retailed the mercenary inventions of a retired British spook and concealed the provenance of its information. Some may consider it dangerous to expose senior officials of America’s counterintelligence service as political hacks and fools. They needn’t worry. America’s adversaries have been well aware of this for a long time.