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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 [1] 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 [2]. Whether by design or not, the Grassley memorandum [3] 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 [4], with several passages redacted by the FBI and Department of Justice over security concerns. Nunes then published a second memorandum [5] 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 Cav [6]e, 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 [7], 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.

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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). [8]

  

    

        

 

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Nunes vs. Schiff and the Allegory of the Cave"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On February 26, 2018 @ 4:08 pm

It is more than a case of “he said, she said”.

There is a fact that Carter Page HAD been involved with Russian operatives before.

And now he was in a major political campaign for the highest office of the land.

This was enough to make him suspicious, not just by Sherlock Holmes, but Inspector Lestrade.

Yes, there is much to argue about FISA courts, but this case is a poor exponent of it.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 26, 2018 @ 4:35 pm

I think the matter is pressed accurately on one turn — provide evidence of a crime.

Mr. Page appears to have conducted himself in the best interests of the US previously. He the presumption of innocence doubled. Given his previous experience, one might exercise more caution. But to date there is no evidence that Mr Page was not cautious. And there is no evidence that cautious or not he engaged in subverting the laws or even ethics of the US.

By the accounts thus far presented. I would be suspect for spending time with my friend and fellow counselor, who was Russian, in the woods of youth camp training teenagers, orienteering skills.

Or hanging with Russians in the workplace when I taught. Presumption seems to have been tossed out the window.

#3 Comment By Clyde Schechter On February 26, 2018 @ 5:04 pm

“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. ”

Precisely. Why is nobody (else) discussing this?

#4 Comment By MM On February 26, 2018 @ 8:12 pm

“Complicating matters further, all four documents refer to a 50-page FISA warrant which remains classified and as such, is beyond public scrutiny.”

Well, since both Congressmen Gowdy and Schiff have actually reviewed this intelligence in a safe room, someone is obviously lying about its significance regarding the FISA approvals to spy on Page.

I have a hunch about who. Hint: It’s the guy who lied about the danger to national security of releasing Nunes’ first memo.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 27, 2018 @ 4:33 am

Scott, you say that the FISA warrant had nothing to do with politics. Yet you then say it should never have been granted. Why was it sought in the way it was so it would be granted? Now it may be that some of the politically motivated talk after the fact either justifying or condemning it is political – well, almost certainly so. All that tells us is that the danger and forces at play can come from more than one political source, even opposing ones. Given the Star Chamber aspects, it is virtually guaranteed by this immutable human nature on display, that secrecy and lack of accountability will ensue, for these same politics.

It really was political, even though you are right the scope of the problems of secret courts goes far beyond the particular danger of which political objectives were sought in this instance.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 27, 2018 @ 4:41 am

Youknowwho, you know what? You make it clear that having read and been favorably impressed by Dostoyevsky, “Russian” being the operative concern, provides sufficient grounds to question fitness for public office, and to trigger a secret investigation as well. That is, especially and only if you don’t like their politics.

#7 Comment By b. On February 27, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

Every secret warrant should have an expiration date for a reasonable completion of the investigation, not exceeding the statute of limitations. Every secret warrant should then become published, in full . The Republic does not exist for the convenience of law enforcement, law enforcement exists to uphold the Constitution that defines the Republic. If law enforcement officials believe they cannot possibly due their sworn duty because of checks and balances, accountability, and the Constitution, then they should resign.

We choose to go to these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.

#8 Comment By MM On February 27, 2018 @ 12:23 pm

Fran: “Russian being the operative concern.”

It’s a bit more insidious than that. From January:

[9]

“In a letter from the Democratic senior minority counsel for the committee, April Doss, various individuals and groups were told to reveal not just any Russian citizens with which they have associated but anyone that an organization ‘knows or has reason to believe [is] of Russian nationality or descent.'”

Replace Russian with, say, Chinese, or Iranian, or any non-Caucasian ethnic group.

How does that sound to progressives?

And the irony of invoking Joseph McCarthy to attack the President because he defends himself, by the very same people conducting this ethnic fishing expedition, is quite deafening.

#9 Comment By Youknowho On February 27, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

@Fran Macadam

When it comes to Russia, I know my history.

Before there was a KGB there was an Okhrana. Guess who it was who invented the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?

The bolcheviqs had the ideology to run a totalitarian society, but the know how came from czarist Russia.

Now the Soviet Union is gone, but Russia remains, with a KGB man at the helm.

The moment Russia believes we threaten its interests, it will pull every dirty trick it knows. To pretend that because they are no longer Communist they are a friendly, benevolent power is lunacy.

#10 Comment By Allen On February 27, 2018 @ 2:38 pm

b: You had me at “Secret Warrant”, which is by definition illegal under the Constitution of the United States. The whole FISA process is fruit of the poison tree and our geniuses in Congress, most of whom hold law degrees, can’t seem to figure that out.

#11 Comment By John Medaille On February 28, 2018 @ 8:54 am

Whether or not the FISA process is “flawed,” I should like to know what alternative is proposed. Is Mr. Ritter–for whom I have great respect–seriously proposing that all warrants be public?

I know of no other country that goes to such lengths to protect the rights of citizens and to set such watchdogs, both congressional and judicial, on intelligence gathering agencies.

If someone has a better solution, I should like to hear it. But I suspect that any solution will always involve compromises and no solution will be perfect.

#12 Comment By John On February 28, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

Nobody cares about Carter Page except Carter Page and his friends and family. The point of the Nunes memo was that a wrongly obtained FISA warrant on Page taints the entire investigation into Trump (the guy we do care about) and therefore it should all be dropped. This, of course, is a huge non-sequitur. The investigation of Trump does not hinge on the Page warrant, and the Nunes memo itself says as much. Even if Page would be within his rights to have evidence gathered pursuant to the warrant quashed in the non-existent criminal case against him, that hardly implies what Nunes et al have been aiming at, which is Trump’s ‘vindication.’