The just-released Nunes memo alleges surveillance abuses by the FBI and Justice Department in their handling of the Trump-Russia probe. Former FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley and award-winning journalist Max Blumenthal weigh in
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post, Salon.com, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His most recent book is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. His other book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller. Max is co-host of the podcast Moderate Rebels.
Coleen Rowley is a former FBI agent and whistleblower. Rowley jointly held the TIME “Person of the Year” award in 2002 with two other women credited as whistleblowers.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The release of a controversial congressional memo has escalated the partisan fight over Russiagate. The memo, written by Republican allies of President Trump, alleges abuses by the FBI and Justice Department in obtaining a surveillance warrant against former Trump aide, Carter Page. It contends that the Steele Dossier opposition research paid for by Democrats was the key force behind Page’s warrant. At the White House today President Trump called the revelations a disgrace.
DONALD TRUMP: But I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country and when you look at that, and you see that, and so many other things, what’s going on, a lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that. So, I sent it over to Congress and they will do what they’re going to do. Whatever they do is fine. It was declassified. And let’s see what happens, but a lot of people should be ashamed. Thank you very much.
SPEAKER: Are you not concerned that the FBI doesn’t want the memo out?
DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much.
SPEAKER: (Journalists asking questions).
DONALD TRUMP: You figure that one out.
AARON MATÉ: That last comment there from President Trump, “You figure that one out,” was in response to a reporter asking if he still has confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who helped sign off on the warrant against Carter Page.
Well, joining me are two guests. Coleen Rowley is a retired FBI Special Agent and Max Blumenthal who’s a bestselling author and Senior Editor of The Gray Zone Project. Welcome to you both.
Coleen, I’ll start with you. So, some disclaimers should be made here in that we have not seen the underlying intelligence behind this memo written by Republicans and because that underlying intelligence has come out, that’s part of the reason why Democrats say that Nunes and the Republican who wrote this have been misinterpreting the actual reasons and the causes of the warrant against Page and they’re not presenting the full story. So, they’re rendering of the facts in the memo is disputed by Democrats. But, so that said, you’ve read the memo now. What is your take away?
COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, the memo is short and therefore, it was selective. We should all welcome the Democrats to produce their, you know, to have their memo come out so that they can point out any additional information that might have been, you know, missed in this memo. But, with that said, there were two or three things that were pretty shocking in the short memo that even I was not aware of from reading a lot about this.
One was the serious conflict of interest that, I think he was the Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr had and he played an important role because he was the liaison both before and after British spy, Christopher Steele was terminated as a source by the FBI. Bruce Ohr, apparently was the liaison between Steele and Bruce Ohr’s wife was actually working for Fusion GPS, which is the Clinton Campaign group that was hired to do opposition research and hired Chris Steele. So, I mean, I don’t really, I don’t think someone could even write a more serious conflict of interest than that. And that obviously pervades this whole thing. That’s in the memo.
The other thing I thought was pretty damning, if you remember back in the Iraq War, remember when Dick Cheney had Scooter Libby go to Judith Miller and Michael Gordon at the New York Times and plant this false story of aluminum tubes designed for enrichment. They did this so they could gin up the war with Iraq. And then after this story was planted on the front page of the New York Times, then Cheney holds up the front page of the New York Times and says, “Aha, look, the New York Times confirms what I’ve been saying.” That’s similar story is embedded in this FISA memo because what happened here is Christopher Steele in October of 2016 was leaking his story to a media. Got Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News to write a story about it, doesn’t tell the FBI. They then go to the FISA Court and say, “Look, there’s independent confirmation of Christopher Steele by Michael Isikoff.” It’s on all fours with what happened. And, I mean really, it should really cause people of both Republicans and Democrats to worry about this kind of misleading of the FISA Court.
AARON MATÉ: And again, just to clarify for anyone who is confused because there are so many names to keep track of, Fusion GPS is an opposition research firm. It was first hired by Republican opponents of Donald Trump and then hired by the Democratic National Committee paid for by a law firm working for the Hillary Clinton Campaign to do the research that became the Steele Dossier. These allegations about Donald Trump.
