Battle of memos obscures Russia probe

Did the FBI abuse its power in its investigation of Russian meddling? Emily Hohler reports.

On Monday, the House intelligence committee voted unanimously to release a memo by the panel’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff, rebutting allegations in a Republican memo by committee chairman Devin Nunes, that the FBI had abused surveillance laws. The Nunes memo essentially “alleges an abuse of power by the FBI in its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election”, says Tom McCarthy in The Guardian. Democrats say the Nunes memo is designed to undermine the FBI investigation, led by Robert Mueller.

The White House declassified the Nunes memo on Friday, says The Wall Street Journal. “Now we know why the FBI tried so hard” to block its release. It confirms that the FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) order to spy on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser with Russian connections. An “essential” part of the FISA application was a dossier assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele, yet the FBI omitted to tell the court that the dossier was part-funded by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and thus biased.

The FBI then fired Steele without informing the court, even as it sought further renewals of the order on Page. In effect, the FBI “let itself and the FISA court be used to promote a major theme of the Clinton campaign”. Nunes is “doing a service by forcing these facts into the public domain”. The idea that this is an attempt to discredit Mueller’s probe is a “misdirection”.

Not only does the Nunes memo have everything to do with undermining Mueller’s investigation, it involves so much “deception and obfuscation” that it’s “hard to know where to start”, counters The New York Times. The notion that anti-Trump FBI investigators “conspired to trick” an intelligence court into granting them a warrant to spy on Page, thereby “corrupting the entire Russian investigation from the start”, is crazy.

The FBI didn’t see see the Steele dossier until the inquiry was underway, prompted in mid-2016 by “suspicious contacts” between George Papadopoulos, a former policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, and Russians. Second, Page has been in the FBI’s sights since 2013 when Russian intelligence attempted to recruit him. Third, omitting to tell the court who financed the dossier is “hardly a scandal”. Courts assume bias exists, and “weigh the information in the light of that”.

Finally, a “conspiracy to obtain a warrant based on bad information would have required the involvement of at least a dozen agents and prosecutors, a corrupt or incompetent federal judge and the director of the FBI all working in concert”.

The FBI is not above criticism, but this isn’t why Nunes is “pushing his dishonest memo”. Republicans from the top down appear determined to “derail” the Russian investigation, even if that means “undermining the nation’s trust in law enforcement” and “fostering an environment of permanent suspicion and subterfuge”.


Hard left consolidates its grip on Labour

The hard-left, Corbyn-supporting Momentum group plans to use Labour’s democracy review to “tighten its stranglehold on the party”, says Caroline Wheeler in The Times. Last month, three Momentum candidates, including founder Jon Lansman, were elected to the National Executive Committee, Labour’s governing body. Hard-left activists are now demanding changes, including all-member votes (votes by all local party members, rather than just councillors) to elect council leaders.

The move, which could “usher in a wave of Haringey-style purges of traditional Labour councillors”, comes just days after Claire Kober, leader of Haringey council, resigned citing the “sexism, bullying and undemocratic behaviour” of Momentum activists. Kober acted after the NEC took the “rare” step of telling the council to halt its £2bn housing redevelopment scheme, which involved a partnership with a private firm.

Then, on Friday, the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, unveiled plans to make councils ballot residents on housing estates earmarked for demolition if they want city hall funding, say Aime Williams and Jim Pickard in the Financial Times. Critics are accusing Khan of “tacking to the left” to keep Momentum on side.

Meanwhile, Labour’s key plan to boost council house building – forcing the cheap sale of land to the state – was unveiled last week, says Robert Booth in The Guardian. Landowners currently sell at a price that reflects the huge boost in value with planning consent. Labour thinks these huge costs are slowing down housebuilding and has plans for a new English Sovereign Land Trust with powers to buy land at lower prices.

And at Davos, shadow chancellor John McDonnell (pictured), said a Labour government would introduce a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. He warned corporations and the super-rich: “Pay your taxes.”