On Sunday, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) revealed something from his review of long-withheld FBI documents: that there was no communications intelligence behind the launch of the “Trump-Russia” investigation in July 2016.
Nunes referred to it as “official intelligence,” and he clearly meant by that “government-collected intelligence.” His reference to the “Five Eyes” intelligence partnership of the U.S. and the UK Commonwealth clarifies that what he’s talking about is communications intelligence.
Nunes put it this way:
Nunes, R-Calif., cited the Five Eyes agreement as a way of knowing no intel was used. The U.S., along with Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, make up the “Five Eyes,” or countries that share intelligence in a more-trusted fashion than other arrangements, like NATO, particularly due to years of trust and a common language.
“We are not supposed to spy on each other’s citizens, and it’s worked well,” he said. “And it continues to work well. And we know it’s working well because there was no intelligence that passed through the Five Eyes channels to our government. And that’s why we had to see that original communication.”
What his point means is that the FBI did not begin its probe, or justify getting a FISA warrant on Trump associate Carter Page, based on the communications intelligence we were led to believe John Brennan had received from the UK.
Aside from the Steele dossier and the George Papadopoulos “drunken disclosure” to Australian Alexander Downer, the supposed intel provided to Brennan by the Brits has for months been held out – in vague terms, through the media and through implications from (mainly) Rep. Adam Schiff (D-FL) – as the “official” intelligence behind the FBI investigation.
Now Nunes has clarified that no such intelligence was used to justify the FBI investigation. That doesn’t mean the Brits passed nothing to Brennan. It does suggest that, whatever may have been passed, the long-reported skepticism about it from other U.S. intel agencies prevented it from being used by the FBI.
(Note: the tip from Mr. Downer is not “Five Eyes” intelligence. It might qualify as intelligence, depending on factors we still don’t have answers on. But it is not “Five Eyes” intelligence, full stop. It’s not communications intelligence.)
The ugly truth
It may take a little time for the truth about this to sink in. In light of everything else we have been told about this matter, it means something more than that there was no underlying basis for having suspicions about Trump “ties” to Russia.
It means that the entire government enterprise of probing the Trump campaign, through a FISA warrant on Carter Page, not only was a political targeting operation against the Republican candidate but had to be one. It could not have been a good-faith effort to investigate something we had reason to believe was really there.
I have long expressed concern, and even suspicions, about the conduct of the Obama “Russia-Trump” task force, set up in August 2016. But because of the outside chance that the Brits passed something legitimate on to Brennan in the summer of 2016, I’ve been reserving judgment on what was really going on.
With Nunes finally having reviewed the electronic documents his committee has had under subpoena for months, we can now render judgment. Whether anything was passed to Brennan or not, the FBI didn’t use any Five Eyes intelligence, or apparently, any government-gathered intelligence (other than possibly the tip from Downer on Papadopoulos, which may or may not have been vetted “intelligence”), to start its investigation.
The Downer tip has only the most tenuous qualification as government-collected, at least until we know more about it. In any case, it’s not really “intelligence” at this point, in the sense of being a good lead that needs corroboration. Papadopoulos – the subject of it – has copped to everything in the story (other than any insinuation of “collusion” with Russia).
But Nunes is right to continue probing how the Downer tip got to the FBI (see his Sunday interview, link above). If it wasn’t by the normal methods for vetting and qualifying intelligence, then using it as the basis for an investigation of American citizens (or for drawing conclusions about national security needs, for that matter) is highly problematic.
But that’s a collateral point. The real, big, and glaring point is a larger one. Keep in mind what I have highlighted before: that the FISA warrants on Paul Manafort, which were in effect at times in 2016 when Manafort was in communications with Trump and his campaign aides, enabled the FBI to keep the Trump campaign organization, including Trump himself, under surveillance throughout the entire year.
The authority to retrieve NSA data on the same target set (the members of the Trump campaign) went back before 2016, and the FBI presumably used it to the fullest. (This means Trump was correct in his often-derided tweet about having been “wiretapped” by Obama. But that, too, is a collateral point.)
Moreover, we know that the unmasking of U.S. persons – reportedly including people in the Trump campaign – was authorized in suspicious and unusual ways by (at least, that we know of) Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and John Brennan. Such unmaskings were done using their credentials, at any rate.
Between these two complementary enterprises, the “investigation” of Trump and his “ties” to Russia was already being done. It wasn’t formally about Trump, but it was compiling vast amounts of information about him…