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In memo wars, facts are stubborn and victory is dubious

Dems' memo shakes up Russia probe
Dems' memo shakes up Russia probe 01:55

WASHINGTON -- After a weeks-long political drama that reached its climax with the public release of a previously classified, Republican-drafted document -- and whose denouement began on a Saturday afternoon, as a Democrat-authored rebuttal memo followed -- the begins to close a painful chapter in both its ongoing investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 U.S. election and its own history.

At the conclusion of all of it, what was learned?

For one, it became clear just how two fundamentally political documents containing classified information could, in an unprecedented and spectacular fashion, be released publicly. The Republican memo, which emerged by way of a presidentially-approved and, by all appearances, accelerated declassification process, contained highly sensitive material about which the Department of Justice and the FBI expressed "grave concerns."

FBI's "grave concerns" over GOP memo 06:39

But Republicans in the Committee said its findings represented a "troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people" from abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process. Their memo said the government had multiple opportunities to "accurately provide an accounting of the facts," but that, because of deliberate acts driven by political bias among DOJ and FBI leadership, it failed to do so.

President Trump agreed with both the substance of the Republican document and that the American people needed, urgently, to know about it. He had it released within five days.

The Democrats' memo, which was written immediately in response but released nearly three weeks later, comprised mainly unclassified material -- things that were mostly already in the public domain by way of press reports or court documents. The process by which the Democrat memo became public differed from the GOP memo chiefly because Mr. Trump opted not to declassify anything about it; all its redacted sections remain classified.

Democratic memo released 05:07

For their part, Democrats argued that DOJ and FBI would have been "remiss in their duty to protect the country" had they not sought a FISA warrant against Carter Page, a former foreign policy aide to the Trump campaign and an individual previously known to the FBI to be an agent of the Russian government.

The Democrats' memo insisted that DOJ and FBI officials acted "appropriately," that they demonstrated "rigor" and "transparency," that they provided a requisite "evidentiary basis" for surveillance requests, and they made them in keeping with longstanding investigative practices.

"… A total legal and political BUST," was how the president characterized it in one of his tweets.

Ultimately, both memos were documents on intelligence that were animated by a political agenda, which destined both to become little more than subjects of protracted and partisan slander.

To the extent either side is now claiming victory, it's difficult to see how that victory is anything but pyrrhic.

The memos' release came at significant cost to the Committee, to the subjects of the memos themselves, and to observers who, without access to the memos' underlying intelligence, are now forced to decide which set of facts they prefer.

The facts that remain stubborn, if still somehow exploitable, are:

1. Some amount of former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele's reporting informed some part of DOJ's request to surveil Carter Page. Payment for his reporting was authorized, but never effected, by DOJ/FBI;

2. Some amount of Steele's reporting was independently corroborated by DOJ/FBI to obtain subsequent surveillance renewals of Page. The nature and gravity of what has been corroborated remains classified;

3. DOJ/FBI independently developed a number of reasons unrelated to Steele's reporting to investigate Page -- and other members of the Trump campaign -- in a counterintelligence investigation that was not originally triggered by Steele's reporting;

4. A Yahoo News article for which Steele apparently acted as a source is cited in the FISA application, albeit not for reasons intended to substantiate Steele's reporting;

5. FBI/DOJ informed the FISA court of the political underpinnings of Steele's reporting, without explicitly mentioning either the Democratic National Committee or Hillary Clinton.

Where an observer comes out as to the appropriateness of any of these facts or actions will depend on any number of variables, including on his or her views of Steele's credibility, of the nefariousness -- or not -- of Page's behavior, of the professional integrity of those involved at the DOJ and FBI and, perhaps principally, on a given political allegiance.

On balance, it is difficult to say how the House Intelligence Committee has helped the agencies it oversees or the public it ultimately serves by revealing only somewhat more about a once completely obscure process. That may be because it cannot be said at all. The hope now has to be that, alongside some facts of limited use, there was a lesson learned, too.

Schiff on FBI and FISA warrant procedures 06:08
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