The FBI’s interview with Carter Page in March 2016 is one of the seminal events of the Trump-Russia probe. Democrats have long pointed to it as evidence of the bureau’s longstanding fears that Page might be a Russian spy and to downplay the role of the Clinton-financed dossier compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele in securing a FISA surveillance warrant against Page.
Carter Page at a Moscow press conference in December 2016.
“The FBI interviewed Page multiple times about his Russian intelligence contacts, including in March 2016,” Rep. Adam Schiff and other Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee argued in their 10-page memo defending the Obama Justice Department’s monitoring of Page. “The FBI’s concern about and knowledge of Page’s activities therefore long predate the FBI’s receipt of Steele’s information.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, ranking Democrat on the House intelligence panel.
But new information challenges that account.
In an interview with RealClearInvestigations, Page insists that the interview in question – held at then-U.S. attorney Preet Bharara's office in New York -- had "absolutely nothing" to do with the Trump campaign or Russian collusion. Instead of being grilled about shadowy ties, he says he answered questions “related to events in 2013, in a case where I had served as a witness in support of the FBI.”
In 2013, a Russian national working as an unregistered foreign agent at a Russian bank in Manhattan sought information from Page, a longtime energy consultant, related to U.S. efforts to develop alternative energy resources, according to court papers filed by the FBI. Although Page thought the man was a legitimate banker after meeting him at an energy symposium in New York City, he was a Russian agent under federal investigation. He was later caught on surveillance dismissing Page as an “idiot.”
The FBI informed Page in 2013 that the Russians might be trying to recruit him.
Evgeny Buryakov, center, in a sketch of the 2016 courtroom proceeding where he pleaded guilty. Carter Page helped convict him.
A U.S. Naval Academy alumnus, Page cooperated as a witness in that case, which was coordinated with the bureau’s Counterespionage Section Chief Peter Strzok in Washington, and he helped the government convict the Russian spy. Evgeny Buryakov pleaded guilty to espionage-related charges on March 11, 2016. FBI agents, as well as federal prosecutors, huddled with Page around that time to tie up loose ends, he said.
“It had absolutely nothing to do with the election interference story, which surfaced months later,” Page said.
Court records appear to back him up. Buryakov was sentenced in May 2016 and deported to Russia early last year. Schiff maintains that Page "remained on the radar of Russian intelligence and the FBI” due to the prior case, which gave them grounds to spy on him “independent" of the dossier.
“In order to understand the context in which the FBI sought a FISA warrant for Carter Page, it is necessary to understand … what the FBI knew about Page prior to making application to the court — including Page’s previous interaction with Russian intelligence operatives,” Schiff said.
The Democrat's narrative, which hinges on the suggestion that the bureau interviewed Page because of his role in Trump's campaign, is also challenged by the fact that the meeting took place several days before Trump publicly named Page as an adviser, on March 21, 2016.
Records indicate the FBI never viewed him as a potential foreign intelligence agent for Moscow. Court documents also show that Page fully cooperated with the FBI as soon as he learned he had been duped by Russian agents. In his sworn 2015 complaint against Buryakov, FBI special agent Gregory Monaghan portrays Page — referring to him as "Male-1” -- as a guileless victim, and described how Buryakov and other Russian agents tried to take advantage of the American businessman, who was unaware he was dealing with foreign spies.
The FBI agent further attested that the Russians never told Page they were “connected to the Russian government,” and that Page was only “interested in business opportunities in Russia,” where he had worked for years for Merrill Lynch and as an independent energy consultant.
In the end, the Russians were unable to recruit Page and never received any state secrets from him. Monaghan did not recommend espionage or any other charges against Page, who by all accounts acted as a reliable and trusted witness in the case. Far from being a Russian spy, Page was characterized to the court as someone who helped the FBI catch Russian spies.
But the government’s attitude toward Page turned cold after Trump publicly announced his name along with other members of his foreign policy team. Only then was Page treated as a possible national security threat. Not long after Trump’s March 21, 2016, announcement, FBI Director James Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, held a meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to discuss the news of Page joining the Trump campaign and how he may be “compromised” by the Russians, according to a recently declassified memo.
