The Trump administration’s Department of Justice is fighting a Republican push to release a classified, GOP-drafted memo that alleges government abuse of foreign intelligence laws in the Trump-Russia investigation.
In a letter to the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, the Justice Department warned that releasing the memo without first consulting the department and the FBI would be “extraordinarily reckless” and could endanger national security.
“We believe it would be extraordinarily reckless for the Committee to disclose such information publicly without giving the Department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum and to advise the HPSCI of the risk of harm to national security and to ongoing investigations that could come from public release,” Stephen Boyd, the assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, wrote Wednesday to Rep. Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
“Indeed, we do not understand why the Committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and law enforcement sensitive information without first consulting with the relevant members of the Intelligence Community,” wrote Boyd, a Trump appointee.
In what has become the latest partisan melee over congressional and FBI investigations into Russian election interference, Nunes — whose staff on the Intelligence Committee wrote the memo — and other House Republicans have been discussing since last week how to release the top-secret document to the public. The power to declassify documents rests with the executive branch, but the committee could invoke a rarely used rule to send the decision to the president.
Republicans on the committee voted last week to allow all members of the House to read the memo, which purports to detail abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by the FBI and Justice Department in the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. The memo reportedly suggests that an application by the FBI to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court seeking a warrant to spy on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, misled the judge about its reliance on information from former British spy Christopher Steele, who wrote a controversial dossier that alleged Trump-Kremlin links.
Since then, cries from both House Republicans and right-wing media to release the memo have grown. The committee reportedly could vote as soon as next week on whether to move to have the memo released.
But in his letter Wednesday, Boyd said the Justice Department is “currently unaware of any wrongdoing relating to the FISA process,” and urged the committee to share the memo with the department and to inform it of any allegations of abuse so they can be investigated.
“Seeking Committee approval of public release would require HPSCI committee members to vote on a staff-drafted memorandum that purports to be based on classified source materials that neither you nor most of them have seen,” Boyd’s letter said. “Given HPSCI’s important role in overseeing the nation’s intelligence community, you well understand the damaging impact that the release of classified material could have on our national security and our ability to share and receive sensitive information from friendly foreign governments.”
Boyd also warned that “wider distribution of the classified information presumably contained within [the] memorandum would represent a significant deviation from the terms of access negotiated in good faith” by the committee, the Justice Department, and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The rebuke comes as Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee threatened Wednesday to release their own memo “setting out the relevant facts and exposing the misleading character of the Republicans' document so that members of the House are not left with an erroneous impression of the dedicated professionals at the FBI and DOJ.”
In a statement, California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said Democrats will ask on Monday, during a regular committee meeting, for a vote to make their memo available to all House members as well.
Schiff said the Republican-written memo “represents another effort to distract from the Russia probe and undermine [special counsel Robert Mueller].” He accused Republicans of attempting “to selectively and misleadingly characterize classified information in an effort to protect the President at any cost.”
Schiff’s Senate counterpart did not mince words either when asked about the memo Wednesday.
“One more product of the House majority, which if it continues in the pattern will be probably full of innuendo, false claims, and not a lot of factual basis,” said Sen. Mark Warner. “I have not seen it, but what we have seen is this continuing pattern of full-frontal assaults against the integrity of the FBI and the Department of Justice, and I think those actions — even for some of that crowd in the House — bring new levels of recklessness.”
North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which also is conducting an investigation into Russian election meddling, also downplayed discussion of the memo on Wednesday.
Asked whether he shared House Republicans’ concerns over alleged FISA abuses, Burr said, “I don't talk about what we're doing in the investigation.”
When asked what he thought about House Republicans talking about it publicly, however, Burr — who has been critical of Nunes in the past — smirked. “They've talked about it since the beginning,” he said. “That's their prerogative.”