The FBI believed in 2016 that Carter Page, a one-time foreign policy aide for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, had "been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government” in its efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, according to an application the agency filed with a secret foreign surveillance court just weeks before the election.
The revelation is contained in more than 400 pages of previously classified documents the Justice Department released late Saturday related to the FBI's applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking permission to wiretap Page. The documents — which include the FBI's original application to the court in the fall of 2016 and three subsequent renewal applications — were made public in response to a lawsuit from several media organizations under the Freedom of Information Act.
They are believed to be the first application for surveillance ever released to the public in the 40-year history of the FISA court.
“The F.B.I. believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government,” the initial application states. Then after a redacted line, it says “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.”
The documents, which remain heavily redacted, provide few details about why law enforcement agents believed Page was participating in Russian election meddling when the FBI first began its surveillance in October 2016.
And though the three subsequent applications to continue surveillance grew in volume — 79 pages, 91 pages, and 101 pages, compared to the original 66-page application — they provide little information about the scope of the FBI's investigation into Page, and few, if any, details about what law enforcement agencies had gleaned about the former Trump campaign adviser over the course of nearly a year of surveilling him.
However, the unredacted portions of the documents show that the FBI believed Page had "established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers," and that "the Russian government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” the Trump campaign."
Page, who has not been charged with any crimes as a result of the investigation into Russian election meddling, has denied being a Russian agent. In a tweet Saturday, he accused the federal government of "civil rights abuses," and said the documents show the FBI's "complete ignorance" regarding Russia.
The release of the FBI's FISA application is sure to inflame the contentious debate over the agency's warrant for Page's surveillance, which Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have blasted as having been improperly obtained. Democrats have argued that the FBI acted appropriately in obtaining the warrant from the FISA court. But until now, the underlying documents justifying either argument had not been made public.
“Even in redacted form, the initial FISA application and three renewals underscore the legitimate concern [the] FBI had about Page’s activities as it was investigating Russia’s interference,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Saturday. He added, “While I’m pleased that these conspiracy theories are finally being put to rest, the release of these materials during a pending investigation should not have happened."
Central to the GOP's criticism of the FISA warrant has been the FBI's use of information compiled in a dossier authored by former British MI6 intelligence official Christopher Steele. A memo published by Republican staff on the House Intelligence Committee this February contended that officials did not adequately explain to the FISA court judge that the application relied on research from Steele that was partially funded by the Democratic National Committee and the presidential campaign for Hillary Clinton.
The records released Saturday confirm that the FBI relied on intelligence collected by Steele, who is referred to in the FISA application as "Source #1." Though the application acknowledges that Steele was hired by a US law firm to conduct research into Trump's ties to Russia that could "be used to discredit" his campaign, it states that Steele was not informed of "the motivations behind his research," and that his reporting "has been corroborated."
The application also states that the FBI considered Steele a reliable source and believed his reports to be credible.
In a pair of early morning tweets Sunday, Trump acknowledged the release of the documents and stated that the documents "confirm with little doubt that the Department of 'Justice' and FBI misled the courts."
"Looking more & more like the Trump Campaign for President was illegally being spied upon (surveillance) for the political gain of Crooked Hillary Clinton and the DNC," the president wrote in a second tweet. "Ask her how that worked out - she did better with Crazy Bernie. Republicans must get tough now. An illegal Scam!"