ASPEN, Colo. — The Justice Department on Saturday released a previously classified application to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, who was under suspicion by the FBI of being a Russian agent.
The release of the application, along with three subsequent applications to renew the surveillance, was extraordinary and historic. In the four decades that FISA has been in effect, it’s not clear that any application for surveillance has ever been released. Materials related to FISA operations and legal processes are among the most highly classified and closely guarded in the government. The New York Times, USA Today and the James Madison Project all sued for release of the materials.
The publication is also sure to fuel the political fight between Republicans and Democrats over the propriety of the surveillance and how it was legally justified.
In early-morning tweets Sunday from his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., President Trump sought to cast the documents as vindicating his campaign.
He congratulated the president of Judicial Watch — a conservative watchdog group that was among those that filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to obtain the records — before going on to mock his own Justice Department.
“As usual they are ridiculously heavily redacted but confirm with little doubt that the Department of ‘Justice’ and FBI misled the courts. Witch Hunt Rigged, a Scam!” Trump said.
In a follow-up tweet, he added: “Looking more & more like the Trump Campaign for President was illegally being spied upon (surveillance) for the political gain of Crooked Hillary Clinton and the DNC. Ask her how that worked out - she did better with Crazy Bernie. Republicans must get tough now. An illegal Scam!”
Republican lawmakers have accused the Obama administration, which sought the surveillance order in October 2016, of relying on a controversial dossier of then-candidate Trump’s alleged connections to Russia to support the surveillance order. The document, compiled by a former British intelligence officer, was used as political opposition research by Democrats. But the author, Christopher Steele, also shared his findings with the FBI because he was concerned that Trump may have been compromised by Russia.
Members of the House Intelligence Committee have sparred for months over the Page surveillance. Republicans, who previously released some details about the application, had accused the FBI of relying too much on the Steele dossier, which they painted as politically motivated and uncorroborated. A spokesman for Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who leads the committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, described the release of the documents a “potentially groundbreaking development” and called for further details to be made public.
“The Carter Page FISA docs should be declassified and further unredacted (protecting only sources and methods) so Americans can know the truth,” Meadows said Saturday on Twitter. “If the previous admin was funneling campaign research toward surveillance, we need to know.”
But Democrats countered that the FISA application relied on more information than what Steele provided. And they said Steele had been a reliable source of information to the FBI in the past.
“Even in redacted form, the initial FISA application and three renewals underscore the legitimate concern [the] FBI had about Page’s activities as it was investigating Russia’s interference,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Saturday. But he added, “While I’m pleased that these conspiracy theories are finally being put to rest, the release of these materials during a pending investigation should not have happened,” referring to the ongoing probe of Russian interference in the U.S. elections.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Saturday, “Despite President Trump’s repeated claims, these documents provide clear evidence of ‘Russia’s coordination with Carter Page,’ a high-ranking Trump campaign official, ‘to undermine and improperly and illegally influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.’”
The application shows that the FBI portrayed Steele to the court as a trusted source. The FBI also disclosed that his work was on behalf of a client who was possibly looking for politically damaging information about Trump. Republicans had accused the bureau of failing to notify the court of the dossier’s political origins.
Much of the more than 400 pages of applications is redacted, making it impossible to know all the evidence that the FBI presented to a judge in seeking the wiretap order.
In particular, whole sections in the application detailing the FBI’s justification for believing Page was a Russian agent are blacked out. Some of the unredacted material refers to news articles. But FISA applications typically rely on classified and other sensitive information, according to officials with knowledge of the process.
The application identifies Page by name and says that he engaged in “clandestine intelligence activities” on behalf of Russia and had been the target of Russian government recruitment. The application describes Russia as having interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Page has denied that he was a Russian agent.