By Meg Wagner
A wiretapping warrant for a Russia “expert”
U.S. intelligence officials were granted a secret court order last summer to spy on a Trump campaign adviser because the government claimed that it had reason to believe that he was acting as a Russian agent, according to a new report.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Justice Department applied for a warrant to wiretap Carter Page — an investment banker, self-described expert on Russia, and foreign policy adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump — as part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the Republican’s campaign, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.
The FBI and the Justice officials argued in their request for the warrant that they believed Carter had knowingly engaged in intelligence activities to benefit Moscow, citing contact he had with Russian operatives as early as 2013.
A Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge granted the request under the 1978’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), issuing a 90-day warrant that has since been renewed more than once, the Post reported without detailing exactly when any of the warrants were granted.
Page has not been accused of any crime, and it’s unclear what the FBI and the Justice Department may have found — if anything — as a result of the court-sanctioned monitoring.
Page, who no longer works for Trump and has never been a part of the White House staff, has repeatedly denied that he had any improper contact with Russia. On Tuesday he welcomed the FISA warrant. “I have nothing to hide,” he said.
Who is Carter Page?
Page was an essentially unknown investment banker and energy industry consultant before then-candidate Trump named him as an adviser during a March 2016 interview with the Washington Post. Trump described Page as a member of his foreign policy team, although a campaign spokeswoman later described his role as “informal.”
Page had worked in Merrill Lynch’s Moscow office between 2004 and 2007 and, at that time, he also invested in Gazprom, a Russian energy company. (Page insisted that he sold off his investment in the company when he joined the Trump campaign). He returned to the U.S. in 2007 and started an investment firm, Global Energy Capital LLC — where his only partner was a Russian who once worked for Gazprom, he told Politico.
In 2013, Russian operatives tried to recruit Page into their spy ring, federal court documents uncovered earlier this month showed. Page admitted that he met with the spies in New York City and even passed along documents about the energy industry to them — but he said that he initially believed they were Russian business people who could help him broker deals in their homeland.
After joining the Trump campaign, Page traveled to Russia in July 2016 to give a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School, where he condemned the U.S.’s handling of diplomacy with Russia.
In January both the U.S. House and Senate launched investigations into the interference allegations. While team Trump has insisted that it had no knowledge of any Russian attempts to intrude into the election, the multiple probes have thrust Trump campaign and administration staffers with purported ties to Moscow into the spotlight. On March 31, ousted White House national security adviser Michael Flynn — who was fired amid allegations that he illegally meddled in U.S.-Russian diplomatic affairs — offered to testify in front of the congressional panels in exchange for immunity, a bid both the House and Senate turned down.
Strong evidence, but “let’s not jump to conclusions”
The FISA warrant against Page is the strongest evidence to date that the FBI believed that members of the Trump campaign were in touch with Russian agents.
FISA warrants are usually issued for foreign intelligence purposes — that is, to gather information on spies who could be working against the U.S. — and often target foreign powers and their agents. For example, they’re regularly obtained to monitor foreign diplomats in the U.S. The FISA court, which approves or rejects FISA requests, was established in 1978 during the Cold War to protect the U.S. against foreign spies. Since the 9/11 attacks, the same court has been used to issue warrants to monitor suspected terrorists.
The FISA court is top secret (it operates in a bunker-like complex in Washington, D.C.) and FISA warrants are highly classified. Applications for warrants must be approved by top-level FBI and Justice Department officials before they can be presented to one or more of the 11 judges on the court.
Essentially, federal officials needed a thorough case demonstrating their belief that Page was operating as a foreign agent before the FISA warrant would have been granted.
Information obtained through FISA warrants can be used to open a criminal investigation, but it is not clear if the Justice Department will seek charges against Page.
The White House has not commented on Page’s FISA warrant, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — a Trump supporter who has claimed that he has turned down “multiple” jobs in his administration — defended the former adviser Wednesday.
“Everybody in this country deserves … the presumption of innocence,” he said on CNN. “As a former prosecutor, I used to tell my prosecutors all the time that the name of our department was not the Department of Prosecution, it was the Department of Justice. Our job is to do justice, and justice is about, first and foremost, protecting the individual rights of everybody. So let’s not jump to conclusions.”