What Russia Collusion Investigation … And What Started It?

“‘Fox News anchor Chris Wallace burst viewers’ bubble,” crowed the Daily Beast. The media–Democrat complex was popping its buttons because Fox News’s highly regarded anchor had delivered his audience the purportedly devastating and unimpeachably factual news that the Trump–Russia investigation did not begin with the infamous Steele dossier.1

Wallace was reacting to a clip of Rush Limbaugh’s observation, in a then-recent Fox News interview, that the Obama Justice Department and the FBI “began an investigation based on a phony dossier created and written by associates of Hillary Clinton”—the Steele dossier. No, Wallace countered, “The Trump investigation did not start with the FISA warrant and Carter Page and the dossier.” To the contrary, “It started in June and July of 2016 when George Papadopoulos had spoken to a Russian agent and spoke to an Australian diplomat and said he had heard they had information on—dirt on Hillary Clinton.”

I am a Chris Wallace fan, and was one long before I became a contributor at Fox News. The Fox firmament is fairly described as right-leaning, and its primetime options are laden with opinion programming. The network’s best product, though, is its straight news coverage. Wallace is at the top of the class: a fact-driven journalist who prizes getting it right over getting it Right. Still, his snapshot of the Trump–Russia investigation’s Origin Story—a tale designed to defy accurate rendering—was woefully incomplete.

The Origin Story has been the subject of cacophonous debate, foreign intrigue, spy games, stonewalling, and media scripting. In a sense, in scoffing at the claim that everything flows from the Carter Page FISA warrant, which was substantially based on the Steele dossier, Wallace and others have to be right. No investigation ever starts with a FISA warrant.

A good deal of gumshoe effort is generally needed to get an investigation to the point where a warrant may be sought. The warrant permits what is still called “wiretapping” and “bugging,” the lexicon of a bygone technological time. In Justice Department lingo, such monitoring is known as “elsur,” short for electronic surveillance. Today, it involves eavesdropping not just on people’s phone calls and back-room meetings; there are emails, texts, social media posts, and the like—torrents of communications by wire, cable, satellite, and all manner of complex telecom. Caught in the mix are providers from the legacy phone companies, to newer telecoms, to such social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Gone are the days of simple analog technology transmitting waves of sound by hard wire; modern communications technology zooms packets of digital data, disassembled and reassembled across vast global networks. Now, investigators are vexed by apps that scramble the packets in order to defeat eavesdropping, to say nothing of the legal and technological challenges posed by millions of seemingly indiscriminate communications racing through the internet’s “upstream,” which we’ll encounter in Chapter 5.

The pejorative term for intruding on these communications is spying. To get a judicial warrant permitting it, whether in a criminal or a counterintelligence probe, is no layup. Such a warrant is sought at an advanced stage of an investigation because agents must work hard to corroborate the factual claims on which they will ask a judge to base the legally mandated probable cause finding. Further, Congress has prescribed numerous approval hoops, including sign-offs by top officials at the FBI and Justice Department. These agencies and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in turn, impose additional vetting procedures. As a practical matter, a proper application may not be made to the court until a considerable amount of investigative grunt work has been done.

Even those, like my friend Rush Limbaugh, who stress the foundational role of the so-called “dossier” and the Carter Page FISA warrant, acknowledge that, although the FBI began receiving Christopher Steele’s reports (eventually compiled into the dossier) in July 2016, no warrant was sought until October, three months later. The problem is not that the FBI did not try to verify Steele’s information; it is that the Bureau was not able to verify it (in addition to having good reasons to know that parts of it were ridiculous, that Steele’s credibility was suspect, and that Steele himself did not claim that his information was accurate—just worrisome and worthy of further investigation). That said, to concede that the Trump–Russia investigation did not begin with the dossier-fueled spying on Page is not an admission that it commenced in the early summer of 2016, due to reports about Papadopoulos. In truth, by then it had been going on for several months—since at least the latter half of 2015, not long after Donald Trump entered the GOP nomination chase and before most anyone had ever heard of George Papadopoulos.

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