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What the House Democratic memo means for the Russia probe

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released on Saturday a memo that rebuts key claims made in a Republican memo that alleged federal law enforcement abused its powers when it sought so-called FISA wiretaps on a former Trump campaign aide. Jamil Jaffer, a former senior counsel for the House Intelligence Committee, joins Lisa Desjardins to unpack the new memo.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We turn now to part two of the fight over a controversial and once classified memo.

    Earlier this month, House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes released a Republican memo about the handling of one piece of the Russia investigation.

    Over the weekend, Democrats served up their own version of the document.

    Lisa Desjardins takes a closer look.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This memo, 10 pages long and partially redacted, rebuts a key claim made by the previous one, that federal law enforcement abused its powers when it sought so-called FISA wiretaps on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in late 2016.

    In a weekend tweet, the president called this latest memo, prepared by the top Democrat on House intelligence, Representative Adam Schiff, a total political and legal bust.

    What is exactly?

    Let's talk to Jamil Jaffer. He was senior counsel for the House Intelligence Committee from 2011 to 2013, also served at the Justice Department's National Security Division during the George W. Bush administration.

    Thank you.

    There's much to say and a lot of frenzy here, but let's cut to sort of the main point. The original memo charged that the FBI and DOJ put a hand on the scale early on in this Russia investigation by not disclosing that one of their key sources had political motivation.

    What did this new Democratic memo add to that?

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    Well, I think it's pretty clear now that the Justice Department did in fact disclose to the court that there were political motivations behind the Steele dossier. Right?

    And the only question now is, did they use the words Hillary Clinton and Democratic campaign? The answer to that is no, but they didn't do that in part because they were redacting out the names of U.S. persons and U.S. entities.

    And so should they have said more? Hard to know. But I think that is what the debate is about now. We now know that in fact they did tell the court that there were political motivations behind it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, let's unpack that a little bit.

    The Steele dossier, many of our views may know, because it has sort of some scintillating information alleged against the president. Some of that has been debunked. And that information originally was gathered by a conservative funding source.

    Later, Democrats paid for that. It ended up in the FBI's hands. And you're saying is, this memo today tells us that while the FBI did disclose there was a political motivation, but not exactly who it came from?

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    Exactly.

    And it says — what it says is that people who want to discredit campaign one, the Trump campaign, were gathering this information, right, and that they had paid the source for this information. So, you know, from the context, it's fairly clear. I mean, the court could easily assume who was paying for this.

    But they weren't exactly transparent about that exact point as to which campaign it was and who was involved. The Republican memo suggests they should have been. The Democratic memo says, well, they told the court enough.

    Now the American people now have an honest sort of debate between the two about who's got it right here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Can you help us understand then what's normal procedure?

    You have been on both sides, the oversight side and the filing application side. Is it normal to just say there was someone who was politically motivated, we're not saying from which party, involved here, or is it more the common procedure to say Democrats were doing this or Republicans were doing this?

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    Well, it varies, when it comes to FISAs. Right?

    What you want to do is, you want to give the court enough information about the context and about the information so the court can judge, is this reliable information on which to depend when it's making its decision about whether to grant the court order and whether there's probable cause to believe that Carter Page was an agent of a foreign power.

    Now, at the same time, depending on which side of that debate you fall on, you might want to give the court more or less information. The goal is to give the court as much information as it needs to make its judgment.

    Here, they were clear about the political motivations behind the memo. They were not clear specifically about which side. And that's partly because they take efforts to protect the privacy of U.S. persons involved and they typically redact out U.S. persons' names and put in U.S. person one or U.S. entity one. That's not unusual.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let's take a bigger step back also at this overall investigation.

    Does today's memo shed any light on what we know about Russian meddling and whether there were any contacts or any collusion between Russians and U.S. officials, including the Trump campaign or the Trump White House? Do we learn anything more? Is this just a tempest in a teapot?

  • JAMIL JAFFER:

    So, I think, in a lot of ways, what we know now about Carter Page is that Carter Page, there were a lot of reasons to surveil him, right, beyond the dossier.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Just a reminder, he was at one point, for a few months, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    That's right.

    Of course, this FISA took place after he had left the campaign already and was disassociated with the campaign. But there were good reasons to surveil Carter Page.

    Now, ultimately, it looks like that investigation hasn't come to anything. But there were good reasons at the time to do that. That all being said, what we did know about the larger context is in fact there was a Russian effort to influence our elections.

    It's actually an effort that continues today to influence our trust in our system. Right? And this partisan infighting about Carter Page in the memos is actually really playing into the Russians' hands in a lot of ways. And it's something that we as a country need to think about and come together and say, look, this is a very real threat by a foreign nation state. We need to respond to that, and respond aggressively.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    People trying to pay attention to this investigation, what would you recommend? What matters and what is distraction?

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    Yes.

    I think what matters here is, if you believe there was a problem at the FBI or there were issues going on, what's the evidence of that? And if it's there, let's figure out how to fix that.

    But let's not get caught up in this back and forth about Republicans, Democrats, right, this whole thing, this fight between Schiff and Nunes on one hand. And really what you need to focus on is, was there a problem and was there political influence here? If there was, let's fix it.

    If there wasn't — but this doesn't bespeak a larger problem with the FISA process, because, ultimately, that process has worked pretty well and is very effective at combating threats to our national security. We need to focus on that. And there is today a very real threat to our national security . And that is a Russian effort to influence our body politic, which is a real problem.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Jamil Jaffer, you have seen that process from the halls of Congress and from the Department of Justice.

    Thank you for joining us.

  • Jamil Jaffer:

    Thanks for having me.

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