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Justice Department Releases Secret Carter Page Surveillance Documents at Center of Partisan Clash

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has disclosed a previously top-secret set of documents related to the wiretapping of Carter Page, the onetime Trump campaign adviser who was at the center of highly contentious accusations by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI had abused its surveillance powers.

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Charlie Savage
, New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has disclosed a previously top-secret set of documents related to the wiretapping of Carter Page, the onetime Trump campaign adviser who was at the center of highly contentious accusations by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI had abused its surveillance powers.

Democrats in February rejected the Republican claims that law enforcement officials had improperly obtained the warrant, accusing them of putting out misinformation to defend President Donald Trump and sow doubts about the origin of the Russia investigation. But even as Republicans and Democrats issued dueling memos characterizing the materials underlying the surveillance of Page, the public had no access to the records.

On Saturday, those materials — an October 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap Page, along with several renewal applications — were released to The New York Times and several other news organizations that had filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to obtain them.

“This application targets Carter Page,” the application said. “The FBI believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.” A line was then redacted, and then it picked up with “undermine and influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election in violation of U.S. criminal law. Mr. Page is a former foreign policy adviser to a candidate for U.S. president.”

Page has denied being a Russian agent. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The documents were heavily redacted in places, and some of the substance of the applications had become public in February, via the Republican and Democratic Intelligence Committee memos.

Visible portions showed that the FBI in stark terms had told the intelligence court that Page “has established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers”; that the bureau believed “the Russian government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” Trump’s campaign; and that Page “has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government.”

The spectacle of the release was itself noteworthy, given that wiretapping under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, is normally one of the government’s closest-guarded secrets. No such application materials had apparently become public in the 40 years since Congress enacted that law to regulate the interception of phone calls and other communications on domestic soil in search of spies and terrorists, as opposed to wiretapping for ordinary criminal investigations.

The fight over the surveillance of Page centered on the fact the FBI, in making the case to judges that he might be a Russian agent, had used some claims drawn from a notorious Democratic-funded dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent. The application cited claims from the dossier about a meeting Page purportedly attended with a person close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Page was on a trip to Moscow in July 2016, two months before leaving the Trump campaign.

Republicans portrayed the Steele dossier — which also contained salacious claims about Trump not included in the wiretap application — as dubious, and blasted the FBI for using material from it while not telling the court that the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign had funded the research.

But Democrats noted that the application also contained evidence against Page unrelated to the dossier, and that it did tell the court the research’s sponsor had the political motive of wanting to discredit Trump’s campaign. They argued that it was normal not to specifically name Americans and U.S. organizations in such materials.

The application shows that the FBI told the court it believed that the person who hired Steele was looking for dirt to discredit Trump. But it added that based on his previous reporting history with the FBI, in which he had “provided reliable information,” the bureau believed his information cited in the application “to be credible.” It did not use their names.

Since February, even as Trump and his allies have continued to portray the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt,” it has produced indictments of two dozen Russians and Russian government officials for efforts to covertly manipulate American social media and for hacking and releasing Democratic emails during the campaign.

Noting that the original application and its three renewals were approved by senior law enforcement officials in two administrations and by federal judges, for example, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, portrayed the threat from Russia that the FBI was investigating as real and severe.

“Anyone aware of these facts would recognize that these applications were necessary and appropriate,” Nadler said. “Those who say otherwise are trying desperately to protect President Trump from a broader investigation that must be allowed to take its course without interference.”

While applications for criminal wiretap orders often become public, showing what the government’s basis was for seeking it, the government until now has refused to disclose FISA materials even when using evidence gathered through such wiretaps to prosecute people.

But in February, Trump — over the objections of law enforcement professionals — took the unprecedented step of lowering the walls of secrecy around such materials to enable House Intelligence Committee Republicans, led by Rep. Devin Nunes of California, to disclose their 3 1/2-page memo, which sought to portray the surveillance of Page as scandalous.

In addition to invoking Trump’s declassification to seek disclosure of the underlying materials by filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department, The Times also petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to unseal the materials itself.

The court has not responded to that request. But after two members of Congress separately asked the court to release materials related to the Page wiretap applications, a judge told them the court would wait to see how the executive branch responded to similar requests.

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