Memos, Dossiers and Kompromat
I haven’t decided if this is a good or a bad soap opera. In the 1980s, CBS aired Capitol, a thirty-minute daytime serial that revolved around two or three upper-middle-class political families in Washington, D.C. To refresh myself with the characters and plotlines, I read through the synopsis on Wikipedia and have concluded that if the writers had concocted a story like the one we are watching unfold today, Capitol, would still be on their air and ranked number one in the Nielsens.
There have been times in the year that I have stood in my living room, eyes and ears tuned to the “Breaking News” on the television, mouth agape, and wondering “how will we ever explain this to our kids?” I do not mean a “here’s how babies are made” kind of talk but rather, a middle or high-school history teacher attempting to teach this era to the next generation. Because unlike Reagan or even Bush 41, this era is consequential NOW. We do not need 20 years to reflect on what the last ten years really meant or specific policy implications. We can judge it now.
When I was in seventh or eighth grade, our social studies teacher Ms. Pfeiffer had us complete a family history. Not a family tree, per se, but a history. I remember a long list of questions that I used to interview my parents and grandparents, conversations that gave me so much background into what life was like “back in the day,” and the historical events that they had experienced. I knew enough about the events myself to reflect on how my own family reacted to key historical moments like the depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK.
Will our kids and grandkids understand this moment in history enough to ask the tough questions of our generation? Are Trump supporters poised to explain to their children why they voted and continued to support the President despite everything he did? How will we explain that in 2016, enough people believed in the Trump agenda or were willing to give it a try, to cast their vote for a misogynist and pathological liar over an educated, literate and articulate woman with more than enough experience for the job? Will we be able to explain our thought process without losing all moral credibility with the next generations?
I have been reflecting on these questions for the better part of the year and while I have the time and interest to religiously keep up “all things Russia,” most Americans likely do not. Perhaps that is you. You read or heard something about a memo, saw talking heads on both sides of the political spectrum flipping out over it, and said to yourself, “just another day in Washington, D.C.” But it was not just another day and not just a four-page memo rather another pivotal event in the ongoing saga of election meddling and the attempt to cover it up.
So I thought that with this post, I would try to explain as objectively and as succinctly as possible the following questions:
- What the hell just happened?
- Why did it happen?
- Why are people freaking out about it?
- Where do we go from here?
Kick back, relax, and put your feet up. Here we go.
The Memo Fiasco
The drama over the memo continues and I wonder sometimes how or even if the rest of America pays any attention to the saga details. I digest this stuff religiously and still have trouble keeping track of all the moving parts. Last Friday, Congress released a “memo” that would somehow clear the field for Trump and point out corruption at the highest levels of the FBI and Department of Justice. Rachel Maddow said it best on Friday when she held up the four-page document and asked, “Is this it? Is this all they have?”
To understand the Nunes memo, let’s start with some definitions and introductions.
- FISA and FISA Warrants. FISA stands for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The law set up the “FISA Court” and set rules for how warrants would be issued and governed in cases involving foreign spies operating in the United States. It also grants warrants that allow federal law enforcement to wiretap American citizens. FISA processes are secret and thus, civil libertarians and liberals tend to get worked up over potential abuses. Case in point: In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked classified information that revealed the government routinely subpoenaed Verizon and other mobile carriers for their billing records, which was then stored in a database and used in terrorist investigations. FISA is secret and thus, sensitive. Proponents argue that FISA is a critical component in the war against terror and other federal crimes.
- The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is a standing House committee responsible for oversight of the executive branch’s intelligence agencies. Oversight responsibilities include the FBI, CIA, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Defense, and the list goes on. The Senate has a similar committee, set up to perform oversight. As part of Congress’s oversight responsibilities, these committees were established to oversee the actions of the secret courts and federal law enforcement.
- Devin Nunes, Republican Congressman from California and chair of the House Intelligence Committee. He also served on the Trump transition team and consulted it on national security matters.
