The battle over House Intelligence Committee memos regarding alleged abuses of surveillance powers at the FBI escalated Wednesday, with the FBI directly challenging the credibility of Republican accusations in advance of one document's possible public release.
A memo prepared by Republican committee staff reportedly claims the FBI used unverified information from a dossier compiled for Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign to obtain surveillance warrants on a former adviser to President Donald Trump’s campaign. House Republicans have voted to make the four-page document public, and the White House is currently reviewing it for possible release this week.
President Trump was overheard telling a member of Congress Tuesday night that he “100 percent” plans to release it, despite reported objections from leadership at the FBI and the Department of Justice who believe it presents an inaccurate and incomplete version of events. The FBI took its complaints public Wednesday in an unusual statement.
"With regard to the House Intelligence Committee's memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it," the bureau said. "As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy."
Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., responded by suggesting that the FBI is just trying to cover up the violations his committee uncovered.
“Having stonewalled Congress’ demands for information for nearly a year, it’s no surprise to see the FBI and DOJ issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies,” he said.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee authored their own memo rebutting the claims Republicans are making, but Republicans voted against releasing that document alongside theirs. Instead, it will go through the process of review by the whole House like the Nunes memo did with a vote on its release at a later date.
Unable to present their full response, Democrats say the public should keep in mind the context of the GOP memo’s production when it is released.
“We should not lose sight of the fact this is a partisan document, this is not an intelligence document,” said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., noting that Nunes, who worked with Trumps transition team, had recused himself from leading the committee’s probe last year while under an ethics investigation.
“This is really unfortunate,” he said. “We should never have allowed our intelligence community to be politicized in this way.”
Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., said she would be reading the Nunes memo herself later Wednesday, but she was troubled that the Democratic memo is not being released simultaneously. She also suspects that President Trump intends to use the unsubstantiated allegations in the memo against top FBI officials to discredit the probe of Russian involvement in the 2016 election by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“This is a direct attempt to undermine the investigation of Robert Mueller,” she said. “This is being put out as a way to not only divert attention but also somehow we believe to lead to the firing of the assistant attorney general.”
The memo reportedly points fingers at Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the case.
According to Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Va., the allegations contained in the Nunes memo—which he described as “fact-laden”—are what lawmakers should find disturbing, not the political party of those who wrote it.
“If we learn that there is evidence that the levers of power were leveraged against private citizens of the United States of America, that the federal government was weaponized for political ends, that should be the thing that’s troubling to all Americans of any political affiliation,” he said.
Even if the Republican claims are true and gross abuses of surveillance power did occur, Garrett fears partisanship will lead some to dismiss the memo out of hand.
“I’m even more afraid people will respond by saying, ‘Whatever, get Trump,’” he said.
If, as Nunes alleges, the FBI’s surveillance authority was misused for political purposes to target one side, Garrett warned that the other side could eventually face the same illicit tactics.
“It might not be your ox getting gored today,” he said, “but if the federal government can target American private citizens with the power with which we’ve entrusted it, there’s a problem.”