Nunes vs. Schiff and the Allegory of the Cave
In the ongoing saga over Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, no single issue has divided Democrats and Republicans more than the question of whether the FBI and Department of Justice abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to monitor the communications of Carter Page, a one-time foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign.
Last month, the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devon Nunes, released a four-page memo detailing the Republicans’ position that such abuses did, indeed, take place. This memorandum was followed up by the declassification of an earlier memo from the Republican Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, referring former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who authored several research memoranda detailing information gathered inside Russia, to the Justice Department for lying to FBI agents. Whether by design or not, the Grassley memorandum complimented the Nunes document, confirming some points, expanding upon others, and raising new ones.
Meanwhile, In response to the Nunes memo, the Democratic co-chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, released its own 10-page rebuttal Saturday, with several passages redacted by the FBI and Department of Justice over security concerns. Nunes then published a second memorandum in response to the Schiff memorandum.
Complicating matters further, all four documents refer to a 50-page FISA warrant which remains classified and as such, is beyond public scrutiny. As a result, the American public is presented with a modern take on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, likened to prisoners trying to ascertain the truth from shadows projected on a wall from figures passing in front a fire behind them they cannot see. Like the prisoners in Plato’s tale, the American public is conditioned by perceptions born of incomplete data, hardened by partisan politics, and subsuming all fact. So much so that if the FISA warrant is ever declassified in its totality, the truth will be indiscernible.
The major differences between Nunes and Schiff in their dueling memoranda revolve around the propriety of the FISA process as applied to Carter Page. Nunes, supported by Grassley, contends that the FISA warrant targeting Page was heavily politicized, making extensive, if not nearly exclusive, use of information derived from the work of Steele, who had been contracted by Fusion GPS to gather opposition research on Trump for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Hillary for America. Moreover, Nunes contends the FBI went out of its way to shield specific details of the origins of the Steele research, noting that the FBI agent in charge of the FISA warrant process and underlying counterintelligence investigation into Russian collusion, Peter Strzok, demonstrated bias against Donald Trump in texts with paramour Lisa Page, a DOJ lawyer who was working on the Trump investigation. According to Nunes, the entire FISA warrant process showed Page’s constitutionally-protected civil rights were being violated in the name of partisan politics.
Schiff’s counter-narrative holds that Page’s past as a previous target of Russian intelligence, and his continued connections with Moscow while serving as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, put him under early suspicion. The Steele memoranda only informed an already problematic picture and was by no means the totality, of the FISA warrant, Schiff charges. Far from being politicized, he claims the warrant was a textbook example of professionalism on the part of the FBI and the DOJ, which provided the FISA judge with ample notice of the political origins of the Steele information while noting that Steele had a long and productive history as a human intelligence source for the FBI.
This is a classic he-said, she-said disagreement, where each side cherry picks data that best supports and sustains their own arguments. As in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, however, the arguments made by both Nunes and Schiff are but shadows of a reality that escapes note simply because both sides are blind to the underlying truth, which in this case isn’t about Page per se, but the FISA warrant process itself.
Two questions emerge from the counter narrative of Adam Schiff that are illustrative of this point. The first is the importance placed by the Schiff memorandum on the interview conducted by the FBI with Carter Page in March 2016. Second, is what transpired during Page’s visit to Moscow in July 2016.
Schiff places considerable import to the fact that Page was interviewed by the FBI in March 2016. While the exact date of this interview was not made public, its timing is curious, since Page was named as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign on March 21 that year. The FBI had a previous interest in Page stemming from a 2013 counterintelligence investigation into Russian espionage activity where he appeared to have been an unwitting target of Russian intelligence officers. Page was notified by the FBI of this activity, and by all accounts actively cooperated with the FBI, helping facilitate a process that led to the arrest and conviction of a Russian spy.
Page acknowledged that he was contacted by numerous Russian persons when his name was released as being a Trump advisor; it is highly likely that the FBI paid Page a courtesy call, informing him that some of the people who reached out to him were known or suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence. But what is certain is that the March meeting between the FBI and Carter Page predated all the identified activity of interest in the FISA warrant application, and as such is apropos of nothing.
Schiff likewise emphasizes the fact that Page met with two Russians, Andrey Baranov, an advisor to Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, and the other Arkady Dvorkovich, a Deputy Prime Minister for economic affairs. Schiff cites several intelligence reports that would appear to corroborate these meetings having taken place, as well as communications to and from Page that relate to these meetings. Schiff then notes that specific reporting from Steele detailing information that Page had met with Sechin himself, as well as another senior Kremlin official, Igor Divyekin, where the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia was discussed, as well as the existence of compromising information on Clinton.
But the reality is that Page never met with either Sechin or Divyekin—no independent intelligence exists that suggests otherwise. For this, Steele’s report is meaningless, and should never have been referenced as part of a FISA warrant application.
In America, it is not a crime to have been selected as a person of interest of a foreign intelligence service. The crime comes only when one knowingly works on behalf of that foreign intelligence service against your country. There is no evidence available today that Page ever conspired or collaborated with Russian intelligence against the United States or any other party. Likewise, it is not a crime to socialize or otherwise interact with citizens of Russia so long as no U.S. laws are violated, such as would be the case if one sought to do business with a sanctioned individual or entity. Page has never been charged with a crime when it comes to his activities with, or in Russia.
This is the truth of the Carter Page FISA warrant. It has nothing to do with politics, despite what Nunes will have you believe. While it may, in fact, represent the normal course of business before the FISA court, therein lies the rub: based upon the information cited by Schiff, a FISA warrant should never have been granted to target Page. And while the whole story will not be known until the entire warrant has been released, we do know this: he stands a free man and he has not been indicted of any crime.
This is the problem of secret intelligence, presented before a secret court—virtually any American can become a target, and there is absolutely no defense against it. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, the American public is enthralled by shadows dancing on a wall, imagining political intrigue, all the while ignorant of the real dangers happening right behind them.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War (Clarity Press, 2017).