Deciphering the Redactions in the Schiff Memo

The Schiff memo, the Democrats’ response to the Nunes memo’s claims about the Russia investigation, was released over the weekend and it contained a few nuggets of new information.

We learned, for example, that the FBI interviewed Carter Page, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, in March 2016 about his contacts with Russian intelligence. This is new public information and it’s pretty stunning. This means after Page’s 2013 run-in with federal investigators for spending too much time with Russian spies, the FBI was once again suspicious of his contacts with Russian intelligence right around the time he joined the Trump campaign. So, although the FBI didn’t apply for a FISA warrant on Page until October 21, 2016, it clearly had detected some red flags much earlier that year.

And while we knew this is what it would take to get a FISA warrant for Page, it is stark to see it in writing: “DOJ’s warrant request was based on compelling evidence and probable cause to believe Page was knowingly assisting clandestine Russian intelligence activities in the U.S.” The word “knowingly” is particularly significant following Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of 13 Russian nationals. As that document made clear, the Americans caught up in that aspect of the Russian interference operation were “unwitting.”

But almost as important as what the memo says is what it doesn’t say, because it got redacted during the Justice Department’s classification review, which took place at President Donald Trump’s request.

But just because portions were redacted doesn’t mean they represent black holes of information. For various reasons, we’re still able to discern what may lie behind those blocks of blacked-out text.

A sloppy redaction … As Matt Tait, a former information security specialist at Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, pointed out on Twitter, it appears not all precautions were taken to be sure no one could uncover what had been redacted. Here’s the first example:

It appears the redaction was meant to keep classified the number of individuals linked to the Trump campaign that the FBI was already looking into even before it was made aware of Christopher Steele’s reporting.

Tait explained to me that because modern fonts have been designed so that they can be easily read on computer screens, they have very precise lengths. This also means that even though a word may have the same number of letters as another word, it may not have the same length on the screen (for example, “four” and “five” do not share the same length).

“Most of the time this is a good thing, except in document redactions,” Tait said. “Here, a short black square covering part of a document might obscure the specific letters that make up the word targeted for redaction, but the block doesn’t obscure the length of the word, which can be measured from the words around it in the sentence.”

Once the length of the word is computed, you look at other words that have the same length on the page.

“By then reading the sentence and substituting the possible options, we can see that some suggestions clearly don’t make sense, and others are plausible. If only one is plausible, we have unredacted the text,” he said.

By doing this, Tait discovered that the hidden number in this sentence was four, meaning the FBI was already looking into four individuals associated with the Trump campaign, including Page, in September 2016. This is significant to the argument Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is making in his memo because it shows this was all taking place before the FBI’s counterintelligence team even had Steele’s reporting.

Then there is this section:

Tait said the redaction here is “all four.” Not properly hiding the number of individuals is compounded by the fact that footnote 7 isn’t redacted. Scrolling to the bottom of the document, you can see that it reads:

From this, we can infer who the four individuals most likely are: Carter Page, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos and Paul Manafort. Because Rick Gates, Manafort’s business partner and the former Trump deputy campaign manager, is referred to in this footnote by his full name and title (implying this is the first mention of him in the document), it’s safe to assume he’s not being included as one of the four individuals under investigation in September 2016.

In addition to learning something new about the investigation, this slip up also “shows that there are lots of times when disclosing a document that looks like it has been properly redacted actually reveals information none of the authors or reviewers would expect it to,” Tait said. To avoid these mistakes, and keep the classified information hidden, you can convert the document to a fixed-length font (like Courier) or swap out the text with something like ***** and then redact.

Did the FBI corroborate the Steele Dossier’s reporting on Page? The technique described above is not a magic wand that makes all of the redacted text decipherable. Most of the redactions in the Schiff memo keep the information deemed classified hidden from the public. But there are a few cases where we can draw inferences about what the redacted text says, based on the sentences that surround it.  

This is true in the memo’s section on Page’s infamous trip to Moscow in July 2016 when he was still affiliated with the Trump campaign.

The Steele memo alleges that on this trip, which POLITICO reported was approved by the Trump campaign, Page secretly met with Igor Sechin, the head of Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft, and Igor Divyekin, a senior Kremlin official. Page has denied this, saying he never met with either man.

When questioned by the House Intelligence Committee in November, Page repeated this denial but he did admit that he met briefly with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich on the trip. He also said he met with Andrey Baranov, Rosneft’s head of investor relations and a senior aide to Sechin. Page said that Baranov gave him “an investor relations presentation,” but their discussions involved “nothing more substantive than that.”

But the Schiff memo suggests that the truth lies much closer to what the Steele memo asserts than to Page’s version of events:

Later, the Schiff memo repeats the allegation that there is evidence that contradicts Page’s “sworn testimony to our Committee.” In short, Schiff is saying Page didn’t tell lawmakers the whole truth. This raises the question: Did Page lie to Mueller too? If Page lied, or risked perjury, it would fit a pattern of other former Trump campaign associates making misleading statements to federal authorities, which raises further questions about whether such efforts were coordinated.

Why was any of this information redacted?

In a Feb. 9 letter to Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, White House Counsel Don McGahn wrote, “although the President is inclined to declassify the February 5th Memorandum, because the Memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages, he is unable to do so at this time.” This is in contrast to the Nunes memo, which Trump didn’t hesitate to declassify.

So, “after weeks of haggling over redactions,” as the New York Times reported, the Democrats’ memo was finally released in its redacted form on Saturday.

“While I would have preferred fewer redactions, I think the memo, as published, fully addresses the omissions and distortions plaguing the Nunes document,” Schiff said in a statement to Just Security. “We engaged in a good faith consultation with DOJ and they ultimately decided to conduct a classification review, which would result in surgical redactions but would not declassify any material beyond what the president declassified in the Nunes memo.”

Schiff said it was always his intention to work with the FBI and the Justice Department to protect sources and methods.

“We hope the Majority will never again misuse this obscure congressional rule to selectively declassify sensitive information for political purposes,” he added.

 

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).