Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a long-awaited and freshly declassified rebuttal Saturday to Republican claims that federal officials abused the process for obtaining warrants to eavesdrop on Carter Page, a former campaign aide to President Donald Trump who had Russian contacts.
The 10-page memo offers insight into one of the most secretive processes in government, directly quoting from the text of a secret surveillance warrant application to show that the Justice Department had disclosed that some evidence sprang from political opposition research intended to discredit a political campaign, contradicting a key GOP claim.
The memo also claims that information from the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a British former intelligence operative whose work was funded by a law firm connected to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, was a small part of the case Justice Department officials laid out in seeking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court's permission to eavesdrop on Page and in renewal applications.
The memo expands on a fact cited only briefly in the memo released three weeks earlier from Republican committee staff — that the Justice Department had launched its counterintelligence investigation of Russian attempts to interfere in the election in July of 2016, based not on the Steele dossier but information from another Trump foreign policy aide, George Papadopoulos.
It says that federal investigators were probing contacts between Russian agents and other individuals linked to Trump's campaign, though the number and specific identities are redacted. And it states that the Justice Department had "compelling evidence and probable cause" to believe Page was "knowingly assisting" Russian espionage efforts in the United States.
The Democratic memo, released by the White House Saturday nearly three weeks after the House Intelligence Committee unanimously voted to make it public, is a response to another memo released by majority Republicans and championed by its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California.
The core claims of the GOP memo were that FBI and DOJ officials misled the special court by declining to identify the political nature of the dossier's origins, and that without the Steele dossier the application would not have been approved.
The Democrats write that federal officials told the FISA court the FBI suspected Steele was hired by an American "looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign." Neither the Clinton nor Trump campaigns were specifically named in the application because of so-called masking procedures designed to protect the identities of individuals or entitles not targeted in the investigation.
A conservative website funded by a Republican mega-donor first hired the firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on Trump during the Republican primaries. After it was clear Trump would win the Republican nomination, that funding stopped and the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign started paying Fusion GPS for research that ultimately would be included in the Steele dossier.
The Democrats’ memo says that what information the Justice Department did include from the Steele dossier in its initial October 2016 application was corroborated in subsequent renewals by “multiple independent sources," though specific details are redacted. It also notes that the surveillance of Page allowed the FBI to collect “valuable intelligence” for its broader investigation. And the four separate judges who approved each request were all appointed by Republican presidents.
"The Democratic response memo released today should put to rest any concerns that the American people might have as to the conduct of the FBI, the Justice Department and the FISC," Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
"Our extensive review of the initial FISA application and three subsequent renewals failed to uncover any evidence of illegal, unethical, or unprofessional behavior by law enforcement and instead revealed that both the FBI and DOJ made extensive showings to justify all four requests," Schiff said in the statement.
The White House slammed the Democrats' report in a statement issued by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
"While the Democrats’ memorandum attempts to undercut the president politically, the president supported its release in the interest of transparency," she said. "Nevertheless, this politically driven document fails to answer serious concerns raised by the Majority’s memorandum about the use of partisan opposition research from one candidate, loaded with uncorroborated allegations, as a basis to ask a court to approve surveillance of a former associate of another candidate, at the height of a presidential campaign."
Trump has repeatedly denied there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia, and on Twitter Saturday lashed out at Democrats and claimed “The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST."
Schiff replied on Twitter: "Wrong again, Mr. President. It confirms the FBI acted appropriately and that Russian agents approached two of your advisors, and informed your campaign that Russia was prepared to help you by disseminating stolen Clinton emails."
Nunes' staff said in its own point-by-point rebuttal Saturday that the Democratic memo fails to explain why the Steele dossier was used at all if the Justice Department had other key evidence. They also maintain that the "bulk" of the dossier was submitted as evidence, and that many of its specific claims remain unconfirmed and uncorroborated by independent sources.
Democrats criticized the White House for green-lighting the release of the memo on a weekend afternoon when it would get less attention than the GOP-authored document did. A senior committee official said that there was a good-faith effort between Democratic staff and Justice Department officials to make redactions of sensitive information, but that the White House appeared to sit on the final version for days.
"The White House and the majority say that they’re glad this information is out. That is clearly not the case," Schiff said in an interview at a Democratic convention in San Diego Saturday. "If so they would have released it at the same time as the majority memorandum."