- Adam Schiff, Democratic Congressman from California and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
- Christopher Steele is a former British agent (MI-6) who was hired by Fusion GPS, a research firm contracted to investigate Donald Trump. In testimony before the Senate Judicial Committee, Fusion GPS founders identified Steele as an expert in all things Russia. He was hired to look into Trump’s financial dealings in the former Soviet Union.
- The Steele Dossier is a series of memos written by Christopher Steele which was passed on to the FBI in 2016 and leaked to Buzzfeed in January 2017. The dossier is considered raw intelligence, information gleaned from unnamed sources which were meant to be corroborated by further investigation. The dossier includes some salacious detail about Donald Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss USA Pageant (this is the prostitute thing), but the key finding or allegation was that Trump had been groomed as a Russian agent and that the Kremlin (Putin specifically) was actively colluding with the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
- Kompromat. As its name implies, Kompromat is the Russian term for “compromised material.” The Steele Dossier alleged that the Kremlin had (well, has) Kompromat on Donald Trump and therefore, the President of the United States. It was this conclusion that led Steele to express concerns about Trump’s election. The Nunes memo indicated that Steele was biased against Trump; that bias was likely due to what Steele had learned via his Russian sources. (A note: we do not yet know details of the Kompromat. I’m not sure that the “Russian prostitute” thing would have gotten Trump so worried. More likely, Kompromat has something to do with money laundering or other illegal business practices).
- Carter Page is a strange guy. He and George Pappadapolous were named as senior foreign policy advisors to the Trump campaign, by the candidate himself during an interview with the New York Times. Carter Page had been on the FBI’s radar since 2013 when he unwittingly fell into a Russian spy ring operating in New York City. At that time, the Russians actively tried to recruit him as an agent, a plan that was picked up on an FBI wiretap. At least one Russian is serving time in a federal prison and others fled the country as a result of the investigation. Two years and a few trips to Moscow later, Carter Page showed up on the Trump campaign as a senior foreign policy advisor, identified as such by Donald Trump. The FBI got another FISA warrant and had Page under surveillance starting in October 2016, after he had left the Trump campaign. It is this FISA warrant, renewed 4 times, that is in question in the Nunes memo.
- Rod Rosenstein is Bob Mueller’s boss. More importantly, Rosenstein issued the original special counsel order and is solely responsible for approving Mueller’s investigative perimeters. In short: Rosenstein approves the scope of the inquiry and so far, he has approved Mueller’s line of inquiry that has led the special counsel into the Oval Office. Rosenstein signed off on ONE extension of the Carter Page FISA warrant. And it is this one sign off that Trump wants to use to fire Rosenstein.
- FISA Court justices approve or decline warrant requests. No one else. By all accounts, FISA warrant applications are hundreds of pages long and require intensive detail to gain approval. These warrants are approved for six months at a time; renewals require work product. That means, investigators must show that their surveillance is productive else their extension requests are denied.
- Sean Hannity, ratings star of FOX News. Hannity has built a national movement (with the help of Russian bots) with his #releasethememo hashtag. How he learned of the memo’s existence is a mystery, but we can likely guess. In the two weeks leading up to the memo’s release, Hannity talked incessantly, night after night about the need to publish the memo as it would finally give Trump his “get out of jail free” card and illuminate corruption and misdeeds at the highest levels of the Justice Department. The President watches Hannity religiously and so, we believe that Trump found out about the memo from Hannity and other FOX personalities, simply by watching television.
This brings us back to the central questions: what just happened and why? The ‘what’ should be self-explanatory based on the definitions and introductions. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence produced and then released a four-page memo to call out FISA and FBI abuses. The central claim is that the FBI, in applying for the FISA warrant to wiretap Carter Page, relied too heavily on the Steele Dossier which at the time was completely uncorroborated. Democrats and former intelligence professionals have pushed back, citing that the dossier was just one factor in the warrant application process and that it included a great deal more supporting documentation. But given that FISA warrants are secret and full of classified material, the memo did not contain the “full story.”
