Carter Page was so important the FBI went out on a limb to use a questionable document in court to convince a judge to surveil him? I’m not buying it. ...
The surveillance of Carter Page was not about Carter Page. He’s a bit player in a larger drama, and that larger drama is what we need to understand.We already know what the larger drama is--the attempt to prevent a Trump presidency or, failing that, to abort it. At this point it may not be possible to determine exactly how Carter Page fits into that larger drama, but while awaiting further developments we can at least advance a theory. After all, that's how science progresses, right? You advance a theory and let others try to knock it down or refine it. So, in the spirit of good, clean fun, let's have a go at it.
First, a bit of background on Carter Page's recent activity as it relates to Russian intelligence activity. Back in March to June of 2013 the FBI learned, through its ongoing FISA coverage of Russian nationals in the US, that Carter Page was in contact with Russians in whom the FBI had a particular interest. Did the FBI run out and seek a FISA on Carter Page upon discovering his contacts? Of course not. Like any sensible and professional counterintelligence agency, the FBI opened a preliminary investigation of Carter Page to get an better handle on who he was and where he was coming from, then they interviewed him. He apparently was fully cooperative, and you can read an entertaining account of it all in the FBI's court filing in the case against the Russians (Page is definitely "Male 1" in paragraphs 32-34 and I'm guessing he may also be CS 1--Confidential Source 1--in paragraphs 66-74.)
The point is that, after this high profile fiasco, the Russian SVR would certainly have conducted a damage assessment and they would have had to have been brain dead not to realize that Carter Page had cooperated with the FBI. The idea that they would turn around and try to make Page into a master spy in the Trump campaign three short years later strains credulity--to put it mildly. So keep that in mind as we take a look at the 2016 presidential campaign.
In April, 2016, Fusion GPS began working for the Hillary Clinton campaign, conducting opposition research. The Russia angle seems to have been a very early focus of their activity, probably because Glenn Simpson was already familiar with Paul Manafort's Russian associations, and his current role with the Trump campaign. We can't be sure that Fusion GPS engineered the famous June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, but there are strong indications that that may have been the case. The machinations needed to get Veselnitskaya into the country, her repeated meetings with Simpson and other Fusion GPS personnel, all point in that direction.
Be that as it may, by June 6, 2016, Fusion GPS, in collaboration with former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, had begun producing the first of its reports that were later compiled into the famous Trump "dossier." These early reports primarily targeted Trump, offering up salacious tales about Trump's supposed activities in Moscow, stressing the theory that Trump might be susceptible to Russian blackmail attempts. Carter Page is mentioned as well. Of particular interest, for our purposes, is that these early reports were very quickly put to practical use by the FBI: according to Heat Street and The Guardian they were the basis for a FISA application that mentioned Donald Trump by name. The date for that application is given variously as "June" or "during the Summer." Significantly, the FISA court (FISC), against all odds, rejected the application, but the takeaway is that the FBI clearly regarded obtaining a FISA that could be targeted against the Trump campaign as a priority.
What happened next leads us directly to Carter Page. On July 7, 2016, Page took a trip to Moscow. Fusion GPS quickly seized on this trip to begin producing reports for the dossier which spoke of "secret meetings" between Page and various Russian bad actors. By the end of the month, "late July", according to the NYT, the FBI had opened an investigation on Carter Page. And, because the FBI later applied for a FISA warrant on Page on the basis of this investigation, we have to assume that this was a Full Investigation. What this means is that the FBI was claiming, with no preliminaries such as had occurred in New York in 2013, that Page was, in layman's terms, a spy engaged in clandestine intelligence activity. Despite what they knew of his past cooperation, despite the fact they would have had to assume that the Russians were also aware of Page's cooperation with the FBI. Despite this they were claiming that Carter Page was a full blown spy.
Only 2-3 weeks later, on August 16, 2016, Peter Strzok, the FBI's #2 in Counterintelligence (CI), texted Lisa Page (a lawyer on the staff of FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe):
"I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I'm afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40."This is where our theorizing really begins, so let's try to parse this.
The text clearly to refers to a meeting in McCabe's office. Who would have been present at this very high level meeting? Obviously Strzok, Lisa Page, and McCabe himself. But it seems to me that it would have been a breach of protocol to have had such a meeting in the absence of Strzok's boss, the head of CI, Bill Priestap. So we can assume that Priestap was also present, and possibly others. Further, this seems to have been a strategy planning meeting: they were discussing "paths," strategy options, with regard to the possible outcomes of the election: what to do in the event that "he", Donald Trump, was elected. And they seem to have come to a decision on what strategy to follow: "it".
It appears that Lisa Page may have advocated taking no particular action, on the view that "there’s no way [Trump] gets elected." But the others at the meeting disagreed: doing nothing was too big a risk, because Trump just might win. So the decision was made to do "it", which would be "like an insurance policy."
What could this possibly mean?
FBI Director James Comey had already exonerated Hillary, back on July 5, 2016. The FBI's decision to take another look at the emails case didn't occur until October 28, 2016, over two months in the future, so we can discount the handling of the Hillary email investigation this as a topic of discussion. As far as any of those present would have known, that investigation had been put in the past.
Were they hatching a scheme to somehow nobble Trump? My view is that they would leave such direct action to Fusion GPS. What then? In mid-August they couldn't possibly know that Hillary really would lose, but would then go all in on the Russia Hoax. The FBI couldn't control these events, they could only wait and react, but the strategic "it" seemed to require action to be taken.
But consider this.
