On Saturday night, something unprecedented happened: 412 pages of FISA applications were released to the public for the first time in history. The United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was established in 1978, and it is perhaps the most secretive court in the world. It was created to oversee requests for surveillance warrants against alleged foreign spies inside the United States, and the NSA and FBI submit the vast majority of these applications. Because the information underlying the application is so secretive, very little is publicly known about how FISA really works.
If you’re wondering how we gained access to these applications, you can thank the Freedom of Information Act. In a normal political world, we would never have the opportunity to see these documents, but the clown car of madness piloted by Devin Nunes and his lackeys in the House of Representatives revealed enough about these Carter Page FISA applications to the public that lawyer Mark Zaid, journalist Brad Heath and the James Madison Project were able to successfully convince a judge that enough information about the most secretive court in America was already revealed by our (Republican) public representatives, that the public had a right to see the rest of the redacted document.
You should be skeptical of the vast majority of folks acting like they know what they’re talking about from a legal perspective on these applications. To say that this is arcane law is an understatement. Not to mention, it’s heavily redacted, so it’s impossible to evaluate any overall narrative coming out of it. That said, there is enough information available where some arguments from team Trump can be wholly repudiated (like the supposed Democratic witch hunt—four Republican judges approved these FISA applications). This is where I will cede my time to folks who actually understand this court and can explain it in a cogent, non-partisan manner.
First up, the former head of intelligence law at the NSA, April Doss.
First, Title I only permits surveillance of a U.S. person when there's probable cause to believe that the person is an agent of a foreign power. What the FBI put together in its submission was proof of PC. Remember, PC is not the same as proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 4/— April Doss (@AprilFDoss) July 23, 2018
And that's exactly what the 412 pages of these applications (initial and 3 renewals) did. They laid out a detailed case before a judge explaining why there was preliminary and ongoing cause to believe there was enough evidence for the government to continue investigating. 6/— April Doss (@AprilFDoss) July 23, 2018
So the idea that DoJ, FBI, or FISC didn't know there could be bias in the info is factually inaccurate. And the idea they wouldn't've been able to assess the reliability of the info is: a) not true, and b) a red herring to detract from important facts showing probable cause. 8/— April Doss (@AprilFDoss) July 23, 2018
One of the most damaging, demoralizing, and dangerous impacts of the rhetoric around the Russia investigation has been the politicization of intelligence. Folks, national security is a nonpartisan issue. Intelligence officers do their work in an honorable, nonpartisan way. 10/— April Doss (@AprilFDoss) July 23, 2018
Remember: Foreign adversaries have no loyalty to a particular American political party. They will use any societal, economic, or political dynamic to their advantage to achieve their aims. Americans who believe adversaries are loyal to our internal parties are fooling themselves.— April Doss (@AprilFDoss) July 23, 2018
So can we lay off the hyper-partisanship and stop with the conspiracy theories? There is no deep state. If you haven't read the docs yet, I urge you to. https://t.co/a0hZJyrxdI Look for explainers from people who have experience in how FISA and natsec work. 14/— April Doss (@AprilFDoss) July 23, 2018
Next is cybersecurity researcher Matt Tait, who was approached by Republican operative Peter W. Smith in his search for Hillary's deleted e-mails. Smith had reached out to Kremlin-linked hackers and he asked Tait to verify the veracity of their claims. Don't let Tait's (hilarious) Twitter handle fool you, he is one of the small group of people alive with the technical ability to understand this document. Doss told you why it's important, and Tait is here to tell you what is important.
