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GOP memo on surveillance ‘abuse’ seeks to discredit the Trump-Russia dossier

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, speaks on Capitol Hill in December.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, speaks on Capitol Hill in December. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A document described by House Republicans as a top-secret memo about surveillance "abuse" contains talking points focused on discrediting Fusion GPS, the firm that hired a British ex-spy to compile intelligence reports about alleged connections between President Trump's associates and the Kremlin, according to people who have read it.

It suggests that the former spy, Christopher Steele, lied to FBI agents who interviewed him during their probe of the 2016 election and that this purported lie was included in a successful application for a federal court order to conduct electronic surveillance on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, said these individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the material's sensitivity.

The document was produced by the House Intelligence Committee's GOP majority, which voted Thursday to make it available to the entire House membership, though not to the public. The panel's Democrats all opposed the move.

In a statement issued Thursday, the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), called the document "profoundly misleading," saying it was "drafted by Republican staff attacking the FBI." He did not discuss the document's contents.

"Rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read, this is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI," Schiff said. "This may help carry White House water, but it is a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals."

Conservative Republicans are increasingly calling for the document's public release after first declaring it should remain classified. Several have taken to social media, conservative television and radio outlets, and even the House floor, to demand the public be able to see what they've read.

"Americans deserve the truth," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the head of the House Freedom Caucus. The hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo trended shortly after Meadows and other House conservatives tweeted it.

According to the website Hamilton 68, which tracks Russian-linked Twitter accounts, #ReleaseTheMemo was the top hashtag being promoted Thursday and Friday by such accounts. And WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group, offered $1 million in bitcoin to anyone who would share the memo, and directed people to a web address. That URL was the most shared among the Russian-linked accounts, according to Hamilton 68.

"Not surprisingly, the GOP campaign to attack the FBI has been joined by the same forces that made common cause during the Trump campaign — WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and a multitude of online Russian bots are now involved in promoting this effort," the intelligence committee's Democratic members said in a statement Friday.

Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), who heads the Intelligence Committee's probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, described the memo as a list of "problems we have discovered with FISA," which is short for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law governing the collection of foreign intelligence on U.S. soil.

A senior committee official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the talking points, which were based on classified material made available to the committee by the FBI and the Justice Department, mischaracterize the work of the intelligence community and law enforcement "in a way that is damaging as well as false."

One of the document's talking points suggests that the government's application for a wiretap order on Page includes a reference to Steele assuring the FBI he did not speak to reporters about the allegations of collusion between Trump associates and Russia — although Steele later acknowledged in a separate lawsuit that he had talked to reporters before the 2016 election, said the individuals familiar with the document.

Current and former law enforcement officials have said the surveillance application relied on far more information than just Steele's research.

Feud over Trump dossier intensifies with release of interview transcript

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Glenn R. Simpson, a Fusion GPS co-founder, said the FBI had other sources offering information about possible Russian interference in the U.S. election who raised concerns similar to Steele's, according to a transcript released this month.

"We all know [the Republicans] are engaged in complete and total warfare against the FBI," said the committee official, who did not discuss the memo's contents. "They're trying to tie all of that to Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele as some unholy seed."

In conservative media, the document has already renewed pundits' calls for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who has taken over the FBI's probe, to shut down his investigation. On Thursday, Sean Hannity opened his Fox News show by declaring the memo's contents would end the probe.

"I have a message tonight for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III: Your witch hunt is now over," Hannity said. "Time to close the doors."

The talking points have nothing to do with Section 702, a controversial surveillance power that Congress just voted to renew, said individuals familiar with the content. But some lawmakers who opposed renewing the program without stronger privacy protections sought to use the document to urge Trump to delay signing the bill into law. "I believe that the information that is contained in the top-secret memo would have been critical to know before the reauthorization," said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.).

On Friday afternoon, Trump rebuked the Section 702 critics, tweeting that he had just signed the renewal. "This is NOT the same FISA law that was so wrongly abused during the election," he said on Twitter , referencing conservatives' claims of surveillance abuse.

The House Intelligence Committee official called such claims "irresponsible — a way of poisoning the well" of Mueller's probe.

David Weigel and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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