Well, this week we got the official word on all of it, via Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Horowitz’s report on the origins of the Russia investigation includes extensive new information about improprieties in Page’s surveillance, while finding the Russia probe as a whole was legitimate and well-founded.
But how much is the Nunes memo itself vindicated? A fair amount, it turns out — at least in Horowitz’s estimation.
Let’s sort through it. For each item, we’ll quote the Nunes memo and the Democratic rebuttal directly, before we detail what Horowitz found.
The accuracy of the Page FISA applications
The main area of disagreement between the dueling memos was about how accurate and complete the four applications to surveil Page were. Those applications were submitted to the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. The Fix added underlining for emphasis.
Nunes memo: “In the case of Carter Page, the government had at least four independent opportunities before the FISC to accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts. However, our findings indicate that, as described below, material and relevant information was omitted.”
Democrats’ rebuttal: “FBI and DOJ officials did not abuse the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process, omit material information, or subvert this vital tool to spy on the Trump campaign. … DOJ met the rigor, transparency, and evidentiary basis needed to meet probable cause requirement.”
Horowitz’s finding: This is probably the worst line of the Democrats’ rebuttal, relative to Horowitz. Horowitz found there were indeed numerous errors and omissions in the FISA applications. “We identified at least 17 significant errors or omissions in the Carter Page FISA applications, and many additional errors in the Woods Procedures,” he wrote. “These errors and omissions resulted from case agents providing wrong or incomplete information to [the Justice Department National Security Division’s Office of Intelligence] and failing to flag important issues for discussion.” Horowitz also found that a now-former FBI lawyer altered a document to make it look like Page wasn’t a source for another government agency, when in fact he was — a fact that could have been exculpatory for Page.
Horowitz said it wasn’t clear the errors and omissions were intentional, but the Nunes memo didn’t specifically charge that (President Trump and others would, however). The Democrats’ rebuttal, on the other hand, suggested there was really nothing amiss here. It may be strictly accurate that Horowitz didn’t find that the FISA errors and omissions meant officials had “abused” the process. And the Democratic rebuttal is careful to cast the accusation as being that the FISA applications were used “to spy on the Trump campaign” — which was an allegation made by Trump. But Horowitz sure doesn’t seem to believe the Justice Department was particularly rigorous or transparent here.
(One final word on this: In his Wednesday testimony, Horowitz wouldn’t say whether the FISA applications should have been approved as they were submitted — only that “I would not have submitted the ones they put in, no doubt about it.”)
The centrality of the Steele dossier
Nunes said former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele’s dossier full of unverified — and occasionally salacious — information about Trump and Russia was “essential” to the applications. Democrats indicated that wasn’t the case.
Nunes memo: “The dossier … formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application. … Furthermore, Deputy Director McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.”
Democrats’ rebuttal: “DOJ cited multiple sources to support the case for surveilling Page but made only narrow use of information from Steele’s sources about Page’s specific activities in 2016, chiefly his suspected July 2016 meetings in Moscow with Russian officials. … DOJ’s applications did not otherwise rely on Steele’s reporting, including any ‘salacious’ allegations about Trump.”
Horowitz’s finding: There is some real nuance here. Here’s what Horowitz said: “We determined that the Crossfire Hurricane team’s receipt of Steele’s election reporting on September 19, 2016 played a central and essential role in the FBI’s and Department’s decision to seek the FISA order,” which had previously been entertained but was ultimately shelved. At another point, Horowitz writes that the fourth element of the initial FISA application — on Page’s alleged coordination with the Russian government related to the 2016 campaign — “relied entirely on” information from the Steele dossier.
The Nunes memo says the Steele dossier was an “essential part of the Carter Page FISA application,” but Horowitz only says it was “central and essential” to the decision to seek the FISA order, which is a notable distinction. The Democrats’ rebuttal, on the other hand, seems to be technically accurate. But you could argue that Page’s alleged work with the Russian government on 2016 election issues was a very significant part of the reason for surveilling him. And Steele’s was the only such information used on that allegation.
Disclosing Democrats’ funding of the dossier
This was another key point of contention: Whether the applications were transparent enough that Steele’s research was funded by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Nunes memo: “Neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts.”
Democrats’ rebuttal: “DOJ in fact informed the Court accurately that Steele was hired by politically-motivated U.S. persons and entities and that his research appeared intended for use ‘to discredit’ Trump’s campaign.”
Horowitz’s finding: Horowitz says a “footnote stated that Steele was hired by an identified U.S. person (Glenn Simpson) to conduct research regarding ‘Candidate # 1’s’ (Donald Trump) ties to Russia and that the FBI ‘speculates’ that this U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit the Trump campaign.” Horowitz further states that “the FBI assumed, but did not know at the time of the first application, that Steele was conducting opposition research.”
In other words, it wasn’t even clear who specifically was funding Steele initially, even as the footnote made pretty clear the FBI believed this was intended to be derogatory information for political purposes. The DNC and the Clinton campaign apparently weren’t named in later applications, though, and Horowitz lists that among the 17 errors and omissions by the FBI. So he seemed to think the applications required more than the Democrats argued.
Steele’s interaction with Yahoo News
The FISA applications didn’t disclose that Steele was a source for a Yahoo News article about Page’s 2016 visit to Russia.
Nunes memo: “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. This article does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo News. The Page FISA application incorrectly assesses that Steele did not directly provide information to Yahoo News.”
Democrats’ rebuttal: “The Majority falsely claims that the FISA materials ‘relied heavily’ on a September 23, 2016 Yahoo! News article by Michael Isikoff … In fact, DOJ referenced lsikoff’s article, alongside another article the Majority fails to mention, not to provide separate corroboration for Steele’s reporting, but instead to inform the Court of Page’s public denial of his suspected meetings in Moscow, which Page also echoed in a September 25, 2016 letter to FBI Director Comey.”
Horowitz’s finding: The failure to disclose Steele’s contact with Yahoo News was also one of the 17 errors and omissions cited by Horowitz. He writes the FBI “failed to correct the assertion in the first FISA application that the FBI did not believe that Steele directly provided information to the reporter who wrote the September 23 Yahoo News article, even though there was no information in the Woods File to support this claim and even after certain Crossfire Hurricane officials learned in 2017, before the third renewal application, of an admission that Steele made in a court filing about his interactions with the news media in the late summer and early fall of 2016.”
As to how significant the Yahoo story was to the FISA applications, Horowitz doesn’t dwell on that. But he does note that Stuart Evans of the Justice Department’s National Security Division told him they “included the reference to the September 23 Yahoo News article in the FISA application solely because it was favorable to Carter Page and not as corroboration for the Steele reporting in the application.” That aligns with what the Democrats’ rebuttal says. Horowitz doesn’t say it in his own words, but he seems to regard it as plausible.