The initial reports that came to form the dossier had focused on the claim that Trump had close ties to the Russian government and that he might be subject to blackmail. That gambit had failed in the attempt to get a FISA, but there is every reason to assume that a FISA would still be regarded as highly desirable. Carter Page was mentioned in the dossier reports, but not as prominently, in the early reports. After his July 7, 2016, trip to Moscow he gained in prominence in the reporting, but a perusal of the dossier indicates that the reporting on Carter Page really takes off in September to October--after the mid-August strategy session in "Andy's office." It took the form of further "details" on Carter Page's Moscow trip. Elaboration of the earlier "narrative."
So, how does this fit in with the "it" that was "like an insurance policy?" It's a bit paradoxical. The clear intent of the insurance policy was to insure against an event: the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. But more specifically, it was to protect the FBI in the event of that "unthinkable" occurrence. How?
I believe the FBI had already been engaged in extensive domestic spying on the Trump campaign, and they very much needed a FISA to justify this activity. If Trump were elected--as now seemed to be at least possible--and found out about this activity and called the FBI on it, they needed to be able to explain that their surveillance activities hadn't really been directed at him. The standard FISA coverage of Russian nationals obviously wouldn't work--they needed a FISA on a US Person to explain why they had been surveilling so many Trump associates, all US Persons. If they could get a FISA on Carter Page they could reply: It was all about Carter Page! Look, a judge even gave us a FISA warrant on that loser! And so the decision was made to do "it", to seek a FISA warrant on Carter Page.
Carter Page wasn't a perfect fit for this new role, because nobody who knew anything about CI matters would buy into the Carter Page-as-master-spy narrative, but he was as good as it could get in the time available--he had the Russia connections at least. So, the call went out to Christopher Steele, and maybe Fusion GPS: we need more "stuff" on Carter Page, ASAP. And between the August 16 meeting and October 21st, when they applied for and were given a FISA warrant on Carter Page, they got the stuff they needed. The record of continued contacts with Steele during this period offers some corroboration.
The Nunes memo states flatly that the dossier simply provided no basis for a FISA warrant. Democrat Jerrold Nadler has maintained that the fact that renewals of the FISA were granted mean that the FISA was "productive," that it was producing information consistent with the characterization of Carter Page as engaged in clandestine intelligence activity. In my view that's a weak argument. The FISA on Page was eventually terminated, so that it seems apparent that during the final period absolutely nothing could be found to justify a further renewal. It's easy enought to imagine--even without claiming skullduggery on the part of Obama judges on the FISC--that various excuses could have been formulated for the initial extension.
All in all, this strategy probably seemed workable to the FBI at the time. How was the FBI to know at that point that the very day after the election Mike Rogers would spill the beans on all the surveillance to Trump? How were they to know that Hillary would double down on the Russia Hoax in the aftermath of "what happened," thus drawing more attention to the Carter Page FISA and the dossier? It's a bit amusing in retrospect to see Comey frantically working both sides of the street: confiding in Trump that there's a dossier out there, but assuring him--three times, no less!--that he wasn't under investigation, while at the same time cooperating with the "resistance," leaking relentlessly against Trump.
Well, as George Smiley might say, it's just a theory.
It seems that more and more people are attempting to puzzle through this Carter Page conundrum. Here are two good examples I've noticed in just the past few minutes:
Carter Page was the Camel's Nose in Trump's Tent
Byron York: As memo fight rages, critics ask: All this over Carter Page?
While all of the articles/blogs I've seen so far that address this whole Carter Page thing make excellent points, none so far makes the connection that my theory makes with the "insurance policy" text and the strategy session and strategy decision that the text clearly refers to.
UPDATE #2: I see that Kimberley Strassel has taken a look at another aspect of the FBI's use of "the dossier": the fact that the FBI failed to "inform the court that the bureau had itself decided one of its main sources, dossier author Christopher Steele, was unreliable"--unreliable in that the FBI discovered that Steele, without informing them, had gone to the press and had established a close working relationship with journalists. Of course that doesn't mean that Steele's narrative was ipso facto false, that the FBI had been "snookered," or that the FBI would need to cease using Steele's narrative. It simply means that the FBI knew that, going forward, Steele would be far too hot a potato to continue carrying him on their books as an asset--if his relationship with obviously partisan journalists like Issikoff and Corn should become known. From a strictly professional point of view, that was a sensible precaution. From that standpoint, Strassel's closing stricture:
The FBI got fooled by a source, or it knew its source was lying, or it didn’t bother to check, or it was too incompetent to see the obvious. Take your pick. None of the possibilities look good, especially if you’re a FISA judge.
isn't totally fair--although I would personally go with option #2.
The real problem is that while Steele's relationship with obviously partisan journalists could lead to reasonable doubts regarding his veracity, the strength of those doubts was exponentially increased when those relationships were viewed in the context of Steele's authorship of the dossier as the product of a political campaign which those journalists were supporting. If the narrative Steele had concocted was too obviously unreliable for the Hillary campaign to openly own it and had to be filtered through journalists, then the honesty of the FBI in swearing to the reliability of the dossier sourced "facts" to the FISC comes under very serious question. It's from this standpoint that the FBI's failure to disclose Steele's relationship with journalists looks very dishonest--it goes back to the original sourcing.
So, as a bottom line: I don't think Steele actually "snookered" the FBI--they were all playing on the same team. It's just that the FBI had to maintain a certain appearance of arms length dealing, of impartiality. This is part of the difficulty in assessing some of what's surfacing: you need to filter out the CYA elements to see where it's all leading.
Did Steele Really Snooker the FBI?
The bureau should have known he was talking to the press—but it told the FISA court he wasn’t.
by Kimberley Strassel