Max Blumenthal, your thoughts on the release of this memo.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, first off, I mean, just following up on Coleen’s comments, I think it’s highly significant that Bruce Ohr, who was the DOJ official who was the liaison to Christopher Steele, knew about the origins of the memo. He knew that Christopher Steele, at least according to the Nunes memo, for to believe it, Christopher Steele was determined to prevent Donald Trump from being elected President. And that is what animated the contents of his Dossier, this so-called Dodgy Dossier. The Dossier is really a bricolage, a kind of compilation of the greatest media hits about Trump-Russia collusion and have been mostly kind of discredited. And so, there’s an effort right now by the Democrats and you know, their friends in the media if you want to look at this in kind of non-partisan way, to distance the Russian investigation from the Steele memo because it’s now been so discredited. But if you look at the Nunes memo, it’s very clear that James Comey was distributing the Steele Dossier to members of Congress in briefings. Comey, this is actually reported in April 2017 in CNN sourced to two US officials, so it’s not the first time we’ve heard about this.
James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence was also furnishing the Steele Dossier to people in Congress. I think before John McCain even obtained it. This, you know, this is sort of scandalous now that the Steele Dossier has been mostly discredited. And now we learn that the FISA, if we’re to believe the Nunes memo, we learned that the FISA warrant on Carter Page, one of these obscure people we would have never heard about otherwise, who was riding on the Trump Campaign pirate ship along with characters like George Papadopoulos, we learned that the FISA warrant was obtained without any acknowledgment of the political origins of the Steele Dossier. That it was funded by sources very close to the Clinton Campaign like the Perkins Coie law firm. So, this seems like a case of FISA abuse.
Then beyond that, the FISA Courts are a rubber stamp. We’ve known that for years. They’re part and parcel of this kind of national security apparatus that’s been used for mass surveillance. So, it’s significant that there was, you know, that any information had to even be withheld to obtain the FISA warrant on Carter Page. You know, the FBI and Justice Department have done everything they can to keep the information in this memo from reaching the House Intelligence Committee. It only got there, it only got to Devin Nunes because of threats of contempt of the Congress, massive pressure on the FBI and the Justice Department.
The FBI is in a state of total chaos right now. I mean, we’ve learned about Andrew McCabe and his wife being, basically given half a million dollars by Terry McAuliffe, who’s the former Chair of the Democratic National Committee, was the Governor of Virginia at the time, this is in 2015 before, you know, there was a Russia probe. But it just looks strange when McCabe’s wife is getting half a million dollars to run in a local election race in Virginia. All of these figures are extremely compromised and now Rod Rosenstein, we learned that he signed off on the FISA memo. So, I don’t know how he can continue to oversee this investigation. I don’t see how this is a nothing burger but we do need to see more information.
Number one, we need to see Andrew McCabe’s testimony or the Senate Intelligence Committee. Devin Nunes has claimed that McCabe stated that the Steele Dossier was the main reason why the FISA warrant was issued for Carter Page. Adam Schiff has explicitly denied that and Democrats are now anonymously denying it to their friends in the media at the Daily Beast and elsewhere. So, we need to see that testimony to see who’s lying.
Number two, the Democratic opposition memo should be released. So, the ultimate effect of this is that more information on the Russia probe will be released. And I’m all in favor of that as someone who considers the entire narrative of Trump-Russia collusion to be a gigantic nothing burger.
AARON MATÉ: Right. So, it’s the memo’s contention that Andrew McCabe of the Justice Department, testified …
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Deputy Director of FBI, I think.
AARON MATÉ: Right. He testified to Congress that in testimony that we haven’t gotten yet, that it was the Steele Dossier that was the basis for the warrant on Carter Page. Democrats though say that, that is misrepresenting McCabe’s testimony, which we don’t have yet and but maybe we’ll see like we saw the testimony of Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson.
Let me ask Coleen Rowley though, about a point that Max made about the FISA Court being a rubber stamp for the Intelligence Committee because part of the Democrats counterattack to this is that there’s no way the FISA Court would have approved this warrant of Carter Page if it was just based on the Steele Dossier or other unconfirmed information, that there must have been more because FISA Courts don’t approve warrants based on specious information.
Your thoughts on that based on your experience as and FBI Special Agent.
COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, the FISA Court does have a track record of being a rubber stamp. There’s only a very few applications in history that they have turned down. And when you say FISA Court, it’s a little misleading because it’s really just one judge. There are 11 judges, but when you have an application you just go before one judge. Now, if that judge is not made aware of exculpatory information, as apparently was the case in that first FISA application, and the corroboration you can kind of, you can more than guess on this because even Comey when he testifies in January, I believe, he says that there’s been little verification of the Steele Dossier. So, he admits there was little verification. He called it salacious. He called it the Salacious Dossier and he said there was very little verification. The corroboration that they talk about in this memo is what I just went through which was this Isikoff article that the FBI used to prop up Steele but in fact, Steele was the source of the Isikoff article. So that, of course, is a horrible thing.
