Less than a week after President Donald Trump authorized a missile attack against Syria, the U.S. military dropped a 22,000-pound bomb on an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan, reportedly killing some 36 terrorist fighters. The military strikes have rattled relations with Russia, sparked global debate about the use of the most powerful conventional weapon in existence and given pundits headaches trying to decode what this means for an administration that sends contradictory messages about its plans for military action abroad.
The strikes — along with a major United Airlines public relations disaster and press secretary Sean Spicer’s blunder with a Hitler reference — also have served to distract the nation from what may have been the biggest bombshell of the week: news that elevates concerns about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence to influence the November election.
The Washington Post reported last week that the FBI had obtained a secret warrant in August to monitor the communications of Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. The Post noted that the FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant after persuading a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge “that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.”
Page has since denied any involvement of the sort while Trump has asserted that any story concerning Russia’s efforts to manipulate the outcome of November’s election is “fake news.”
Nevertheless, this is a stunning development in a story that, despite the president’s protestations, is of critical national importance and can’t be lost in hand-wringing about air strikes. U.S. intelligence officials say that without a doubt Russia sought to tamper with the U.S. election, and investigations are ongoing including with both the House and Senate intelligence committees. Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey told Congress recently that his agency has been conducting a criminal investigation since last summer into possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government.
Three things are particularly significant about this developing story. First, obtaining a FISA warrant is no simple task. These are highly sensitive national security cases, and any application requires approval of the highest ranking officials within the Justice Department and the FBI. As the story points out, the application itself came with a thick stack of documentation supporting the reason for monitoring Page, documentation that included information about contacts he had with a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013. According to the Post, the application claimed that Page “had other contacts with Russian operatives that have not been publicly disclosed.”
Second, this was not a warrant that was granted just because of Page’s meetings. This was issued out of the belief that he was “acting as an agent of a foreign power,” a potentially treasonable offense.
Finally, this was not just a concern that apparently was limited to U.S. intelligence community. The Guardian, one of Great Britain’s largest newspapers, reported this week that British intelligence officials sought to alert their U.S. counterparts as early as 2015 about contacts between Trump associates and suspected Russian agents. According to Guardian sources, “the FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow ahead of the US election.”