Oh before continuing, should just point out that not only did Nunes's actions lead to this chain of events leading to this being disclosed, HPSCI also screwed up the redactions so we know there were four inquiries into Trump associates by September 2016 https://t.co/sbRugfNmCe— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
For example, meet application the first, in which Page has apparently established relationships including Russian intelligence officers ????????????? pic.twitter.com/0RSuXLLYb4— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
I don't want to draw too many inferences from black boxes, but that looks awfully like application the first found out stuff about Page's interactions with Russian intelligence officers which—now hear me out on this—is exactly what FISA is for.— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
The full set of footnotes describing Steele in FISA application the first. Worth re-reading the Nunes memo in light of this to see just how utterly dishonest the Nunes memo is. pic.twitter.com/BkwO1KWirE— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
It's honestly kind of amazing that every single one of the assertions about inadequacies about the FISA application by Nunes are just directly refuted by the FISA application. Utterly dishonest in its entirety.— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
Section III.B. of the application is "Page's Coordination with Russian Government Officials on 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Influence Activities". Worth pulling apart how that section is structured.— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
We don't know what's behind the blacked out text, but Schiff does, and he says it's multiple independent sources that corroborate Steele's claim that Page met with Russian officials [Sechin and Divyekin]. pic.twitter.com/GxduqLzRIC— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
So here's the logical flow and summary of "Section IV.B / Page's Coordination with Russian Government Officials on 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Influence Activities" pic.twitter.com/xeL7ciq3Sr— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
These two sections are completely blacked out. Even the titles. And in FISA application the third and fourth, even the separation between where VI ends and VII begins is blacked out. They are going to a lot of effort to stop you poking around in here.— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
VI is 3 pages:
national security, withheld by statute (non-discretionary), pending law-enforcement matter, personal privacy, identity of a confidential source (only 2 of 3 pages withheld under this), and secret law-enforcement investigative techniques— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
They really don't want you to know what's in here. E.g. they are withholding even unclassified sub-headings within this section to keep it entirely opaque (this one withheld under pending law-enforcement matter and investigative technique exemptions). pic.twitter.com/XFJNajIQZZ— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
But here's the thing: the FISA applications as given don't talk about this at all. This has to be covered in those entirely redacted sections.— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
I think VI is roughly your statement of facts, VII (in FISA 2-4) is roughly your "what we've found so far" section, and section VIII (VII in FISA-1) is what amounts to a rapidly growing list of specific alleged crimes he's been committing along the way.— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
Maybe that's overreading it, who knows. But either way, FBI has persuaded four different federal judges that there is probable cause Page was acting on behalf of Russian intelligence, incl. prob cause he committed crimes, so he should definitely STFU and hire himself an attorney.— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) July 22, 2018
Lastly, I'll bring a staunch conservative into this mess just to prove that this is not a partisan column, despite my very clear bias against team Trump. Julian Sanchez is a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and he has spent his professional life covering the intersection of privacy, technology and politics. Here are his two cents on the FISA application.
Making my way through the Carter Page FISA application. First thing that jumps out: They went straight for “knowingly engages in clandestine intelligence activities”; I'd thought they might have leaned on the “aids or abets” definition of a foreign agent.— Julian Sanchez (@normative) July 21, 2018
There's a full page of discussion of Steele being hired to conduct political oppo research, and why the FBI regards his reporting as reliable anyway. Makes the Nunes claim that they tried to hoodwink the FISC about this look even more ridiculous.— Julian Sanchez (@normative) July 21, 2018
The fact that the material remains redacted implies they had something apart from the Steele reporting that's currently public, but no way to know what it is or how solid it is.— Julian Sanchez (@normative) July 21, 2018
What this does make clear beyond any serious doubt is the brazen dishonesty of the Nunes memo. It is impossible to imagine a reasonable person reading this document and then making the claims in that memo in good faith.— Julian Sanchez (@normative) July 21, 2018
Of potential interest: The renewal applications cite Page's public denials and, specifically, his claims that he was targeted purely based on bogus information produced at the behest of the Clinton campaign. Long redacted passages follow.— Julian Sanchez (@normative) July 22, 2018
So to recap: the only concrete takeaways that we have from this are that Christopher Steele was not the only source used to justify surveillance of Carter Page’s shadiness, and Devin Nunes’ memo was simply a gigantic pile of outright lies and falsehoods—known lies and falsehoods, as Nunes saw the all 412 unredacted pages of this document. Other than that, there are far too many redactions to get a sense of the full picture of Carter Page’s problems, but we can assume that each FISA application bore new fruit, as each application is longer than the previous one.
President Trump predictably spun this into his “witch hunt” narrative, but there’s one fact that should be communicated far more often in mainstream media over Trump’s claims: he can declassify whatever he wants whenever he wants. He’s the president. If Trump really believes that this FISA application was “classified to cover up misconduct by the FBI and the Justice Department in misleading the Court by using this Dossier in a dishonest way to gain a warrant to target the Trump Team,” then he can declassify the supposed misconduct and reveal the truth to everyone. The fact that Trump won’t do it tells you everything you need to know about whether those redactions help or hurt his case.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.