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What You Need To Know About Russia Memo Mania: Minority Report Edition

Feb 26, 2018
Originally published on February 26, 2018 8:21 pm

After nearly a month of pronouncements, melodrama, headlines and strife, Round One of memo mania is finally complete.

House Intelligence Committee Republicans went first with their Feb. 2 salvo that alleged "biased" FBI and Justice Department officials had abused their surveillance powers by withholding information from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Then, on Saturday, committee Democrats released a rebuttal giving their perspective on the story — or at least part of it.

One privilege enjoyed by intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., is that his majority on the panel, and the presence of allies in the executive branch, meant he could arrange for his memo to be released swiftly and in full.

The minority response by ranking member Adam Schiff took weeks and was partly redacted, with large sections blacked out to conceal secret information.

Even though the countermemo is incomplete, it includes several points of interest that advance the never-ending story of the Russia imbroglio.

1.The FBI has corroborated parts of the Russia dossier

The potential case that Donald Trump's campaign may have conspired with the Russian attack on the 2016 election has always been about more than the infamous dossier. Trump and his supporters deny colluding and make the dossier a favorite target because of its salacious contents and because it remained unverified.

NPR and other news organizations have not detailed the contents of the dossier because it remains unproven, but Schiff's memo suggests that the Justice Department actually has corroborated parts of it.

Which parts? That is blacked out. So there is no way to know whether it's some of the anodyne background aspects of the file — or the more infamous passages.

All the same, it is significant that the Justice Department has established for its own purposes that at least some of the contents of the dossier aren't either simply false or Russian disinformation.

2. The feds collected "valuable intelligence" from Carter Page

Onetime Trump adviser Carter Page is the main character of the dueling memos. For Republicans, he is a civil liberties martyr who was cruelly wronged by "biased" FBI and DoJ officials who duped a judge into authorizing intrusive surveillance against him.

Schiff's memo makes a very different case. It not only cites Page's years-long flirtations with Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, but highlights what it calls the worthwhile information yielded by spying on him. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires that warrants produce something. The FBI can't keep one going if the subject of the surveillance isn't talking with people of interest or involved with clandestine activities. Page evidently was.

That's why it was significant that Justice Department officials from the administration of President Obama and into that of President Trump, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, signed the applications to reauthorize the surveillance on Page. Although it was possible to surmise before that the spying was producing evidence, Schiff's memo confirms that explicitly.

"The Court-approved surveillance of Page allowed FBI to collect valuable intelligence," it says.

What did the feds learn? Those sections are blacked out. Phrases that do appear in this section, however, include "repeatedly contacted" and "contradict his sworn testimony" to the intelligence committee.

3. The FBI investigated other people in Trump world

Page's case has become well known. So has the story of another junior foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, who was importuned by Russian agents offering help to Trump. But the FBI has been investigating more people in the Trump camp, according to the Democrats' countermemo.

Schiff's memo describes how material from the dossier didn't begin to reach the FBI unit running its counterintelligence investigation into Trump and Russia until seven weeks after it had begun its work. Then the memo says this:

"By then, the FBI had already opened sub-inquiries into [redacted] individuals linked to the Trump campaign: [redacted]" and Page.

This is important for a few reasons. One, the wording of this passages suggests at least three or four subjects. Two, it doesn't seem to suggest that Trump himself was the subject of a "sub-inquiry," verifying a defense he has offered several times. Three, it suggests these other people might have been the subject of government surveillance in addition to Page — and that raises the question about whether the FBI might still be monitoring people in Trump's orbit today, including within his family or the White House.

4. Republicans have not budged from their earlier attack

Schiff and Democrats use much of their memo to defend the FBI and Justice Department. The agencies made appropriate disclosures to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in asking to surveil Page, the Democrats argue, and Republicans' other attacks are "irrelevant."

Nunes continues to argue they are, in fact, pretty relevant. His statement on Saturday continued to focus on what he called the abuse of power in Page's case, including what he said were the FBI's failures to give all the relevant information it had about the Democratic-underwritten dossier and Page's own record.

"The American people now clearly understand that the FBI used political dirt paid for by the Democratic Party to spy on an American citizen from the Republican Party," Nunes said.

The White House, meanwhile, complained that Democrats omitted in their memo that former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe had said that the dossier was the basis for the FISA application on Page. Schiff's memo does make its own case in that point and argues the FBI would have continued its investigation of the Russian attack and Page without the dossier.

This back-and-forth is important because although the Russia imbroglio is moving on — with new indictments brought by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller, new guilty pleas and other such developments — the political attack lines, so far, have not.

5. The template has been established for memo madness

The more a game is played, the more adept teams become at its rules and strategies. Basketball defenders deliberately foul an opponent to force a free-throw. A manager brings up a left-handed reliever to pitch inside to a dangerous left-handed hitter.

The Republican memo gambit and last weekend's Democratic riposte complete the first enactment of what could become a recurring sideshow inside Washington. The majority uses its control of the committee and its alliances inside the executive branch to release an unexpurgated file even if some of the relevant agencies object — as the FBI and Justice objected to the release of the Nunes memo.

