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House Republicans say Ohr interview escalates surveillance concerns

House Republicans say the closed-door testimony of Justice Department (DOJ) official Bruce Ohr on Tuesday has heightened their concerns that federal authorities abused surveillance powers during the 2016 presidential election.

 

GOP lawmakers, trickling in and out of the roughly eight-hour interview, claimed Ohr indicated in his testimony that FBI officials knew more information than they led on in their application to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

 

Ohr, whom Republicans described as cooperative in his testimony on Tuesday, has come under increasing GOP scrutiny for his contacts with intelligence firm Fusion GPS and former British spy Christopher Steele, who were behind an opposition research dossier on President Trump.

"Thus far, [Ohr] has done nothing but exacerbate my concerns that the FISA process has been abused," Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), a House Judiciary Committee member, told The Hill.

House Republicans have long questioned whether federal authorities leaned too much on the dossier assembled by Steele and Fusion GPS, a controversial document containing a series of salacious allegations on the then-GOP candidate's ties to Russia.

Now, House Republicans are suggesting the FBI withheld key information in their application in order to obtain a warrant.

"Not only did the FBI know that the dossier was unverified, but they also knew there was real credibility issues or it would never end up in a courtroom because of the inherent way it was collected and the bias that was associated with that," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of the fiercest DOJ critics, noting that lawmakers have to verify such claims.

The FBI used Steele as a source in their application to obtain a surveillance warrant on Page, according to the heavily redacted FISA application released by the Department of Justice last month.

While the bureau noted in their application that Steele was a credible source who was likely "looking for information that could be used to discredit" Trump's campaign, they still deemed him as a "reliable."

The FBI continued to view Steele as reliable even after the bureau ended its relationship with him as a source over his unauthorized contacts with the press.

The Republican lawmakers declined to elaborate on the details the FBI may have omitted from the application, citing an ongoing interview that is being jointly conducted by the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the Republican assertions.

Majority and minority staff on the two committees questioned Ohr on Tuesday, though no Democratic lawmakers made an appearance for the interview. Seven Republicans attended the sit-down.

FISA applications go through a rigorous vetting and editing process at the FBI and DOJ in order to prevent unsubstantiated information from making it to the surveillance court. Not only is the FBI's supervisory special agent required to sign "under penalty of perjury" that the information put it the FISA application is "true and correct," but senior officials at the FBI and DOJ must also sign off on the application.

The U.S. government must show probable cause that the target of a FISA application is acting as an "agent of a foreign power" who is "knowingly" engaging "in clandestine intelligence activities" in order to obtain a warrant - but it does not need to prove that a crimes have been committed.

Ratcliffe indicated that he believed Ohr's testimony should be referred to John Huber, a U.S. attorney from Utah who is working with the DOJ's inspector general to probe Republican-fueled allegations of surveillance abuse at the FBI and DOJ. Huber was quietly tapped by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year.

"I would expect that his testimony and transcript today would be of interest to United States Attorney John Huber, who I understand has been tasked with investigating specifically whether or not the FISA process was abused as it related to obtaining a warrant on an American citizen named Carter Page," Ratcliffe said.

In addition to Meadows and Ratcliffe, five other GOP lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill during the August recesses for the anticipated interview with Ohr, including Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

Republican lawmakers said they questioned the DOJ official on Tuesday about his wife, Nellie Ohr, who worked for Fusion GPS during the election as a contractor.

Glenn Simpson, co-founder of the opposition research firm, hired Steele to help compile the Trump dossier, which was funded in part by Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Nellie Ohr's involvement has become a flashpoint among Republicans who hint at nefarious motivations, suggesting she was paid to create the dossier - and could've possibly passed along the information to her husband at the DOJ.

No evidence to support such claims has been made public.

Bruce Ohr, a longtime government prosecutor, was demoted in December 2017 after the Justice Department learned he had been in touch with Steele. But Ohr has not been found to have mishandled sensitive information.

While GOP lawmakers did not disclose what Ohr said about his wife, they said he showed a willingness to discuss such matters.

Democrats derided the GOP "attacks" one day after the Ohr interview, describing it as a "waste of time" that aimed to distract from a damaging news cycle for the president, as well as Mueller's probe.

"With Paul Manafort in jail, Michael Cohen in court, and a host of longtime Trump confidants cooperating with federal prosecutors, we can understand why Republicans are increasingly desperate to create a distraction and undermine the Department of Justice as a hedge against what the investigators may find," said Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, respectively.

Trump has repeatedly targeted Ohr in recent weeks on Twitter and in front of cameras, lifting the DOJ official's profile to new heights.

Ohr's interview is part of a broader efforts by Republicans to unravel what they claim was bias against Trump among the top brass at the FBI and DOJ.

"What we really need to get to the bottom of this is: How come this culture existed at the very highest levels?" Biggs told The Hill in an interview. "What culture permitted people in these two agencies to basically act and operate as independent agents?"

Some Republicans have gone after the FBI's use of FISA warrants during the election to attack special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, which is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Ohr is one of a handful of FBI and DOJ figures that the committees plan to interview as they seek to examine FBI and DOJ decision making during the 2016 election. Former FBI general counsel Jim Baker is expected to be interviewed on Thursday, according to a GOP committee source. 

-Updated Wednesday at 6:39 p.m.

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