House intelligence committee votes to release Democrats' intel memo
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) voted on Monday to release the Democrats' memo, a rebuttal to the four-page memo released Friday by Republicans on the committee.
The committee voted unanimously in a closed-door session to release the memo. It is currently being transmitted to the White House for the president's approval.
The top Democrat on the HPSCI, Rep. Adam Schiff, said the Department of Justice and FBI have been consulted on the content of the memo so they "have the opportunity to vet any information they may be concerned about."
After the release of the Republican memo claiming the intelligence community abused its surveillance powers against the Trump campaign and the pending release of the Democratic rebuttal, the public can expect more information to pour out about what was once considered a top-secret process of obtaining a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order.
The essential argument made in the GOP memo is that the FISA Court, which authorizes U.S. intelligence surveillance on American intelligence targets overseas or agents of a foreign government in the United States, was abused during the 2016 presidential election to spy on the Trump campaign. Specifically, the Republican intelligence staff argued that Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page was targeted for surveillance based on information contained in a partisan dossier produced by Christopher Steele, a former British spy.
The memo argues that the FBI relied disproportionately on Steele's reporting to get the FISA Court to authorize and reauthorize surveillance on Page. The Republicans further claim the FBI failed to disclose the partisan origins of the Steele dossier, which was paid for by Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign.
The issues surrounding Carter Page, Republicans say, represents a "troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the America people from abuses related to the FISA process."
A former intelligence official said the only breakdown of process occurred at the political level and involves the unprecedented decision last week to selectively release classified information.
The decision by congressional Republicans to declassify as much as they did about the FISA process is "utterly abnormal," said Robert L. Deitz, former general counsel for the National Security Agency and former senior counsel to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
"The information that is provided to the FISA Court and the discussions are all classified top secret. It's not supposed to be public," he explained. "And the problem is, like so many things, you do it once and it becomes a hell of a lot easier to do it a second time and a third and a fourth."
That is one of the reasons members of the intelligence community tried to block the release of the memo. The FBI took the rare step of issuing a public statement last week expressing "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy." FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reportedly took up their concerns with White House staff, urging Donald Trump to block the memo.
Instead of heeding the advice of his own agency officials, Trump fully endorsed the memo. Over the weekend, the president took to social media to say the committee document "totally vindicates 'Trump'" in the investigation into improper contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
On Monday, Trump heaped praise on Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee who pushed the declassification process forward using a little-known House rule, calling him "a man of tremendous courage." Trump insisted that Nunes "may someday be recognized as a Great American Hero for what he has exposed."
Critics have pointed to the president's praise as further evidence of Republican and White House attempts to discredit the ongoing special counsel investigation into Trump and his associates.
As Democrats prepared to release their own 10-page memo, Donald Trump pushed back with a personal attack against Rep. Adam Schiff, accusing the ranking intelligence Democratic of leaking classified information. Schiff recently called the memo "a political hit job on the FBI in the service of the President."
"Little Adam Schiff, who is desperate to run for higher office, is one of the biggest liars and leakers in Washington, right up there with Comey, Warner, Brennan and Clapper!" Trump tweeted. "Adam leaves closed committee hearings to illegally leak confidential information. Must be stopped!"
Last week, House Democrats pushed to have their memo released alongside the Republican document. It was reportedly held back due to national security concerns. After redacting the document, it is likely the Democratic opinion on alleged FISA surveillance abuses will be made public even if Republicans object.
Deitz noted that if the classified information has been redacted, there is nothing to stop the minority on the committee from releasing their report.
The flood of formerly classified information is not likely to stop with the Democratic rebuttal to the GOP memo.
In a Fox News interview over the weekend, Devin Nunes implied that more information would be forthcoming, saying the memo on alleged FISA abuse was only "phase one" of the investigation.
"We are in the middle of ...phase two of our investigation," Nunes said, "which involves other departments, specifically the State Department and some of the involvement they had in this."
