As expected, a Republican memo released Friday contends that a warrant to spy on a Trump campaign adviser never should have been issued because the FBI's application for surveillance relied on information in a dossier commissioned by Trump's political opponents.
“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,” the memo says. “This article does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo News.”
The memo's claims about the roles of the dossier, authored by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, and the Yahoo article in obtaining a warrant are difficult to verify because the application is sealed. But The Washington Post reported Monday that “Page had been on the FBI’s radar for years — long before agents were in possession of the dossier. The application cited, among other things, contacts that Page had with a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013, which had surfaced in an earlier case, U.S. officials said. In addition, the application said Page had other contacts with Russian operatives that have not been publicly disclosed, according to the officials who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.”
The memo's assertion that the Yahoo article was key seems dubious, too. The argument is that the FBI used circular logic to make its case for a warrant. According to the memo, the agency presented the dossier as evidence against Page, then presented the Yahoo article as additional evidence — even though the dossier and the article were based on the same source, Steele. The accusation is that the FBI used Steele to corroborate Steele.
In reality, the article made was not “derived” from Steele. Isikoff, citing “multiple sources,” reported that U.S. intelligence officials had briefed senior members of Congress on Page's activities in Russia. Isikoff cited a “congressional source familiar with the briefings” to report that “some of those briefed were 'taken aback' when they learned about Page's contacts in Moscow, viewing them as a possible back channel to the Russians that could undercut U.S. foreign policy.”
Isikoff quoted an unnamed “senior U.S. law enforcement official,” who confirmed that Page's Russian contacts were “on our radar screen” and “being looked at.”
Isikoff also quoted a “U.S. official who served in Russia at the time” when Page, a few years earlier, first attracted attention for being “a brazen apologist for anything Moscow did.”
Steele does not match the descriptions of these sources. He does match the description of a “well-placed Western intelligence source” cited in the last two paragraphs of the article, whose claims about meetings involving Page also appeared in the dossier.
It is wrong to say that this “Western intelligence source,” presumably Steele, formed the foundation of an article in which at least three other sources featured more prominently.
And it is hard to see how the article could have been a big factor in obtaining a warrant because it contained little, if any, information that the FBI did not already possess or which was not in the public domain. Beyond the Page-focused intelligence briefings with members of Congress, Isikoff reported on a follow-up letter that Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate's minority leader at the time, sent to the FBI's then-director, James B. Comey.
That was a good scoop, but the FBI obviously did not need to reference a Yahoo article to inform a FISA court of Comey's participation in briefings or receipt of a letter. The FBI did not need a Yahoo article to inform a FISA court that Page was on the “radar screen” of federal law enforcement. The FBI did not need a Yahoo article to inform a FISA court of Page's publicly known work for Merrill Lynch in Moscow or his publicly known (and previously covered) speech at a Moscow school in July 2016, all of which Isikoff mentioned.
Without seeing the warrant application, it is impossible to know for sure whether the article was “cited extensively,” as the memo claims. But the assertion warrants skepticism, as does the suggestion that the article played a significant role in persuading a FISA court to improperly issue a warrant.