Fake Views? Page FISA Warrant Shows We’re Doomed

The news hit Saturday night and by Sunday morning there was enough righteousness to go around, and around again. Both sides in the fierce debate over how the government got a warrant to spy on Carter Page felt vindicated. Yes, both. One set of facts sated divergent opinions — a 400-page all you can eat buffet, with something for everyone, even the picky eaters.

There was Sen. Lindsey Graham on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” calling the warrant application “a bunch of garbage.” Over at “Fox News Sunday,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy said, “We’ll never know whether or not the FBI had enough without the [Steele] dossier, the unvetted, DNC-funded dossier, because they included it and everyone who reads this FISA application sees the amount of reliance they placed on this product funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC.”

Yet Sen. Marco Rubio, on the same day, said on CNN’s “State of The Union”: “I don’t believe that them looking into Carter Page means they were spying on the campaign. I also don’t believe it proves anything about collusion. He was a guy that was on their screen even before the campaign.”

And Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said, “I don’t think I ever expressed that I thought the FISA application came up short,” adding that there were “sound reasons as to why the judges issued the FISA.”

Like Gowdy and Graham, Rubio and Burr, the four judges who ruled on the FISA application are all Republicans. Yet this revelation mattered only to Democrats, and not to Republicans.

The GOP criticism of the FBI’s warrant application all along has centered on these facts: The Steele dossier was not only unverified but amounted to opposition research funded by Democrats and therefore could not legitimately form the basis for a warrant for wiretapping; the funding and origin of the dossier was not explained in the application; and a Yahoo news article was included in the application as a means of corroborating the dossier.

Democrats say: The FBI trusted Steele as a reliable source in the past; that the application doesn’t use names, so it would not mention the Clinton campaign, but that the funder was described as someone “likely looking for information to discredit” Trump, who was referred to throughout as Candidate #1.  They claim the warrant continued to be renewed after each mandatory 90-day submission, which means the surveillance continued to bear fruit and demonstrate probable cause. Finally, they note the Yahoo article appears only to show that Page denied allegations about meetings he had on a July 2016 visit to Moscow. That section is titled: “Page’s Denial of Cooperation with the Russian Government.”

For context, recall that this all took place months after Page (pictured) left the Trump campaign. And it remained a secret that never impacted Trump’s prospects on November 8, 2016. The FBI’s reopening of its Hillary Clinton investigation, just days before the election, did just the opposite.

That said, President Trump can find reason to celebrate any findings, and he immediately declared the disclosures “confirm with little doubt that the Department of ‘Justice’ and FBI misled the courts.” In another tweet he said: “Looking more and more like the Trump Campaign for President was illegally spied upon (surveillance) for the political gain of Crooked Hillary Clinton for the DNC.”

Yet Charlie Savage, national security and legal reporter for the New York Times, wrote that the records and documents that the FBI presented to the court to make a case for surveillance “plainly demonstrated that key elements of Republicans’ claims about the bureau’s actions were misleading or false.” Further, Savage wrote the disclosure “corroborated rebuttals by Democrats on the panel who had seen the top-secret materials and accused Republicans of mischaracterizing them to protect the president.” He also noted that warrant critics like Trump were purposely omitting the findings in the warrant application that Page was “collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government” and was someone the FBI believed to be the “subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.” (Page, who has never been charged with a crime following the government’s surveillance of him these nearly two years, once described himself in writing as “an informal advisor to the Kremlin.”)

In addition, the charge about the origin or funding of the dossier was disputed by David Kris, a FISA expert who worked in both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Writing on the Lawfare Blog, Kris said, “Now we can see the footnote disclosing Steele’s possible bias takes up more than a full page in the applications, so there is literally no way the FISA court could have missed it,” and that “the FBI gave the court enough information to evaluate Steele’s credibility.”

Not so, say Reps. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan of the House Oversight Committee, and Bob Goodlatte of the Judiciary Committee. And Andrew McCarthy of National Review. After 20 years of working with the FBI as a prosecutor, McCarthy insists the bureau failed to verify the dossier’s findings for the court, and with each renewal the court was taking the word of the DOJ and FBI. Though the application appears to vouch for Steele’s reputation, it doesn’t actually confirm — with independent proof — what Steele collected from actual sources. “It is not sufficient to show that the agent who assembles the source information is credible.” McCarthy states the multiple redactions could not corroborate Steele’s findings because “we have been very well informed about what they do not say. They do not verify the allegations in the Steele dossier.” He adds: “if Steele had been corroborated, rest assured that the bureau would not be suffering in silence.”

This goes on and on, among authoritative voices. Point, counterpoint. While it’s fine for us to all rally behind, let’s say, this (real) news from NBC this week — “Parasite in cat poop could be reducing our fear of failure, study finds” — parting ways on the truths of law enforcement, the surveillance of citizens, and national security threats is dangerous.

It may feel good, when everyone can take satisfaction in completely separate interpretations of the facts. But it imperils consensus, and therefore governance, and eventually democracy itself.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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