Fierce battle erupts over releasing intelligence report
A battle erupted Friday over a push by Republican lawmakers to release a report they say will reveal high-level government abuse around the federal investigation into possible ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia.
Even as Congress hurtled toward a shutdown, Republicans in the House were buzzing over the contents of a classified memo on alleged surveillance abuses that was produced by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
Scores of Republicans viewed the controversial memo in secure settings at the Capitol and concluded it contains hard evidence that the special counsel investigation into whether Trump’s campaign officials had improper contacts with Russia were sparked by the politically motivated actions of senior FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials.
GOP lawmakers described the document as the catalyst that would unravel what they view as a vast conspiracy to undermine President Trump.
“It’s alarming. … You all need to see it,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “More importantly, the American public needs to see it. What the FBI did is just as wrong as it can be.”
Some Republicans speculated that the memo could provoke criminal prosecutions, or at the very least, that it would lead to the firings of those involved.
“They need to be held accountable,” said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.).
Democrats dismissed the findings as a desperate partisan attempt to smear the FBI and muddy the waters around what they view as a legitimate investigation into Trump’s alleged ties to the Kremlin. Lawmakers described them as “talking points,” “misleading” and in some cases, “lies.”
For now, it remains a mystery what allegations — or proof — the highly sought memo contains. Members of both parties were tight-lipped about the details of the four-page document, which they signed a waiver to view that barred them from discussing the contents.
Members of both parties described the memo as a top-line summary they say is backed up by classified documents and interviews they were not allowed to see.
“There’s no one that can talk about this with any degree of knowledge if you weren’t in the Gang of 8, because we haven’t seen the documents,” said committee member Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), referring to a core group of congressional leaders with higher-level security clearances. “Nobody has.”
Because the underlying material supporting the memo’s conclusions is highly classified, Democrats noted, the document cannot be taken as proof of the allegations it contains.
“I think the whole political purpose of this is to make a misleading case to the public, perpetuate the president’s political narrative, but not let the public see the underlying materials that would show just how distorted it is — I think that’s by design,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
“The problem is, we can’t point out the inaccuracies without relying on the underlying material,” he said.
And even as GOP lawmakers declared the Russia investigation would be exposed as a ruse, some Republicans on the Intelligence Committee sought to temper expectations.
“I don’t think that there’s anything you’re going to see in that memo that’s going to be a surprise,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). “It’s what we believe based on what we’ve researched.”
“It is what you think it is,” Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Va.) said.
Several GOP members hinted heavily that the document confirms long-held Republican suspicions that FBI officials inappropriately obtained a surveillance warrant to spy on the Trump transition team.
There is rampant speculation on the right that law enforcement officials used an opposition research memo — paid for in part by Democrats and once described by former FBI Director James Comey as “salacious and unverified” — to obtain the warrant to spy on Trump officials during the campaign and transition.
“It’s not what the FISA warrant said that’s at issue, it’s what it didn’t say, what the FISA court didn’t hear that is the disturbing part of why the memo was made available to the rest of members of Congress,” Rooney told The Hill.
“What our members needed to see was the truth of how that warrant came about. I don’t think that we’ve seen anything that the court was aware of what kind of document the dossier was,” he continued, referring to the clandestine court that reviews and approves surveillance warrants.
“But we certainly feel like the people that requested the warrant did, and that’s a problem,” he said.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a senior member of the Intelligence Committee who is running the panel’s investigation into Russian interference, suggested that the committee of jurisdiction over FISA would need to weigh in “with legislation related to this if that’s necessary for the fix.”
“This is a serious deal and it needs to be dealt with,” Conaway said. “The Judiciary Committee has to take a good look at what’s going on because they have responsibility for the broader FISA piece.
“Our committee doesn’t have the jurisdiction for the fix. We just found the problem.”
He noted that the document did not raise concerns related to Section 702 of FISA, which Congress recently extended for a further six years. President Trump signed the bill on Friday.
Former bureau officials say fears that the dossier was used as the basis for a FISA warrant reflect a misunderstanding of the law.
One former senior official who worked on national security issues noted that, in general, the application for a surveillance warrant involves several layers of authentication of information, suggesting that if any of the information from the dossier were used in an application, it would have been corroborated. Justice Department lawyers often modify orders based on feedback from the court — and they must show probable cause that the target is acting as an agent of a foreign power.
CNN and The Washington Post reported in the spring that the FBI had obtained a FISA warrant in the summer of 2016 to monitor campaign adviser Carter Page.
Republicans have also sought to draw attention to text messages between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, which privately disparaged Trump. Strzok had a lead role in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified material while she was secretary of State, and both were on Mueller’s Russia investigation team before being reassigned.
And there are questions about Bruce Ohr, a senior DOJ official, and whether he and his wife had close ties to Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that compiled the Trump dossier.
“That’s why the document needs to be made public, so everyone can see and make these determinations,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio).
Nunes has dealt with questions about his credibility, and his legacy as Intelligence Committee chairman could hang on the impact the memo has if it is released.
“My prediction is that after causing completely unnecessary chaos today, this memo will be released in some redacted [form] in a few weeks and prove to be an utter embarrassment to Nunes personally, the [Intelligence Committee] majority, and frankly to US House of Representatives,” Susan Hennessey, a former attorney in the Office of General Counsel of the National Security Agency and current managing editor at the commentary website Lawfare, said over Twitter.
But Republicans rallied behind Nunes, who has recovered some of his credibility on the right since stepping away from the investigation to deal with an ethics inquiry.
“Everyone I’ve talked to in leadership and the GOP conference thinks he’s done outstanding,” said Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas).
Questions remain over the next steps in releasing the document.
A majority of members on the Intelligence Committee would first have to vote to approve making the document public. The president then has five days to issue an objection. If there is no objection, the committee could refer the matter to a vote before the GOP-controlled House.
The committee would be overriding the classification system, not declassifying the document — a power that rests with the executive branch, not Congress.
“This provision of the rules has to be dusted off. It hasn’t been used since the committee was formed,” Conaway said.
Nunes declined to tip his hand Friday, telling reporters only that he would not discuss committee business. Sources close to Nunes said he had not decided on a course of action.
– This story was updated at 7 p.m.
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