A contentious GOP memo about the Russia probe is likely to be released soon. Here's what to watch for

Key Points
  • A hotly debated memo alleging abuses related to the probe of Russian election interference could be released this week.
  • Former high-ranking law enforcement officials tell CNBC what to watch out for if the memo is released.
  • One source tells CNBC that FISA applications always cite multiple reasons for surveillance, making it unlikely that the infamous Steele dossier was the sole evidence used.
Trump is 'OK' with releasing memo, official says

President Donald Trump is said to be fine with House Republicans releasing a classified memo that has prompted intense debate in the controversy over Trump's alleged ties to Russia.

The memo, which is said to detail alleged surveillance abuses by the FBI and Justice Department as part of the probe into Russian election meddling, was sent to President Donald Trump from the House Intelligence Committee following a party-line vote on Monday. The voting rules gave Trump five days to decide whether to declassify the memo, allowing its release.

Some Republicans have suggested that the memo contains damning revelations about the government agencies investigating the potential ties between Trump's presidential campaign and Russia.

Democrats and officials from the Justice Department and FBI, however, have strongly questioned the accuracy and political intentions of the memo. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday called for Speaker Paul Ryan to remove Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, head of the committee that produced the memo, from his position as chairman.

The memo is based in part on an alleged Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application to extend surveillance against former Trump advisor Carter Page, NBC News reported. The memo suggests that the now-infamous Steele dossier, which alleges salacious ties between Trump and Russia, was used as evidence to obtain the extension, NBC said.

As late as Thursday, White House officials still had yet to confirm that Trump would choose to declassify the memo, NBC News reported. Trump had signaled in passing remarks, however, that he was open to releasing it.

CNBC spoke with former high-ranking law enforcement officials about what to look for if the memo is made public. Here's what they said:

The Steele dossier: Was it the only source for the FISA application?

One former high-ranking official told CNBC "that's just not credible," as "these applications always cite multiple reasons for surveillance."

Some of those reasons, however, may be classified, the former official said. So if the memo cites the Steele dossier as one piece of evidence out of several, the FBI may not be able to defend itself without revealing classified sources.

A former high-ranking intelligence official said a so-called Title One application for individual surveillance requires "powerful and credible information to meet a 'probable cause' standard that the target — in this case allegedly Carter Page — was acting as an agent of a foreign power."

That application typically lists a wide array of evidence showing reason to suspect the target, the former intelligence official said.

Furthermore, it must be approved by a FISA judge, one of 11 active federal judges who rotate into FISA cases week by week. As a result, it is possible that the entirety of the evidence used to make the surveillance request is not only classified but also under seal in federal court.

Due to the secrecy of the other evidence, the FBI may not be able to defend itself publicly after the Nunes memo would be released.

"This is really destructive stuff, really awful," the former intelligence official said. "It's the worst I've ever seen it."

The FBI's methods: Did they hide who funded the dossier?

It would typically be disclosed that Democrats had paid for the dossier, a former high-ranking law enforcement official told CNBC. If it wasn't, it could be embarrassing for the FBI.

It would not be inappropriate for the FBI to rely on the Steele information once they had interviewed him, the source said, because Steele was a known and credible British intelligence officer with experience in Moscow.

However, the FBI should have asked who paid Steele and disclosed that to the FISA judge at the time, if it was known.

The reaction from FISA judges: Did they ask why any information was withheld from the application?

FISA judges generally follow the news closely, a former high-ranking law enforcement official told CNBC. If they were misled by the investigators seeking FISA applications, they would have been provoked to respond once newspapers reported information that pertained to their cases.

The judges would have been able to read that in the papers, and if they felt they had been misled they would have demanded an explanation. If that didn't happen, it probably indicates the judges don't feel they were misled.

Also, if the surveillance application was renewed after it was publicly reported that the Steele dossier was paid for by political sources, that is an indication the judges had no problem with it.