What we know about the Nunes FBI memo, its background and implications

The feud between President Donald J. Trump and the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been well-documented on Twitter.

In January, Trump referred to the FBI’s Russia probe as a “witch hunt.” He again tweeted his mistrust of the nation’s leading law enforcement agency and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into his presidential campaign. 

This time his skepticism is reflected in the now infamous memo that articulates the concerns of Rep. Devin Nunes, Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).

Donald J. Trump on Twitter

The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans – something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people!

The declassified memo states its purpose is to provide an update on significant facts relating to the HSPCIs ongoing investigation into the Department of Justice and FBI and their use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during the 2016 presidential election cycle.  The memo reflects a message that Trump has long tweeted: that the FBI is biased against his presidency. The result has been a partisan divide, with Democrats defending the FBI, and several leading Republicans openly questioning the highest levels of law enforcement.

The main allegation of the Nunes memo echoes sentiments tweeted by Trump in March 2017, that the Obama administration “wiretapped” his campaign. The memo specifically claims that the FBI unethically obtained a surveillance order to spy on Trump campaign official Carter Page. 

Donald J. Trump on Twitter

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

The memo indicates the HPSCI majority members’ findings and concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain DOJ and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intellegence Surveillance Court (FISC).  It focuses on the authorization and use of a FISA warrant to perform electronic surveillance on Page, who is a U.S. citizen. Submissions to the FISC were primarily based on the “Steele dossier,” compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.

The financing for Steele’s investigation was partially met by the political opposition research firm Fusion GPS. Fusion GPS had been engaged to perform this work by Perkins Coie, an international law firm acting on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary for America campaign. The work included research on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Republicans have said that this relationship with Democratic Party-linked groups makes the Steele dossier unreliable.

The memo alleges that when the FBI requested a spy warrant on Page, it failed to disclose to the court that the impetus for their suspicion was the “bias” information articulated in the dossier. Read WikiTribune’s piece about the memo and the Steele dossier that it is based on.

Just allegations so far

The Nunes memo contains no empirical evidence, or quotes from official sources that support the idea that the FBI abused its power.  As this story unfolds, however, more background information is being released into the public domain.

A second memo that is being reffered to in DC as the Grassley memo was released on Tuesday.  The Grassley memo was originally attached to a letter sent in January to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstien and FBI Director Christopher Wray, reffering Steele for investigation of potential violations of the law.  It raises questions regarding the veracity of the Steele dossier and charges that the FBI took important investigative steps largely based on Steele’s information.  It goes on to state that in its initial application to the FISC, the FBI noted to a vaguely limited extent the political origins of the dossier and failed to disclose that the identities of Simpson’s ultimate clients were the Clinton campaign and the DNC.

The Nunes memo does underline that the FISA warrant for electronic surveillance of Page was not obtained under Title VII, which contains the controversial Section 702. This provision was used by the National Security Agency, as exposed by Edward Snowden, to collect information on U.S. citizens as well as foreign actors.

If the surveillance order did not use Title VII, then it would have likely demanded a higher-level of proof than the sweeping efforts of the NSA. 

The memo states that the FBI presented the FISA court with information that came from the oppositional research of Steele, who was eventually terminated as an FBI source for violating media disclosure protocols (Fox News).  Nunes admitted to Fox News (The Hill) that he did not personally review the underlying intelligence the FISA warrants were based on and that he relied on the review of committee member Rep. Trey Gowdy.

The HPSCI investigation continues. Gowdy who interviewed Steele’s employer Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, recently resigned from the House Ethics Committee citing his challenging workload.

Other reports say the FBI had sources of information regarding Russian meddling in addition to the dossier. These include a Washington Post article that says the CIA was aware of Russian attempts to help the Trump campaign in August 2016. 

The idea that Mueller’s probe was completely informed by the dossier has been disputed by the FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, who criticized plans to release the memo, saying it was actively misleading. Wray said in a statement that it contained “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

Partisan divide

Despite the FBI’s “grave concerns,” Republican congressional leaders have largely supported releasing the memo. Some have even repeated the president’s belief that the bureau is compromised.

House majority leader Kevin McCarthy said that the memo proved the FBI’s investigation was politicized (The Hill). Rep. Steve King tweeted that the memo exposes behavior that is “worse than Watergate,” a reference to the incident that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Steve King on Twitter

I have read the memo. The sickening reality has set in. I no longer hold out hope there is an innocent explanation for the information the public has seen. I have long said it is worse than Watergate. It was #neverTrump & #alwaysHillary. #releasethememo

Unlike the Republican leadership in 1974, today’s GOP isn’t siding with the opposition against its own party leader.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate leader Mitch McConnell have taken a hands-off approach to the Nunes memo. Ryan said that declassifying the allegations was a valid use of oversight over law enforcement, while simultaneously backing the release of the Democrats’ own counter memo, an action that the HPSCI has so far blocked (The Hill). McConnell said he fully supports Ryan’s approach to the Nunes memo (Politico).

Not every Republican politician has signed off on the idea that FBI leadership is biased against the president. Senator John McCain is the most vocal Republican opponent, saying in a statement that, “The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests – no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s.”

HPSCI minority leader Democrat Adam Schiff, the most consistent voice supporting the Mueller investigation, referred to the memo as a “transparent attempt to discredit” the FBI and Department of Justice. 

Adam Schiff on Twitter

The President’s decision to publicly release a misleading memo attacking DOJ & FBI is a transparent attempt to discredit these institutions and undermine Mueller’s probe. We’ll fight to release our classified response. Until then here’s a glimpse at what’s wrong with their memo:

Spying reform unlikely

The Nunes memo is largely an indictment of FISA, the legal authority that the FBI used to obtain permission to spy on Carter Page. Section 702 of FISA gives federal agencies a high-level of discretion in surveilling American citizens. The memo says the FBI abused this power.

In January, a bipartisan coalition in Congress proposed an amendment that would limit the FISA courts’ power in issuing surveillance warrants for domestic suspects. Trump initially appeared to support the measure. In a tweet, he insinuated that FISA allowed the FBI to exploit the findings of the “phony dossier” in order to “surveil and abuse the Trump campaign.”

Donald J. Trump on Twitter

House votes on controversial FISA ACT today.” This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?

Trump later clarified his tweet, saying that he was in full support of the Pentagon and his own White House, which argue that broad discretion over surveillance is necessary for national security.

The FISA reforms failed to be included when the program was up for renewal in January. The House voted 256-164 to keep FISA as is. Rep. Devin Nunes supported passing the surveillance law without more protections for citizens (Roll Call).

However, Trump said on Saturday the memo vindicated him in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “This is an American disgrace,” Trump tweeted.

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