President Trump declassified the high anticipated memo from House Intelligence Committee Republicans on Friday, and the four-page summary of federal FISA abuses convinces former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that the government manipulated the system for partisan purposes and that the entire FISA system must be reformed.
The memo casts a critical eye on actions taken by FBI and Justice Department officials since October 2016, the first time they obtained a foreign intelligence surveillance, or FISA, warrant to keep tabs on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page over concerns about his ties to Russia.
The committee Republicans contend the warrant to conduct surveillance on Page was based on a dossier compiled by avowed Trump critic Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent. Furthermore, the memo says recently ousted Deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe testified just weeks ago that the warrant would never have been issued without the dossier.
The head of the FBI’s counterintelligence unit, Bill Priestap, testified that the bureau had not even vetted the dossier before using it to obtain the warrant, telling lawmakers their corroboration efforts were in their infancy at the time the initial warrant was granted.
That information was not presented to the court, neither was the information that the dossier had been paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli III says one revelation stands out above the rest.
“The biggest single piece of this is that Deputy Director McCabe, no big fan of Donald Trump as best we can tell, testified a little more than a month ago that without the Steele dossier they would not have gotten the initial FISA warrant,” said Cuccinelli.
“Even today McCabe acknowledges that without that dossier information, which has now been largely discredited, they would not have gotten a warrant in this most super-secretive courts that we have in this country,” said Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli has argued before the FISA court and says the shadowy way it functions ought to be the second biggest headline in this story.
“Is this super-secret court working in a way that we as American citizens are comfortable with? I’m not, and I think this memo is going to educate a lot more Americans about what’s wrong with how this court works over and above the political gamesmanship that went on with it, coming out of the FBI in the 2016 presidential election,” said Cuccinelli.
The memo reveals that former FBI Director James Comey signed off on the pursuit of the FISA warrant and two renewals. McCabe signed another, as did former Justice Department officials Sally Yates and Dana Boente. Current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel probe headed by Robert Mueller, also authorized a renewal.
Cuccinelli says getting a renewal is much easier than getting the initial warrant since FISA court judges are inclined to continue what one of their colleagues already approved. In addition, Cuccinelli notes that the FISA court approves more than 99 percent of all warrant requests.
“It’s overwhelming. It would strike you as laughable. It really begs the question of why do we bother having a court that’s supposed to act as an independent filter?” asked Cuccinelli.
Yet he says politicians keep approving the FISA system to keep functioning in the same way, including a multi-year reauthorization in recent weeks.
“Here you have all these people who have voted to let this process go through. Virtually the majority in both parties has voted for this multiple times and now they’re upset about it,” said Cuccinelli.
Democrats worked feverishly to prevent public release of the memo – or at least delay it long enough to release their own counterpoints. In addition to concerns about providing the full context, Democrats like Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat in the intelligence panel, and other federal officials expressed concern about exposing sources and methods in the memo.
Cuccinelli says those need to be feverishly protected but that nothing of that nature appears in the memo.
“There’s nothing in here and this wasn’t changed very much. We understand there was one change made at Schiff’s request, but there’s nothing in here that touches on sources and methods other than the dossier itself and a Yahoo news article that was also informed by Chris Steele,” said Cuccinelli.
The bottom line, says Cuccinelli, is that a lot of people
“It is Monday morning quarterbacking but this is a constitutional republic and this is what we call accountability. This does not make the decision-making in the FBI nor the use of the FISA court look very good in the rear view mirror,” said Cuccinelli.
He says Democrats will likely try to make the case that the warrant would have been issued apart from the dossier, regardless of McCabe’s testimony. Indeed, the memo does mention that George Papadopoulos was being investigated in July of 2016.
Cuccinelli sees the probe of the Trump team and its alleged ties to Russia as a house of cards, and he says there’s only one reason it still has any oxygen.
“This is genuine conspiracy theory stuff. The only reason it’s treated more respectably is because the media wants to. They do it for the same reason they were all covering Donald Trump so thoroughly in the Republican primaries – ratings,” said Cuccinelli.
In the end, Cuccinelli suggests Democrats ask themselves a serious question.
“How would the Democrats feel if the Trump administration’s law enforcement arms were able to do this in the fall of 2020? How do you think they would like? I don’t think they would like it very much and I think it ought to be fixed before we get there,” said Cuccinelli.