The House Republicans released the highly controversial Nunes memo on Friday, after the White House gave the all-clear, over the objections of the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“That’s it?” Comey wrote. “Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen.”
That’s it? Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.— James Comey (@Comey) February 2, 2018
Comey had previously lauded the FBI’s decision to publicly condemn the memo. In a statement ahead of its release, the FBI said it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The protests from within the intelligence community have helped fuel the political firestorm around the memo. House Republicans argue the memo proves that the FBI and Justice Department abused its power when it sought a FISA warrant to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign advisor. The memo implies that officials with the FBI and DOJ relied on the now infamous “Steele dossier” to petition for the warrant, but concealed its origins as an opposition research document funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Democrats have said this isn’t the full scope of the available intelligence, and that House Republicans have adapted the evidence to fit their own ends — namely, to undercut the legitimacy of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 elections.
One of the points Comey makes in his tweet is that this “inexcusably exposed a classified investigation of an American citizen.” Others familiar with the intelligence community have echoed that sentiment, arguing the release of the memo needlessly undermines the government’s intelligence-gathering capabilities beyond the Russia investigation — namely clandestine agencies’ ability to recruit informants and sources.
Asha Rangappa, who is a former FBI agent and a lecturer at Yale, explained the “short-sightedness” of the memo in a worthwhile Twitter thread, which she argued would make sources skittish about risking their safety to work with American intelligence agents:
7. This whole clown show is an advertisement to anyone who might be working for our government -- or who might be in the process of being recruited, and is thinking about it -- that the FBI can't protect them, even if it wants to.— Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_) February 2, 2018
9. The sad part is that any deterioration of that trust -- one that isn't based on any facts -- isn't going to only affect the FBI, it's going to affect the CIA, when it's doing its operations abroad, and also the military, which also needs human sources.— Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_) February 2, 2018
But Comey isn’t a mere observer of this unfolding drama; he himself makes a cameo in the memo. Comey, according to the memo, signed off on three FISA applications when it pursued the warrant to surveil Page in FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) during his tenure as FBI director.
Nunes memo also alleges Comey called the Steele dossier “salacious and unverified” — but did he?
The provenance of the Steele dossier is at the heart of Nunes memo. The dossier, the explosive document that alleges ties between Trump and Russia — including the so-called “pee tape” blackmail material — was compiled by a former British spy and partly financed by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC.
The memo argues the dossier became the basis for the surveillance of Page, the conclusion being that the entire Russia investigation is based on dubious political opposition research. (Vox’s Andrew Prokop broke down the memo, and that conclusion is quite a stretch, often based on omitting information and implying, but not outright asserting, suspicious activity by the FBI.)
At one point, Nunes called out Comey’s testimony in June 2017, in which the former FBI director refers to the dossier as “salacious and unverified.” The point, again, is to show that even the FBI knew this dossier was bogus, and still used it to surveil an American citizen.
Here’s the full excerpt:
But a post on Red State (by a contributor who goes by the pseudonym Patterico) points out a glaring problem with Nunes’s characterization. Comey refers to “salacious and unverified material” and “salacious and unverified parts.” The former FBI director doesn’t make a sweeping statement characterizing the whole dossier.
Comey testified that during his January 6, 2017, meeting with the president in Trump Tower, where he briefed Trump about the Russian interference in the 2016 elections, he also stayed behind to alert the president to “some personally sensitive” material, even though it was “salacious and unverified,” because Comey knew the media was about to report on the allegations in the dossier.
In response to questions about that testimony, first from Susan Collins (R-ME), Comey says he briefed Trump about “about salacious and unverified material.” Patterico writes that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) followed up on that response:
Note well: Comey doesn’t say the entire dossier is “salacious and unverified.” He says he briefed the President about “salacious and unverified material.” Later, under questioning from Tom Cotton, Comey once again said Trump denied the “unverified and salacious parts”:
COMEY: The president called me I believe shortly before he was inaugurated as a follow-up to our conversation, private conversation on January the 6th. He just wanted to reiterate his rejection of that allegation and talk about—- he’d thought about it more. And why he thought it wasn’t true. The verified — unverified and salacious parts.
That leaves open the possibility that there were parts of the memo that were true. They just weren’t the “unverified and salacious” parts (including, presumably, the pee tape). Patterico adds that Comey also refused to say in “an open setting” whether the FBI was able to confirm any of the criminal allegations in the Steele document.
Beyond that, based on the memo in its current form, it’s impossible to know for sure the role the Steele dossier played in the surveillance of Page without actually seeing the FISA application. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp writes:
“It could be that the Steele dossier wasn’t very important to the Page application, or that the FBI actually did disclose Steele’s political connections. (This is apparently the argument in a Democratic counter-memo, which was not published because Republicans voted to keep it secret.)
We can’t check all of the memo’s sources, but it is possible to check what Comey actually said — and it doesn’t match Nunes’s characterization. This might seem like a semantic argument.
But the FBI director testifying about an investigation into the president’s campaign is likely to use extremely careful language. The memo, on the other hand, appears to be playing fast and loose with the facts.