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Big Questions In Russia Case May Be Answered If FISA Documents Are Unredacted

Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, spoke with reporters following a day of questions from the House intelligence committee in November 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite
Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, spoke with reporters following a day of questions from the House intelligence committee in November 2017.

President Trump may soon double down on his strategy of releasing secret documents to undercut the Russia investigation by unveiling one with still fewer redactions — or none.

In July, the administration released the top secret application made by the FBI in 2016 to collect the communications of a onetime Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. It was heavily redacted, with entire pages blacked out.

Click here to see the full, redacted FISA request.

Now, there are suggestions that Trump may release the full document, or others, and fill in some of the blanks.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to comment on the prospect of releasing the full request, or other materials. The Justice Department declined to comment.

Here's a look at what has been established by the releases so far and what questions might be answered by a new document dump.

1. Who requested the surveillance?

Trump and Republicans have waged a general attack against federal law enforcement for months, one that has included a few specific targets. Chief among them has been Peter Strzok, a former special agent whose case has embarrassed the FBI after investigators discovered his anti-Trump text messages.

Strzok is politically radioactive for many Trump supporters, and if he is revealed to have been the "federal officer making application" in the documents, that will stain the investigation all the more in the eyes of critics.

If the FBI supervisory special agent who requested the surveillance isn't Strzok, it could pull a new character into this drama if Trump and his critics make that person the target of a new offensive that stems from the release of new material.

2. What else have the Russians been up to?

Much of the FBI's 2016 request to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court released earlier this summer looks like this.

The only thing readers without a security clearance have to go on here is that there is a great deal to say under the heading: "Clandestine intelligence activities of the Russian Federation."

An unclassified version of this document will make fascinating reading if it details what the U.S. intelligence community knew about covert operatives, technical operations and the other aspects of today's bare-knuckle spy game.

It may also expand the current understanding about the "active measures" waged by the Russians since before the 2016 presidential election.

3. Who else might have been involved?

The FBI argued that Page not only might have been coordinating with the Russians who were attacking the election, but others too in the campaign of "Candidate #1" — Trump.

In this passage, the redaction begins immediately after the word "Page," apparently to conceal a comma and other identities that followed. Subsequent phrases make clear the foregoing people "knowingly engage" in intelligence activity — a reference to more than one person — and that this application specifically targets Page.

Who are the others?

This was in the autumn of 2016, after Page had left the Trump campaign. And since then, all the way through to today — the autumn of 2018 — no one has faced criminal charges connected with serving as this kind of intermediary.

Trump and his supporters say there were no intermediaries — there was no collusion between the campaign and the active measures.

4. How many other sources did the FBI use?

Trump and Republicans have made the material in this section the heart of their attacks on federal law enforcement.

"Source #1" here is former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who had been hired by a political intelligence firm in Washington, Fusion GPS, to research Trump's ties to Russia. His work, which has become infamous as the partly unverified Russia dossier, was being underwritten by Democrats.

People who worked with Steele say he was so alarmed by what he discovered that he felt compelled to warn the American authorities. He met with a Justice Department official with whom he'd had a prior relationship, Bruce Ohr.

Trump and Republicans point to Steele's avowed political antipathy to Trump. They argue the Justice Department effectively swindled the FISA Court by not disclosing who "Source #1" was and that he was an anti-Trump partisan being paid by Trump's opponents.

The Justice Department says its officials did nothing wrong. Its supporters point out the footnotes here and elsewhere in the file that explain why the FBI considers "Source #1" to be trustworthy and that he was working in a political context in 2016.

Not good enough, say Trump's allies — and if an unredacted version of this document makes clear that Steele and his reporting was the only source for this portion of the story, so much the worse, in their eyes.

Republicans often say that Steele and the dossier and what they consider this scurrilous FISA request were the origins of the Russia investigation. That isn't so; it began earlier in the year. But the political strategy that Trump's allies are pursuing depends upon impeaching Steele, the dossier, the Justice Department and this surveillance on Page.

5. Why did Page leave the Trump campaign?

By the late summer of 2016, Trump's campaign distanced itself from Page. But as this document explains, it was Page who acted to take a "leave of absence," citing the "distraction" associated with the questions about, among other things, his trip to Moscow.

The rest of this section is redacted, but if the FBI had more information in 2016 about what it knew about Page's activities and why he was acting, that might fill in some of the blanks of the public narrative surrounding his work for — then departure from — the Trump campaign.

6. What did the FBI ask the court permission to do?

Investigators concluded their initial request to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with a list of "activities" that they said would help them learn more about Page's relationships and activities.

What were they?

It probably would have been relatively simple for investigators to begin to collect Page's phone calls, text messages and emails, given the access federal authorities have to those kinds of electronic systems.

But did FBI agents follow Page physically to see where he went and with whom he met? Did the FBI begin to conduct surveillance on other people based upon Page's activities or based upon leads generated by this work, suggesting that there might have been other FISA surveillance requests, too?

One of the challenges of understanding the Russia saga is the paucity of public evidence about it and the political agendas that underpin the release of what evidence exists.

The Page documents are public because Republicans are making a concerted effort to undercut the investigation and defend Trump. The Justice Department and the FBI defend what they've done, but without releasing the same kinds of comprehensive accounts.

So what has never been established is whether this was the only such order or simply one of a large number — and what investigators might have made about the information they may have gleaned here through that other surveillance and vice versa.

7. What did the feds learn about Page?

Republicans' contention about the FISA request breaks down over the course of the document.

What becomes clear is this surveillance wasn't the fiendish project of "biased" officials going fishing in order to target Trump. Instead, the request shows that officials in the FBI and Justice Department renewed the request for surveillance on Page three more times, including after Trump was inaugurated.

Here's the signature of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on the final application, dated June of 2017.

Rosenstein was nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate. A previous renewal was signed by then-Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who was appointed by Trump.

So the Page surveillance wasn't the project of Obama-era holdovers. And the law requires that these warrants produce useful intelligence. The three judges who agreed to renew the order had to review the intelligence this surveillance was producing and agree it justified extending the collection.

The redacted version of this FISA order from July includes extensive blacked-out sections that may detail what investigators learned about Page. If they were released, that could provide a treasure trove of new information — along with what could be a huge backlash by the Justice Department and the FBI.

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.