Others members of Congress are now pushing for even more information to be made public. Over the weekend a Republican and Democrat on the House intelligence committee called for the public release of the underlying FISA application used to justify surveillance on Trump associate Carter Page.
Describing FISA warrant applications as "some of the most classified stuff the government has," Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., told CNN that he supports the release of the FISA Court application "if it could be redacted in such a way as to not be damaging."
Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio agreed, saying, "Let's shed light on what's going on with the agencies that the taxpayers pay for."
The fact that any of the information about the FISA order against Carter Page came out to begin with is "extraordinary," said William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University.
"It's unfortunate that anything came out. It damaged the intelligence community and the Department of Justice and the FBI," he said. But he still supports the release of the Democratic memo in order to "balance the record."
Banks continued, "I think the intelligence community is completely aghast and abhors what's going on here, whether it's coming from the Democrats or the Republicans."
Deitz said the publication of classified information and the increasing politicization of the U.S. intelligence community "dangerous."
"What's concerning is that if it looks like our process is becoming political and public, our [international] partners will be very reluctant to share information. And that is dangerous," he said.
One of the most unsettling elements of the public release of the GOP memo is that it provides an incomplete picture of the FISA approval process and the information used to obtain the surveillance order against Carter Page.
The GOP report selectively picks pieces of the often lengthy record that would have been before the FISA court, Banks explained. "Of course, they can do that because none of us can see the record or assess whether what they have selected is a fair representation of whats in the application to the FISA court."
Similarly, there is no way for the public to know what arguments the Department of Justice used before the FISA Court judge or what questions the judge asked. Similarly, the memo provides no information about additional information obtained by the Justice Department when it submitted three FISA application renewals.
During his time at the NSA, Deitz was responsible for preparing numerous FISA orders and believes there is "nothing problematic" about the FBI using information in the Steele dossier to seek a FISA order on Carter Page.
"There's nothing unusual about getting information from people who have an ax to grind," Deitz said, noting that intelligence agents are used to this kind of "problematic" information.
He continued, "Intelligence agents, the FBI, they don't deal Mother Theresa. So the fact that information can come from people whose moral claims might be limited, doesn't mean the information is useless."
One of the most damning claims in the GOP memo is that "material and relevant information was omitted" from the Department of Justice's FISA application, specifically about the Democratic financing of the Steele dossier.
Even if information was omitted from the original application, which Deitz doubts is the case, the FISA Court renewed the surveillance warrant against Page at least three times. Each time, the Department of Justice has to present new information oftentimes to a new judge.
"When you seek an extension, you can't go back to your original memo and say we're relying on that to continue on. You have to show the court what it is you obtained and why that, in turn, should lead to a continuation," Deitz explained. "So even if the original application were totally corrupt, the successor ones weren't."
The argument that has been presented by Republican supporters of Trump, like former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, is that the FBI used "a politically biased document...to spy on Americans."
"The FISA court is a very serious secret court where you take the most incontrovertible evidence about Americans potentially spying against this country to acquire those very rare warrants that are used to surveil them," Gorka said in an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group. "In this case, it was done illegally."
National security experts are not convinced that the four-page Republican memo demonstrates any wrongdoing on behalf of the intelligence community. They are concerned, however, that the attacks coming from the White House and its allies in Congress intended to discredit Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump and Russia.
"It's really quite a lamentable situation," Banks said. "I think that Nunes is trying to do the presidents bidding here, and the fact that the White House decided to let this [memo] go forward against the wishes of the intelligence agencies is another indication that the president is trying to obstruct or interfere with the investigation or stop it from going forward."
Deitz believes the memo is an attempt by Trump and his supporters to "throw enough mud" that the public will believe the president's suggestion that there is corruption and a blatant anti-Trump bias throughout the Department of Justice and the FBI. The ultimate end goal, Deitz believes, is to preemptively discredit Robert Mueller's final report.
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina who serves on the House intelligence and oversight committees, said on Sunday that memo will in no way stop the Mueller investigation from going forward.
The White House has also said it is fully cooperating with the special counsel investigation and the president does not intend to fire Robert Mueller.