So, the long anticipated ‘memo’ detailing how the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) managed to get the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to endorse secret surveillance of one-time, very marginal, Trump foreign affairs advisor Carter Page, has been released. The key allegations are:
- The DOJ and FBI based their application to the court on the so-called ‘dossier’ of salacious allegations about Trump assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
- The dossier was commissioned by the Trump’s opponents in the Democratic party, and the person who put it together, Steele, admitted to being ‘passionate’ about preventing Trump being elected.
- The DOJ and FBI failed to tell the court about the political motivations of those who commissioned and wrote the dossier.
- The DOJ and FBI provided evidence which they said corroborated the dossier, but that evidence in fact also came from Steele – so, it wasn’t corroborating evidence at all.
- Steele was in contact with the DOJ through a senior official, Bruce Ohr. Ohr’s wife worked for the company which commissioned Steele and which was engaged in the ‘cultivation of opposition research on Trump’.
- The FBI eventually assessed the Steele dossier as ‘only minimally corroborated’.
What should we make of all this?
First, complaints by Democratic politicians and the FBI that releasing the memo somehow threatens national security have been shown to be entirely wrong. There is nothing in this which does anything other than threaten the reputation of the DOJ and FBI and indicate that the Trump collusion story originates in a decidedly dubious document.
Second, Republican hopes that this would be the big thing that brought the Russia investigation to an end have not been justified. There’s nothing here which is so enormously outrageous and so totally discredits the investigation that Trump will be able to stop it.
Third, the justification for spying on Page provided to the court by the DOJ and FBI appears to be the result of sloppy intelligence work. The fourth point above is a clear example of what is called ‘circular reporting’ – i.e. corroborating information by citing evidence which in fact comes from the same source as the supposed information.
Fourth, the credence given to the dossier was also poor intelligence work. A lot of the claims in it were quite extraordinary and in any case implied that Steele, a man who hadn’t even been to Russia for 20 years, somehow had access to the innermost secrets of the Kremlin. A greater degree of scepticism was warranted. The fact that such scepticism was lacking suggests either a) once again, sloppiness, or b) bias. Neither is good, though the first is probably preferable since the latter would imply that a decision to spy on what appears to be an entirely innocent American citizen was founded on political motives.
Fifth, the connections between Ohr, his wife, Steele, and opposition research suggest a rather too cozy relationship between DOJ and those seeking to undermine Trump. At the very least, there was what could be perceived as a conflict of interest.
Sixth, in the end I don’t think that any of the above will matter. Peddlers of the collusion story will no doubt shake this off, pointing out that the memo is the work of Republican politicians and claiming that it is therefore biased and misleading. They will say that it leaves out important information, such as other reasons why the court may have given permission to spy on Page (I’m guessing that the so-called ‘Australian connection’ will be raised in this regard – i.e. information supposedly provided by Trump aide George Papadopoulos to an Australian diplomat, even though as the memo says, there was no connection between Page and Papadopoulos)
Given all that, I imagine that i) those believing that the Trump collusion story is made-up nonsense, and the President is a victim of a conspiracy of Democrats and their allies in the ‘deep state’ will feel vindicated; while ii) supporters of the collusion theory will see the release as further evidence that Republicans are just trying to divert attention because they have something to hide. The primary result, therefore, will simply be a hardening of positions on both sides and an accentuation of the already sharp divisions in American politics. In short, the show will go on.