Now, we don’t know what other, if there was any other corroboration. Apparently Carter Page did take a trip to Russia in July. So, I’m probably that was in there. So, there was that bit of corroboration that he took a trip to Russia. So, I mean, everyone pretty much not, one thing that we don’t know, is in the meantime, and especially after that first application, how much additional investigation did the FBI do to try to corroborate or refute what was in this, you know, it was several pages long. The Steele Dossier was long and it was kind of bizarre. It seems like the FBI should have at least tried to then investigate that especially since they were going again before a FISA judge every 90 days. They did this for a year. It’s not just one 90 day surveillance. Even if you give the benefit of the doubt that first time, in all fairness, the FBI did not know that Steele was the source of the Isikoff article. So, even if you give them the benefit of the doubt, why did this continue for three more applications over an entire year until just, apparently, this would have gone up till October 2017, just a few months ago.
And that’s where, no one knows, maybe the Democrats will tell us what went on in the meantime, who knows. But that’s, there are a lot of questions about it.
AARON MATÉ: And well, Coleen also, let’s say Steele was not Michael Isikoff’s source for his article. Why is even the intelligence community using a article on Yahoo News as evidence to justify a wire tap, a surveillance warrant?
COLEEN ROWLEY: Well, first of all, I think Steele admitted he was the source for that in some other testimony. But, secondly, that corroboration, even though it would seemingly be thin was, you would think, probably all they had. They got this Steele Dossier in, you know, July, something like that, and essentially they ran with it. They didn’t, you know, maybe try to verify some of it but they really acted quickly. And again, if you’re in a time crunch before an election, you know, in the weeks before the election the FBI, again, to kind of sympathize with this position that Comey and others, McCabe and others had, they were investigating both Presidential candidates. Or in Trump’s case, Trump’s campaign. They were investigating both right in the weeks up to the election. That’s a really unprecedented and really a pressure, I mean, you can’t imagine the kinds of pressures these officials would have had, plus on the other hand, they, you know, are in a partisan situation themselves. Many of those officials had ties into the Clinton Campaign.
So, I think they were just hurried and they sought, they used that article as corroboration it seems like.
AARON MATÉ: Right. And let me say about Carter Page, which is that even if Steele was a source for the surveillance warrant that was approved against him, he had been in the intelligence community’s cross hairs before because he apparently was a target of an alleged Russian spying operation a few years prior because he was trying to do business in Russia and famously, some alleged Russian agents had called him an idiot because they just felt he was someone they couldn’t even recruit because he was so low level and so, in their opinion, clueless. And also, what’s interesting about his role in the Steele Dossier, is that it adds to this pattern you see in the Steele Dossier where everything it says is based on something that’s already come out in public.
So, in the Steele Dossier, we only learn about Carter Page after his visit to Moscow in early July was publicly reported. And it’s probably for that same reason that we never see any mention of people like George Papadopoulos and Rob Goldstone, who even though they’re role in this whole thing was already happening before, it hadn’t publicly come out yet. Which suggests to me that Steele and whoever his sources were, if he had any, were simply reading the newspaper and basing their allegations off of that.
Max Blumenthal, I’m picking up here. Your thoughts on Carter Page and the kooky cast of characters that have pushed this scandal forward.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, let me pick up there. I mean, the reason that Jill Stein is under investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee is because she was named in the Steele Dossier. She was named in the Steele Dossier because there was a torrent of media reports including partisan pro-Hillary Clinton blogs attacking Jill Stein for attending RT’s, Russia Today’s 10th anniversary celebration in Moscow. And the Steele Dossier falsely accused Jill Stein of being, of having her travel paid for by the Russian government. In fact, Jill Stein paid her own way. Never took a dime from the Russian government for anything, even her hotel room. So, that’s just one small detail out of many in which the Steele Dossier is basing information off of already published media reports and getting it basically wrong. And in the process, potentially destroying someone’s political career.
Beyond that, there is the, Coleen mentioned that Steele had testified that he’d been, you know, the source to Michael Isikoff. In October of 2016, I believe the FBI decided not to pay Christopher Steele to continue the investigation. So, we learn there, and this hasn’t been emphasized enough, that FBI Director James Comey had intended to pick up the slack from the Clinton Campaign and pay to continue a private intelligence operation to investigate the Donald Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. I find that kind of extraordinary that a private intelligence operation with partisan origins is being brought in to investigate a presidential candidate by the FBI. Comey has not been held accountable for that in any way but it’s clear that the Steele Dossier was central. The Steele Dossier is also central to the reporting of David Corn and Michael Isikoff and we learn in the Nunes memo that, as you mentioned, Michael Isikoff is reporting for Yahoo where he was basically the stenographer for Christopher Steele. And he’s also collaborated with the FBI to, you know, attack Sputnik News and he’s basically just a stenographer for the FBI and whatever other, you know, spooks are hanging around.