Adam Shiff, ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence wrote a rebuttal memo which was not released at the same time as the Nunes document. The media characterizes the decision not to release Shiff’s document last Friday as purely partisan and party politics likely did play a role. However, there is also a lengthy vetting process when disclosing classified material and I suspect because the Democrats did not see the Nunes memo until late in the process, theirs had not completed the larger vet. I see just now that Shiff’s memo (the Democratic rebuttal) has been voted out of committee and is on its way to the White House to be declassified and released. I expect more drama around it this week as the President decides whether to release it, given that it rebukes Trump’s entire thesis that the Nunes pronouncement validated his innocence.
Why is everybody freaking out?
FOX personalities and other Trump allies are desperate to get the President off the hook and they are happy to put the government on trial to do it. There could be long-term consequences to the declassification of information and the decision to release it for partisan purposes. We have all watched Law and Order (or something like it) and know that confidential informants play a pivotal role in catching the bad guys. What Congress just demonstrated was a willingness to publish secret information for political purposes. CIs around the globe will think twice about helping our intelligence services as the promise that their identity will remain secret can be overruled. This could have a profound impact on our ability to track down both domestic and international criminals as well as terrorists. Trump and his boy Nunes just handicapped law enforcement, the degree to which is not yet known.
Secondly, Nunes and Ryan (the Speaker is not innocent in this) supposedly “promised” the FBI Director and the Assistant Attorney General (Wray and Rosenstein) that they would not publicly reveal any information that was made available to House oversight (the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence). Nunes and Ryan, in releasing the memo, argued that they had not made this pledge and that everything being done was within the bounds of the agreement. So obviously, the decision to release sensitive and classified information breaks the unwritten trust that a government agency and its oversight committee have in one another, making it difficult to conduct business in the future.
Third, Democrats on the committee and FBI officials claimed that the Nunes memo was cherry-picked and contained misleading information. Essentially, Republicans inserted what would be helpful to the President and left the context for the FBI’s actions out of the document. This simply feeds the narrative that the FBI and other intelligence services cannot be trusted and helps to erode public confidence in government institutions. “Putting the government on trial,” has been the dream of some far-right conservatives and now, the desire seems to have invaded a key House Committee.
And did I mention that Nunes will not answer the question, “did you or your staff work with the White House to produce this memo?”
Where do we go from here?
At the moment, we wait to see if the President declassifies the Schiff memo so that the other side is heard. Schiff has promised that his document provides the context behind the Carter Page warrant and the information included with the application. It is also supposed to include information that the FBI used when it sought to renew the warrant (at least 4 times). I am not holding my breath and will be very surprised if Trump allows it to be released.
Robert Mueller continues to move forward with the investigation. His team has been almost “leak proof;” very little if anything has come out of the investigation itself. Those who have already been interviewed have spoken with the media and thus, we have deduced where the special counsel is going with the investigation. But we do not know for sure.
Congress continues to march on, three days per week passing continuing resolutions rather than agreeing to a long-term budget. At this point, we are 6 months into the fiscal year, so why should we pass a full budget now? (That is sarcasm). We still do not have a resolution to the DACA matter; just today, the White House refused to consider a bi-partisan bill that would grant DACA recipients legal status and provide more money for border security. And so, almost one million young people remain in limbo and fear that they could be deported from the only country they have ever known. I will extend this open item to the innumerable and productive human beings who have lived in this country for decades who wake up every day, wondering if they will be arrested by Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The resistance to the Trump Administration and its policies has the momentum going into the mid-term elections; but will it be enough for the Democrats to take the House and the Senate? There are still infrastructure disadvantages, including money and gerrymandering that tip the scales toward Republicans. On the other hand, just today, SCOTUS refused to hear an appeal from Pennsylvania which means that the Commonwealth must redraw its district map – this time fairly. The DNC claims to be contesting every election this round, right down to school board. Victory in 2018 will just be the start that progressives desperately need to begin to undo the damage wrought by this Republican Party and Trump.
Another day, another drama. Hang in there because one day, your kids are going to interview and ask you “what you thought and how you voted,” during this most divisive era in American politics. They will ask us about all of this stuff and I hope we all have answers that will make our kids proud.