New FBI official at the center of the storm

New FBI official at the center of the storm
© Greg Nash

It’s fair to say things had gotten a little tense between the FBI and members of Congress when Greg Brower became the bureau’s chief liaison to Capitol Hill last month.

The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee had accused the FBI of withholding critical information from an investigation. Some Democrats had called for FBI Director James Comey to resign. And in one dramatic moment behind closed doors, frustrated lawmakers shouted at Comey in anger.

With the bureau now investigating possible coordination between Russia and President Trump’s campaign team to influence the 2016 presidential election, the FBI’s relationship with Congress has been balanced on the edge of a knife.

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“I don’t know if I would make it that dramatic, [but] it is critical right now,” Brower told The Hill in an interview. “It’s absolutely critical that the relationship be a good one, that the lines of communication be open, that Congress understands what we’re doing and not doing.”

Brower is the conduit between Capitol Hill and the FBI, tasked with keeping lawmakers informed and working with staffers as the Senate and House Intelligence Committees probe Russian interference in the U.S. election.

Asked about his role, the word Brower used most often was “communication.” A lawyer who chooses his words carefully, the former Nevada state senator has spent his first few weeks on the job trekking back and forth to Capitol Hill — sometimes with the director, sometimes alone — attending standard briefings and introducing himself to lawmakers committee by committee.

Brower is as circumspect as Comey in talking about the FBI’s investigation into Russia, but even setting aside that probe, he has his hands full in 2017. 

His top policy priority, he said, is renewal of a controversial provision in U.S. surveillance law — Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) — that is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.

That could prove a heavier lift than expected.

Support in Congress for the provision shifted dramatically after reports that former national security adviser Michael Flynn might have been legally monitored — and exposed — under FISA. Now some Republicans who in the past defended Section 702 have expressed concerns that it is a threat to Americans’ privacy. 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) warned that the Flynn revelations would make a clean reauthorization much more difficult.

The intelligence community views the surveillance power as a critical tool in the fight against terror, but civil liberties advocates say reforms are needed to safeguard Americans’ privacy and Fourth Amendment rights.

Brower said he’s confident the FBI will be able to assuage lawmakers’ concerns.

“We have a very compelling story to tell, so we’re just making sure that we tell it,” he said. “I think most of us are confident that we can do that [and convince lawmakers it’s a good policy].”

For Brower, translating the insular language of the bureau to Congress — where many members are not lawyers nor have experience working with law enforcement — is something that comes naturally given his experience as a former state legislator. 

Although one former House Intelligence Committee staffer expressed surprise that Comey had hired a liaison who started with comparatively few Capitol Hill contacts, Brower noted, “I’ve kind of been there on that side of things and kind of know how that sausage-making process works.

“It’s not just the language differences, but the mentality. I feel like I have, over the years, sometimes literally at the same time, had to think like a lawyer and think like a legislator.”

Part of Brower’s job has been responding to queries from lawmakers who want clarification about anonymously sourced stories on the FBI’s Russia investigation that they have seen in the press. 

It’s often up to Brower to sort out any disconnects between what’s reported and what’s really going on — “as best we can, to the extent we can.” He acknowledges that can sometimes be a difficult task given the bureau’s longstanding policy of not talking about ongoing investigations. 

“It can be a challenging environment,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it’s nearly as challenging as portrayed in the media lately.

“It’s all about relationships and it’s all about making sure that members and staff are getting what they need from us in terms of communication and information — that’s a huge part of the job, just sharing information.” 

In the volatile environment, the FBI has at times been the hero and villain of both parties. 

Most recently, after accusing Comey of stonewalling the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation, ranking member Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffWhite House spokesperson: Media's 'obsession' with impeachment 'won't let up' Trump rips Chuck Todd for 'softball' Schiff interview Democrats, Republicans tussle over witnesses as vote approaches MORE (D-Calif.) earlier this month told ABC’s “This Week” that the FBI’s cooperation had “substantially changed.”

“There’s still more to be ironed out along those lines, but I think that’s moved in a very positive direction,” Schiff said.

Other Democrats echoed that sentiment.

But now Nunes is issuing public digs at the bureau over the disclosure of the investigation into the Trump campaign, calling it “problematic.” He said Comey put a “dark cloud” over the administration by not providing more detail.

Other Republicans say they understand the difficult position FBI officials are in, as their demands for more information are often in direct conflict with the bureau’s need to protect its investigation.

“I understand the position [Comey] is in,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said. “I want everything out there now — but on the other hand, I’m not the FBI director. I don’t know what other leads they could be following.”

Brower, now barely over a month into the job, says the relationship with Congress is moving in the right direction.

“I think we’re in a better place than some might think — certainly in a better place than maybe we were a month ago or three months ago,” Brower said.