The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With the release of new documents, Devin Nunes’s memo on Carter Page has gotten even less credible

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill on Oct. 24. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Earlier this year, the political world was gripped by a stunning accusation from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that the government’s application for a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was born of bias and almost entirely reliant on a dossier of information compiled on the dime of Democratic operatives. He had a memo that made that argument; eventually, and probably without much goading, President Trump was persuaded to release it publicly.

Even based on what was known then, the hype surrounding Nunes’s memo seemed to oversell the point. In short order, other revelations about the warrant application made it clear that the contents of the memo were iffy. It was the second time in two years that Nunes had gone to bat in defense of one of Trump’s pet theories, and neither time worked out that well.

As it turns out though, Nunes’s efforts to raise questions about the surveillance warrant, granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, were even less robust than they seemed at the time. With the release Friday of a redacted copy of both the initial warrant application targeting Page in October 2016 and the three 90-day extensions of the warrant, we can get a better sense of just how far from the mark the Nunes memo actually was.

President Trump approved the release of a controversial and classified congressional memo on Feb. 2. Here are some of its main claims. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Nunes memo made a number of interpretive claims — assessments of the importance of aspects of the warrant — as well as a number of factual claims. Among the latter were:

  1. That the dossier of reports from former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on behalf of the firm Fusion GPS were an “essential” part of the application.
  2. That the fact that Fusion GPS was being paid by a law firm working for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee was never explicitly stated.
  3. That neither Steele nor Fusion GPS are identified by name.
  4. That the application cites a Yahoo News article from September 2016 that “does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo News.” The application also incorrectly asserts that Steele wasn’t directly Yahoo’s source for the story.
  5. That the application mentions another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos but that there is no evidence of cooperation between him and Page.

The memo made a number of other claims focusing on information related to the launch of the investigation into Page that aren’t illuminated any further by the released document.

We can begin with the first point above, that the Steele dossier’s information was “essential” to the warrant.

At the outset, Page is described in the warrant application as “an agent of a foreign power,” specifically Russia. The third section of the application details the evidence linking Page to Russia, beginning with Page having lived in the country for several years and being mentioned as a possible target for recruitment by Russian intelligence officers about five years ago, at which point he was interviewed by the FBI. The first four pages of this section, excluding footnotes, are either redacted or deal with that prior interaction with federal authorities.

The information from the Steele dossier comprises the next 4½ pages, excluding footnotes. It is followed by Page’s public response to reports that he was under investigation, a response triggered by the Yahoo article. That response runs for about 3½ pages and makes up the fourth section of the report.

Five fully redacted pages, making up the fifth and sixth sections of the document, follow, leading into the document’s conclusion.

It’s clear that the information uncovered by Steele does play a prominent role. It’s impossible to say how critical it was to the warrant, though, because so much of the document is redacted.

What isn’t redacted, though, makes a few things clear. First, that the Yahoo article is introduced not as a corroborating story but as the first part of the section titled “Page’s Denial of Cooperation with the Russian Government.” As noted above, that article spurred Page’s response, which is included. There’s no suggestion from the unredacted document that it was included to serve as a second source for the story.

While the warrant application does state that the FBI “does not believe that Source #1 [Steele] directly provided this information to the press” — which was incorrect — that same footnote (No. 18) clearly implies that Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS might have been Yahoo’s source, undercutting the idea the FBI was trying to use Yahoo to bolster the significance of Steele’s findings.

(Steele’s findings, by the way, include allegations that Page met with key Russian figures during a trip to Moscow in July 2016. Page later admitted to the House Intelligence Committee that, despite past denials, he had encountered senior Russian officials on that trip, albeit not the ones Steele identified.)

Each of the three renewals of the warrant to surveil Page was granted after the FBI argued that it needed to keep collecting data on Page. The length of the renewals relative to the original application suggests the government kept adding new information to its requests as the surveillance was ongoing.

Consider three sections that appear in each document: The third section (including the Steele information), the fourth through sixth sections (including Page’s denial and more redacted information) and the conclusion. Here’s the page number where each of those appears in each document.

As time passes, more information is added to the warrant applications. The middle section — whatever it contained — kept getting larger, meaning that the section dealing with Steele’s report made up less of the overall application.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that after Steele leaked the existence of his dossier to Mother Jones in late October, the FBI cut off its relationship with him. That’s indicated in a bold-type footnote in the renewal applications.

“[I]n or about October 2016, the FBI suspended its relationship with Source #1 [Steele] due to Source #1’s unauthorized disclosure of information to the press,” it reads. However: “Notwithstanding the suspension of its relationship with Source #1, the FBI assesses Source #1 to be reliable as previous reporting from Source #1 has been corroborated and used in criminal proceedings.”

In the initial application, a footnote — which appears on the page in type the same size as the rest of the warrant — indicates Steele had been a corroborated FBI source in the past about whom the FBI was unaware of any “derogatory information.”

There is a full page of footnotes that includes an exploration of the motivations behind Steele’s research, specifically noting why Steele’s “reason for conducting the research” doesn’t disqualify its validity.

You’ve noticed that Steele isn’t mentioned by name in the application and is referred to as Source #1. The critique that Steele and Fusion GPS aren’t identified by name is especially hollow because none of the key actors are. Trump is “Candidate #1.” Clinton, “Candidate #2.” The Republican Party is “Political Party #1.” Clinton, Fusion GPS, Steele and the DNC aren’t identified by name because no one is, save Page, some Russians and Papadopoulos.

The context for naming Papadopoulos isn’t clear; the document is largely redacted in the section where he’s mentioned. But that section does include two important unredacted lines: “the FBI believe that the Russian Government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with Candidate #1’s campaign,” and “Page has established relationships with Russian Government officials, including Russian intelligence officers.”

For all that we learned in the release of the memo, there’s still an enormous amount of redacted information that prevents us from getting anywhere close to a full picture of what happened. From the evidence at hand though, it’s certainly fair to assume that it’s Nunes’s memo, not the warrant application, that suffered from a stronger political bias in its creation.

We can’t entirely blame Nunes, though. In an interview with Fox News in February, he admitted that he himself hadn’t read the warrant application.