Isikoff is out there promoting a book that he’s published with David Corn. It’s already out I think, and it basically concludes that Putin has attacked America, destroyed our democracy and elected Donald Trump. I would love for them to come on The Real News, one of them or Isikoff and actually support that claim because as we saw with Luke Harding, who published the first book on collusion in his interview with you, he basically melted down because he couldn’t provide one single concrete piece of evidence to support the collusion claim. So, Isikoff is running around right now, today, promoting his book because of the news around the Nunes memo. I find that to be kind of scandalous too and a really sad commentary on the state of the beltway press corps. I mean, we have to remember that Corn and Isikoff were the guys that went after the Bush administrations unmasking of the former CIA agent Valerie Plame and their pushing of false WMD claims. They went after an actual deception. Now they appear to be pushing a deception and in tandem with the FBI and the Intelligence Community and the shadiest spooks around.
AARON MATÉ: The book has not come out yet by David Corn and Michael Isikoff.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: It’s on Amazon. I mean, I saw it.
AARON MATÉ: It’s on Amazon. It’s available for order and we do hope we can interview them about their claims. Max, one quick follow up and then we’ll go to Coleen for final thoughts. Has Steele confirmed that he was a source for Isikoff, or is that just a speculation based on who Steele had, knowing that Steele spoke to the media in the Fall of 2016?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: No, I believe that’s confirmed, isn’t it Coleen?
COLEEN ROWLEY: It’s in the memo. He’s being sued I believe and he’s had to testify in court. Yeah, the memo documents this.
AARON MATÉ: Right, okay. So, Carter Page is suing Isikoff for because of what’s come out about him. And that’s a whole separate, that’s part of this long, confusing saga.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Can I just make one quick point please before Coleen jumps in?
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, please.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: I’ve always been as opposed to Donald Trump as anyone watching this. I’m not defending Donald Trump. This is not about that. I think people should consider, who are watching this, what might have happened if Bernie Sanders had gotten the Democratic nomination and this level of FISA abuse by the FBI had been applied to him. And it likely would have. This is about a larger principle of the manipulation of the political process by an unelected element that’s been crudely referred to as the Deep State, I call it the National Security State, and has traditionally, going back to the McCarthy era, meddled in the Democratic system and systematically de-democratized this country. So, that’s really one of the larger issues. And the other issue is the revival of the Cold War, which is extraordinarily dangerous. This Dossier and the Trump-Russia collusion narrative has helped drive US relations with Russia to a new low. So, I think we have to look at the larger issues here and not get totally lost in the weeds.
AARON MATÉ: Coleen Rowley, we’re at 30 seconds, but you’re a veteran of the National Security State that Max talks about. Your final thoughts on this issue and your concerns looking ahead in the aftermath of the release of this memo.
COLEEN ROWLEY: I couldn’t agree more with what Max just said about the, what the important point here is, which is that the principle of having a government that is responsible to the public and also to our, you know, checks and balances. We need probably independent investigation now because if the FBI is investigating itself, its own people, it’s already a problem. This Inspector General from the Department of Justice, you know, even that is under the Department of Justice. So, I think people should read this and really ask questions. Find out how much the Steele Dossier played into these later fact, these later intelligence assessments that said, you know, Russia’s colluding. That most people now have just assumed are factual. They assume that that’s facts and there really was no information there. And that Steele Dossier looks like it’s what began this all. So, we need to ask more questions. We need an independent investigation and we need more people to be concerned about the state of our country and try to get us back on the right track.
AARON MATÉ: And hopefully we’ll get to look at that Democratic rebuttal soon. And also maybe see some of the underlying intelligence that the Republican memo is supposedly based on. Coleen Rowley, retired FBI Special Agent and Max Blumenthal, bestselling author and editor of the Gray Zone Project, thank you.
And thank you for joining us on the Real News.
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of books including best-selling Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, The Fifty One Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, and The Management of Savagery, which will be published later this year by Verso. He has also produced numerous print articles for an array of publications, many video reports and several documentaries including Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie and the forthcoming Killing Gaza. Blumenthal founded the Grayzone Project in 2015 to shine a journalistic light on America’s state of perpetual war and its dangerous domestic repercussions.