House Republicans may have discovered “the most damning evidence to date of potential abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” according to a recent report from investigative journalist John Solomon.
A long “email chain” including former FBI Director James Comey and “key players” from the Justice Department’s national security division demonstrates that the FBI harbored doubts about the reliability of their main source — Christopher Steele — for seeking a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign before the 2016 election.
Mainstream reporters failed to take notice when, on the day before Thanksgiving, the House Intelligence Committee added the string of emails to a growing list of documents that they would like to see declassified by the White House. Solomon cited sources who told him that the email trove shows that “there were intelligence community concerns about the reliability of the main evidence” used to persuade judges to electronically monitor Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
The “main evidence” the sources referred to is the infamous Steele dossier, which entered the American political lexicon in February, when House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunez (R-CA) drafted a memo which exposed a troubling breakdown in the legal processes designed to protect citizens from government overreach. The Nunez Memo, as it became known, showed that a dossier collected by ex-British spy Christopher Steele and paid for by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee provided the lion’s share of the evidence used to convince the court to approve the warrant.
Republicans further alleged that the FBI and DOJ failed to adequately disclose the Clinton connection to FISA court judges, and argued that Steele himself was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” The Nunez Memo also noted that the FBI eventually “terminated” Steele as a source because he was leaking his unverified research to the press.
Democrats dismissed the House Intelligence Committee’s findings as an attempt to undermine the special counsel investigation against the president. They argued that Comey and company had perfectly legitimate reasons for accepting Steele’s flawed evidence, including that the FBI had worked with him in the past.
Ignoring the warning signs
However, the email chain targeted by House Republicans for declassification may completely dispel this defense. The correspondence occurred in early to mid-October, before the FBI put together their FISA court application, and they show that investigators questioned the veracity of the Steele dossier before presenting its findings to a panel of judges.
Additionally, Comey’s emails show that FBI officials knew that Steele was inappropriately speaking to journalists before the FISA warrant was secured, actions which should have resulted in his immediate termination. This piece of information is particularly troubling, since investigators included a Yahoo News report in their FISA court application to buttress the dossier’s claims, when it was later revealed that Steele leaked the facts presented in the Yahoo News article.
“If the FBI knew Steele had that media contact before it submitted the article, it likely would be guilty of circular intelligence reporting, a forbidden tactic in which two pieces of evidence are portrayed as independent corroboration when, in fact, they originated from the same source,” Solomon explained.
Solomon maintains that the FBI’s actions “constitute a serious breach of FISA regulations and the trust that the FISA court places in the FBI.” He said that “the FBI has an obligation to certify to the court before it approves FISA warrants that its evidence is verified, and to alert the judges to any flaws in its evidence or information that suggest the target might be innocent.”
Apparently, this email trove has been kept hidden from most members of Congress for the past two years. The House Intelligence Committee may receive answers to some of their concerns over the FISA court on Friday, when they question Comey in a closed-door hearing.
Comey, who signed off on the FISA warrants, nonetheless testified before Congress in 2017 and called the Steele dossier “unverified” and “salacious.” The committee may want to ask Comey if his October emails somehow contributed to his poor characterization of the document.
“If these documents are released, the American public will have clear and convincing evidence to see the FISA warrant that escalated the Russia probe just before Election Day was flawed and the judges [were] misled,” a “knowledgeable source” told Solomon.
As Solomon forthrightly observed, “If ever there were grounds to investigate the investigators, these facts provide the justification.”