The FBI told a secret federal surveillance court in 2016 that it believed Carter Page, a onetime foreign policy aide to President Donald Trump’s campaign, “has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government” in its efforts to interfere in the presidential election, according to a trove of documents made public late Saturday.
The FBI released more than 400 pages of documents in response to lawsuits by USA TODAY and other media organizations. It was the first time the government had made public copies of top-secret applications seeking wiretaps of an American under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which are among the government’s most closely held intelligence secrets.
Swaths of the records released Saturday were blacked out because the FBI said they remain classified, including details about why the FBI believed Page was participating in Russia’s election meddling. But the fragments of records the government made public offer a rare window into one of the earliest phases of the investigation into possible ties between Russian meddling and the Trump campaign, which has cast a shadow over the first years of Trump’s administration.
In those applications, FBI agents said they had amassed evidence that “the Russian Government’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election were being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” Trump’s campaign.
The release comes in the aftermath of a bitter dispute over the government’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. Trump and Republican lawmakers have accused the government of abusing surveillance laws to monitor Trump’s campaign, a charge Justice Department officials have disputed.
Trump on Sunday used the document release to criticize the Justice Department's handling of the Russia investigation, which he once again described in a tweet as a "witch hunt" against his administration.
"Congratulations to @JudicialWatch and @TomFitton on being successful in getting the Carter Page FISA documents," he tweeted. "As usual they are ridiculously heavily redacted but confirm with little doubt that the Department of 'Justice' and FBI misled the courts. Witch Hunt Rigged, a Scam!"
Four federal judges separately approved the surveillance requests, each time saying the government had shown “probable cause” that Page was acting as an agent of the Russian government. Two of the four surveillance requests had been approved by top Trump appointees in the Justice Department, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The records released Saturday confirm that the FBI based its surveillance requests in part on the work of Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer hired by a research firm working for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, who compiled the now-infamous “dossier” alleging links between Russia and the Trump campaign. The FBI said in the application that Steele wasn’t told who had hired him to conduct that work, but that Steele “was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit” Trump’s campaign. The FBI said it believed Steele’s work to be “credible.”
But the records also show the FBI harbored broader suspicions – and broader evidence – about Page’s possible ties to the Russian government. In applying for permission to wiretap him, investigators wrote that Page “has relationships with Russian Government officials, including Russian intelligence officers.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee and one of a handful of lawmakers who has previously reviewed the surveillance orders, said the records ”affirm that our nation faced a profound counterintelligence threat prior to the 2016 election, and the Department of Justice and FBI took appropriate steps to investigate whether any U.S. persons were acting as an agent of a foreign power.”
Page on Saturday accused the government of “civil rights abuses” and said on Twitter that the surveillance documents showed the government’s “complete ignorance” regarding Russia.
In a request to extend its surveillance of Page in April 2017, after Trump took office, the FBI said it believed “Page had been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.”
The FBI began surveilling Page in October 2016, shortly after he left Trump’s campaign. It was carried out under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the government to monitor communications when it can persuade a judge that someone is working as an agent of a foreign power. The records show four federal judges signed off on the surveillance, which continued into 2017.
The documents offer few clues about the scope of that surveillance. But in its application, the FBI noted that the surveillance “may incidentally acquire other foreign intelligence information.”
They also offer little information about what, if anything, the government learned in nearly a year of monitoring Page’s communications. The surveillance court granted the Justice Department permission to extend its surveillance of Page three times in 2017. In each of those applications, the department said it was providing the court updated information about its investigation, but those details were largely omitted from the materials released Saturday.
The FBI’s surveillance applications argued the government had probable cause to believe Page had committed a crime in acting as an agent of the Russian government, though the Justice Department did not reveal Saturday which laws it thought he had broken. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer endorsed that conclusion when she approved the surveillance request.
Prosecutors working for special counsel Robert Mueller this month indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic political organizations during the 2016 campaign, and releasing troves of stolen information in an attempt to influence the presidential election.
USA TODAY and the James Madison Project, a non-partisan organization that promotes government accountability, filed a lawsuit last year under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records about surveillance of Trump’s campaign. The suit came after Trump claimed the Obama administration “wire-tapped” Trump Tower before the election.