On Friday, Feb. 2, Devin Nunes, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, released a memo that was intended to expose corruption “at the highest levels of the FBI.” The memo accuses senior officials at the FBI and Justice Department of abuses during the early stages of the Russian investigation. What the memo is, essentially, is a summary on the intelligence used to support a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) request to surveil Carter Page, a former Donald Trump campaign associate. They had to show probable evidence to a FISA court that there was reason to believe that Page was acting as a Russian agent. Associate Professor Andrew Dzeguze sat down with the Quaker Campus to discuss the significance of this memo, and the ways in which it seems to have “cherry-picked” information to paint a certain political picture.
The problem with the release of this memo, as told by Dzeguze, is that either “the people writing the memo do not have a grasp on the FISA courts, or they woefully misrepresented it to make a political point.” Additionally, most people reading the memo don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the inner workings of the intelligence community, or of the FISA courts. This is problematic as many people, including Trump’s supporters, see this memo as proof that the Russian probe is partisan in nature, or they see the FBI as partisan and not to be trusted, which has damning implications for future intelligence investigations.
An additional problem with the release of this memo has to do with the problems raised by the statement Nunes himself made in regards to the memo, stating that he never read the intelligence behind the memo, which Dzeguze says raises two main concerns. First, that Nunes directed staffers to summarize the memo, and he just put forward whatever they came up without double checking to make sure it was correct. Or, given the nature of the memo, he directed his staffers to take information that crafted a certain political narrative. Since the nature of the intelligence is classified, only one Republican and one Democrat, along with their staffs, were allowed to read the full memo, which Nunes directed Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina to be the Republican reader, according to initial reports from MSNBC. However, that statement is of concern since the one who’s been “pushing” the memo’s release doesn’t even know if the information contained in it is accurate or not, a statement reiterated by Representative Adam Schiff.
Trump clearly had political intentions in declassifying and releasing the memos. Not just in that Trump finally has some (albeit, small) grounds to stand on in his claims that the Russian investigation is a Democratic “witch hunt”, but also in that he did so by going against the advice of senior officials at the FBI and Justice Departments, all of whom were appointed by Trump. Trump himself described the Russia investigation as a witch hunt on his Twitter account.
The day after the memo was released, Trump tweeted, “This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe. But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their [sic] was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding nothing, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!”
The intelligence community tends to be more conservative-leaning than not, which makes allegations that throughout the FBI chain of command, there was a political vendetta occuring with the intention of discrediting Donald Trump. In the time since Watergate, the FBI and intelligence community as a whole have made great strides in ensuring everything they do is apolitical. One of the methods they have used to remain unbiased was the passing of FISA. The FBI has multiple layers of review for obtaining warrants, which are even greater when a wiretap is involved. This FBI has one of the most obtuse processes of reviewing information of any law enforcement agency.
For those with extensive knowledge of the intelligence committee, and are familiar with the ways in which these agencies conduct their classification and intelligence finding schemes, it is hard to believe that the FBI would have abused their powers in surveilling Carter Page. It is unlikely that they would’ve been approved by the FISA courts to continue to surveil him in the first place, unless there had been ample evidence to support their surveillance of him. The main argument in the memo is that the FBI failed to disclose that there was some information in the FISA request that was obtained from research paid for by the Democratic National Committee. However, since the original document was around 70 pages long, some important context is missing from the memo released by Nunes.
The Democrats prepared their own memo in response to the release of this one, but it was immediately blocked by a vote down party lines. It is unclear whether the memo will be released in the future, following amendments and redactions, but Dzeguze said that he has seen reports that it could be around 10 pages. He said that, “it’s hard when you’re dealing with classified information, as we’ll never be able to get a complete story.” There have been statements about the Democratic memo saying it’s “longer, and less clean,” according to Dzeguze, which is to be expected, since their memo is intended to give Nunes’ memo more context, which requires more details. Dzeguze thinks, however, that is will be “politically revealing,” whether Trump allows the release of the memo or not, or if he tries to downplay its significance.
Dzeguze has done extensive research on national security directives (in regards to secret orders foreign and domestic) and on classification schemes within these areas. The QC greatly appreciates his input on these matters.