An apology to Carter Page
After he was acquitted in a major fraud trial, former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” The trial was ruinous for Donovan, personally and financially, and the question was a fair one. Donovan, however, at least received a trial. Former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page has never been given a fair hearing, let alone a trial, to clear his name. As the two political parties spin the results of a report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, one matter remains unaddressed. Someone needs to apologize to Page.
I do not know Page and have had only one conversation with him that I can recall. Indeed, my only impression of him was shaped by the image, repeated in endless media segments, of a shady character who was at worst a Russian spy and at best a Russian stooge. Page became the face and focus for the justification of the Russia collusion investigation. His manifest guilt and sinister work in Moscow had to be accepted in order to combat those questioning the allegations of Trump campaign collusion with the Russians. In other words, his guilt had to be indisputable in order for the Russia collusion investigation to be, so to speak, unimpeachable.
Ultimately, special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion or conspiracy by Trump associates or the campaign with those Russians intervening in the election. However, Horowitz found that the FBI never had any real evidence against Page before beginning its investigation, codenamed Operation Crossfire Hurricane. Soon after the investigation was opened, it became clear that Page had been wrongly accused and was, in fact, working for the CIA, not the Russians. Page himself later said he was working with the CIA, yet the media not only dismissed his claim but was very openly dismissive while portraying him as a bumbling fool.
Horowitz found that FBI investigators and lawyers had determined that the allegations involving Page fell short of a case for probable cause to open a secret warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Those investigators were then told by the eventually fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to look at the Steele dossier, which was actually funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The Clinton campaign denied repeatedly that it funded the dossier but finally admitted doing so after being confronted by media with new information.
Despite warnings about the credibility of Steele and red flags over the unreliability of the dossier, Horowitz found that “FBI leadership” used the dossier to justify its application for a FISA warrant. Democratic members of Congress and a wide array of media outlets have long told the public that the dossier was just one part of the FISA application. That is false. Horowitz states that the dossier played the “central and essential role” in securing the secret surveillance of the Trump campaign, including four investigations with both electronic surveillance and undercover assets.
Early on, Horowitz found that an unnamed government agency, widely acknowledged to be the CIA, told the FBI that it was making a mistake about Page and that he was working for the agency as an “operational contact” in Moscow. Indeed, he was working as an asset for the CIA for years. While it was falsely reported that Page met with three suspicious individuals there, he had no contact with two of those individuals. More importantly, Page did the right thing and told American officials about being contacted by the third person, because he felt they should know.
It gets even worse. Throughout Operation Crossfire Hurricane, evidence continued to flow into the FBI that Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote the infamous dossier, was unreliable and working against the election of Trump. Not only was he known to be trying to get this false information to the press, but evidence mounted that he misrepresented sources and stated false information. While it took long, someone at the Justice Department finally decided to act on the FISA matter regarding Page. The official in charge of FISA applications, Kevin Clinesmith, was told to ask the CIA again about whether Page had been working for the agency. He was again told that Page in fact was, yet Clinesmith allegedly changed the CIA response to describe Page as not working for it. He is now being criminally referred by Horowitz for falsifying that information.
Investigators also found an array of messages against Trump on the social media accounts of Clinesmith, including one declaring “vive le resistance” after Trump won. Meanwhile, throughout this period, the FBI was leaking aplenty but no one leaked the Page was actually a CIA asset. Instead, he was left to twist slowly in the wind. Media reports all but convicted Page of being a Russian spy. Evan Hurst wrote about him last year asking, “Why the hell are Republicans dying on this hill to defend Carter Page,” whom Hurst described, in all caps, as “a literal actual Russian intelligence asset.”
Natasha Bertand later wondered why anyone would question the case against Page. After all, she wrote, Senator Mark Warner, who is ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had warned reporters to “be careful what you wish for” and one of his aides told her that is is “simply impossible to review the documents” on Page and conclude anything other than that the FBI “had ample reason” to investigate him. Her article was published long after the FBI had been told that Page was working with the CIA, but many other stories ran with similar comments from senators suggesting that anyone defending Page would be ridiculed after the release of some damning evidence. Mueller and Horowitz have now confirmed that there was never such evidence showing Page was a Russian asset. Indeed, the evidence showed he was an American asset.
As Horowitz has now stressed, there is a difference between starting an investigation based on mere allegations and continuing the investigation based on known falsehoods. His report documents how direct exculpatory information was quickly shared with the FBI. I do not know anything about Page other than what I have read in these reports. All I know is that he is an American citizen put under a secret surveillance operation based on a dossier shown to be both unfounded and unreliable. He then remained under surveillance with three renewals of secret warrants, even though the FBI was told repeatedly that Page was working with the CIA and that the dossier used to obtain those warrants was considered unsupported. Finally, Page was the subject of an alleged falsification of a document presented to the FISA court to obscure that exculpatory information.
At what point does someone apologize to Page? He is, in fact, the victim of this criminal referral. He is the victim of what Horowitz describes as a “misleading” basis presented to the FISA court. He is a victim of media “groupthink” that portrayed him as the sinister link proving collusion with Russia, an allegation rejected by the FBI, by the inspector general, and by the special counsel. Of course, Washington does not work this way. Page served his purpose and the trashing of his reputation was a cost of doing business with the federal government for many members of Congress and the media. In recalling the question by Donovan, there is no such office. Page is simply supposed to disappear and leave his reputation behind.
Jonathan Turley is the chair of public interest law at George Washington University and served as the last lead counsel in a Senate impeachment trial. He testified as a Republican witness in House Judiciary Committee hearing in the Trump impeachment inquiry. Follow him @JonathanTurley.