The minority can't twist the arms of the agencies controlled by its opponents and it can't get parity with the opening shot: Nunes' memo was released by lunchtime on a Friday following a week of extensive coverage. Schiff's memo came out with no preliminary fanfare on a Saturday afternoon.

So will this be the template for each game? Or will Nunes and Schiff take a different approach next time? And with the rules more or less set, how will other players respond? Round Two is already different: Nunes suggested he was preparing another memo about what he calls problems with President Obama's State Department. So a former State official wrote a column in the Washington Post that tried to short-circuit that attack.

With Round One of memo v. countermemo now complete, the stage is now set for new permutations of the game that may last as long as the Russia saga itself.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's the end of round one in the battle of the memos. Earlier this month, House Intelligence Committee Republicans released a memo that charged the FBI and Justice Department abused their surveillance powers in targeting a one-time adviser to Donald Trump. Now after a delay, Democrats have released their response. NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing has been reading a lot of memos lately and is here to talk them over with us. Hey, Phil.

PHILIP EWING, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We have talked so much about what was in the Republican memo. In a nutshell, what was in this Democratic response?

EWING: Basically everything Republicans said, Democrats say the opposite. For Republicans, this Russia story is about, what they call, an abuse of power inside the FBI and the Justice Department. They argue that those agencies didn't give all the information they were supposed to give to a judge to authorize surveillance on this one-time adviser to Trump's campaign Carter Page. Democrats say, in fact, the agencies conducted themselves appropriately. They made the disclosures they needed to make. And they basically want us to continue to have confidence in the FBI and Justice. That's what this boils down to. This is a dispute over whether Americans should trust the work of the FBI and the Justice Department. Republicans say they shouldn't. Democrats say we should.

SHAPIRO: So those are the big-picture conclusions of the Republicans and the Democrats - that the FBI is or is not trustworthy. When you get down to the meat of it, a lot of it talks about the Steele dossier, which allegedly was the basis for the surveillance on this former Trump aide. And the Republicans said this was kind of tainted from the outset. What did Democrats say?

EWING: That's right. Christopher Steele was a British intelligence officer who was hired by a private intelligence company in Washington to do research about Donald Trump's relations with Russia during the 2016 campaign. That work was underwritten by Democrats, and that's why Republicans say anything involving the dossier in applications the FBI or Justice Department made for surveillance is, in their view, not appropriate since it was a political document. What Democrats argue is that in fact not only did the Justice Department use information from this dossier, it used all kinds of other evidence that it had about this person Page - about his flirtations with Russia's intelligence service. And also the Democrat memo makes clear the FBI has verified some of the things that are in that Steele dossier.

SHAPIRO: So the question is why was the FBI spying on this former Trump aide. And the narrative the Democrats lay out is a lot of reasons including but not limited to the Steele dossier. And furthermore, as you say, they confirmed some of the details in this dossier. Do we know what they confirmed?

EWING: No. Unfortunately, one of the things that is different from the Republican memo to the Democratic memo is the Democratic memo was heavily redacted. It's gone through the bureaucratic chop chain process with the FBI and Justice Department, and it includes large sections that are blacked out. Republicans have a privilege and advantage here. They have a majority on the Intelligence Committee. They have an ally in Donald Trump in the White House in control of the executive branch. And so they could get their memo out relatively quickly and the whole thing unexpurgated. Democrats have had to deal with the fact that they have one hand tied behind their back, as it were. And they can't tell the full story in the way that they want to tell it.

SHAPIRO: OK, I've got the Democratic memo here. And as you say, there are huge portions - well, not huge portions but significant portions that are blacked out. One of the things that leaves us wondering is which details of the Steele dossier were confirmed. What else does this leave us wondering? What else don't we know because of the redactions?

EWING: Well, so there are some interesting references to the surveillance or subinvestigations the FBI began doing in 2016 of people in the Trump orbit. We've talked about Page. We've also talked on our air about a foreign policy adviser named George Papadopoulos, who was kind of buttonholed by some Russian agents in London and offered dirt on Hillary Clinton and so-called off-the-record meetings between Trump campaign people and Russian officials. And the Democrat countermemo makes clear that there were other people in the Trump camp who were being investigated by the FBI as soon as the investigation began in 2016. But the number of persons is blacked out, and their titles and names are also blacked out. So we know that investigation was taking place. We just don't know who the focus of it was.

SHAPIRO: OK, so this is the end of round one of the battle of the memos. What's round two?

EWING: That's a great question. The chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, has said he could have another memo about the Obama administration-era State Department and its conduct in this story. Democrats might release a countermemo. But the other story that has come out of this month of dueling memos is this might be the way the game is played now in the big city. The majority and the minority trade fire over long periods of time with these materials because each one is trying so hard to shape the public's perception of this story.

SHAPIRO: NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing. Thanks, Phil.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.