Then, sometime in the “late spring” of 2016, Comey held an unusual briefing concerning Page, and the alleged risk he posed, with the Obama administration’s highest-ranking national-security officials, who, in addition to Lynch, included National Security Adviser Susan Rice, CIA Director John Brennan, and National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
By autumn, in the heat of the presidential election campaign, the FBI had Page under constant surveillance, vacuuming up all his text messages and emails and listening in on his phone calls, including communications with Trump officials. The surveillance was predicated chiefly on an unverified allegation in the dossier, quoting third-hand sources claiming that Page traveled to Moscow in July 2016 to hatch an election plot with Kremlin officials.
Page has denied under oath ever meeting with the two Kremlin officials named in the dossier, and says he was in Moscow at the time to give a commencement address at a university, the New Economic School, where President Obama had previously spoken. The charge, attributed to anonymous sources, was written in the dossier by ex-British intelligence officer Steele, who was paid $168,000 by the Clinton camp to gather derogatory information on Trump from Russian sources.
Former FBI director James Comey. Carter Page says Comey never replied to his letter of complaint of a "witch hunt."
After the still-unsubstantiated rumor was leaked to the press in September 2016, along with reports the FBI was taking it seriously, Page wrote a letter to Comey complaining he was the subject of a “witch hunt” and demanding he “look into this matter.”
He also volunteered to meet with FBI agents to put the rumors to rest.
“Although I have not been contacted by any member of your team in recent months, I would eagerly await their call to discuss any final questions they might possibly have in the interest of helping them put these outrageous allegations to rest,” Page wrote. Comey never responded to his Sept. 25, 2016, letter.
“I didn’t hear from the FBI again until over five months later, in March 2017 — after the FISA warrant application and first renewal had already been submitted,” he said. He said the “dodgy dossier was the foundation of their questions.” Page noted that the FBI agents who contacted him then were not the same ones he worked with earlier on the Buryakov case.
In April 2017, as the Justice Department was renewing its FISA warrant on Page for a second time, it publicly identified Page as the anonymous witness in the 2013-2015 Russian case involving Buryakov.
“On April 3, 2017,” Page said, “reporters at ABC News and BuzzFeed requested to meet in order to inform me that U.S. government operatives had unlawfully disclosed my identity as Male-1 in this 2015 case.”
The media leak came just weeks after Bharara, an Obama appointee, was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Bharara, who formerly served as Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer’s aide, could not be reached for comment.
As surveillance warrants on Page continued to be renewed, the FBI also shadowed him using a confidential human source. The informant, Stefan Halper – who reportedly reached out to other Trump campaign figures including George Papadopoulos and Sam Clovis -- befriended Page. They struck up a relationship that lasted, Page said, until September 2017 -- the same month the fourth and final FISA spy warrant against the former Trump aide expired.
In their rebuttal, Democrats stated that the FBI and Justice Department “cited multiple sources to support the case for surveilling Page.” It’s not immediately clear if Halper is named in any of the four FISA warrant applications submitted on Page. The documents remain classified.
“There was no basis for their FISA warrants,” he asserted, adding that the Obama Justice Department “abused” its authority to obtain such warrants, which are the most intrusive means of collecting information on U.S. citizens.
Schiff’s office said it would have no comment beyond the “minority memo” defending the monitoring of Page.
Some former federal prosecutors and FBI investigators who have worked counterintelligence cases say Page has a valid grievance. They argue that the FISA warrants lacked the requisite "probable cause" to spy on an American citizen like Page, which requires the Justice Department to not only show the citizen is knowingly engaging in clandestine activities on behalf of a foreign power, but it must also demonstrate probable cause that such activities involve a violation of federal criminal law.
Page filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Justice Department on May 21, 2017 seeking the FISA applications and "all information gathered pursuant to the warrants” authorizing his electronic surveillance issued by the FISA court, as well as the warrants themselves. He also seeks all communications between Justice Department officials and employees of the Clinton campaign related to him.
He says he has received no relevant documents in the year since he sent the FOIA request by certified mail.
Page can only speculate about how political forces seem to have transformed him from a cooperating witness into a possible Russian spy. But he says he is firmly convinced that “until DOJ discloses full information about the dodgy dossier, amends their court filings that led to extensive abuse of process, and discloses details on the other sources of their lies, it will be impossible for Americans to fully trust them again."