Carter Page warrant reflects attack on our civil liberties

Carter Page warrant reflects attack on our civil liberties
© Getty Images

If the information in the FBI’s Carter Page warrant constituted probable cause for wiretapping an American political campaign, then the process and the officials involved in it carried out one of the most significant known violations of American civil liberties in recent history. The documents released over the weekend reveal quite clearly that the only information that even remotely connected Page and the 2016 campaign to Russia came solely from Fusion GPS dossier and a Yahoo News report that was based on the same information from the same source.

The first warrant says plainly that the FBI already was convinced that the “Russian government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated” with the Trump campaign. Make absolutely no mistake. This was, from the very beginning, an investigation of the Trump campaign and anyone in it with any ties whatsoever to Russia. The FBI presented the conclusion that Page was the mastermind of this without any serious foundation beyond the Steele dossier.

ADVERTISEMENT
If I were a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court judge, I might well have signed this one-sided warrant, too, especially given the unvarnished judgment of the FBI, and because I would not have been told that this was all really from a single source creating a vast echo chamber, and that it originated with secret funding from the Democrats.

Former British spy and dossier compiler Christopher Steele, it turns out, managed to be on the payroll of the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton to headline trio of DNC fundraisers: report Allegations of ‘Trump TV’ distract from real issues at Broadcasting Board of Governors Chelsea Clinton: Politics a 'definite maybe' in the future MORE campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) while also being “compensated” by the FBI, the warrant reveals. In renewals of the warrant, the FBI admits in a footnote that Steele was later fired by the FBI for lying to it, and yet the FBI maintains that his information is credible, even though the tips come from unspecified, unverified “sub sources.” The information is not first-hand from Steele, but second-hand, third-hand and fourth-hand.

In past assignments with the FBI, Steele was not working for an opposition party trying to dig up dirt on a political candidate he hated. His motivations, and those of his sources, would have been completely different. It is stunning that, even after lying to the FBI about this very matter, he was still presented to the court as a credible source. Clearly, they left the Steele material in the renewals because they needed it.

But, have no fear. Yahoo had a corroborating story that is detailed in a section of the warrant laughably titled “Page’s Denial of Cooperation.” This section is written in a deliberately misleading way since, despite the title, it simply details all of the material in the Yahoo story as corroborating information, sticking Page’s denial at the end. It is a distortion to suggest, as some Democratic congressmen have maintained, that the Yahoo story was not used in a substantive way. It sure was. Even the prior case years in which the Russians did try to recruit Page were used against him, despite the fact that Page was not then an agent for the Russians and had cooperated with U.S. officials in outing the Russian approach.

The warrant then weaves in other unsubstantiated news stories about the Republican Party platform and how Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE would recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea and lift sanctions against Moscow. It details the unverified charge that the Russian government has blackmail material on Trump. Every conspiracy theory you have heard from Rachel Maddow and CNN is thrown into this warrant. Yet, the only connection to Page, the subject, that is disclosed is from the dossier allegations that he had meetings with intelligence officials while in Russia for a speech to an economic forum, and that he supposedly was offered $11 billion to end sanctions. Yup, Page, clearly a genius, on the way to a huge payday.

The lapses in this warrant raise fundamental questions about the restraints necessary when we put a secret court at the disposal of political appointees. They used unverified sources and echoes of those sources in the media, failed to specify relevant and known facts, considered hearsay material based on further hearsay as though it was evidence, and used its judgments and biases in place of concrete evidence to obtain a wiretap. What was established to find 9/11 types of terrorists was now being used to hunt Americans working in political campaigns.

The evidence here is that there was no real evidence. The special counsel investigation by Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, then, is the progeny of Obama administration abuses and the creation of a state within a state by Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinOnly courts can rein in 'King Rosenstein' Five things to know about Bruce Ohr, the DOJ official under fire from Trump Preet Bharara: ‘God bless the Deep State’ if it’s people who care about the law MORE that has little accountability to Congress or the president. The show indictments of Russian agents, which have been transferred to other parts of the Justice Department where they likely will be buried, will only lead to harassment of American agents in Russia. They constitute risky interference in our foreign policy and rightly belonged in a report to the public, not in indictments before a summit.

All of this has frozen our politics and divided our country. We learned that Russia likely was behind the hacks of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta and the DNC, but this warrant underscores again that the case for collusion seemed to be built on windmills. The Russians also went after the Republicans, and intercepted emails in the Mueller indictments reveal that the Russians thought Trump had only a remote chance of winning and were using the DNC hack to bolster Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOvernight Health Care: Azar defends approach on drug rebates | Trump presses Senate to act quickly on opioid crisis | Kentucky governor's Medicaid lawsuit tossed Poll finds Libertarian Senate candidate running ahead of GOP in New Mexico Senate GOP targets musicians Ben Folds, Jason Isbell as 'unhinged left' ahead of rally for Dem candidate MORE over Clinton. Yet, none of this has been investigated or revealed in a balanced and nonpartisan atmosphere. That was rendered impossible by the rush to judgment on Trump campaign collusion, so evident early on and in the text messages of FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.

We need to abolish or reform the FISA process, to put clear and severe restraints on government surveillance of political campaigns. We thought, after the actions of J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, that we had put in place safeguards to prevent such abuse. We believed we had abolished independent counsels by ending the statute creating them.

However, the Page warrant is a significant indication that government officials are quick to assume the worst about disliked rivals and to use those beliefs to overcome the guardrails on their authority through this backdoor secret FISA process. Special counsels have now been reborn with even more unchecked power than ever. The potential abuses of all this when used in politics have once again metastasized within our government. These actions pose real and substantial threats to our elections and our constitutional order unless they are reformed.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.