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Furor grows over Nunes intel memo
The furor surrounding a controversial Republican-drafted memo alleging surveillance abuses at the Department of Justice reached a fever pitch on Thursday as the White House signaled that the release could be imminent.
President Trump has viewed the memo and been briefed on its contents. A senior administration official said the president supports making the memo public and is expected to sign off on its release as soon as Friday.
"It's in Congress's hands after that," the official said.
But even as Trump inches closer to approving its release, the document has divided Republicans on Capitol Hill and has led to calls from top Democrats for the removal of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who spearheaded the document.
Nunes, whose committee would ultimately release the document, is under pressure to deliver after conservatives hinted heavily that the document holds the key to putting a stop to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia and the president's campaign.
The Department of Justice and the FBI have fiercely opposed the release of the memo on the grounds that it is misleading and could expose sensitive intelligence sources and methods. Nunes has fired back sharply at the FBI's efforts to cast doubt on the veracity of the document, calling their objections "spurious" and doubling down on the need to release the memo.
The White House and the bureau have been wrangling over what redactions, if any, to apply to the document. Committee Republicans have said redactions are unnecessary.
The White House official insisted that the memo "doesn't give away too much in terms of classification" and said that significant redactions appeared unlikely.
The drama took another unexpected turn on Wednesday night when Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, accused Nunes of altering the memo ahead of its release. Nunes says he only changed the memo to clean up grammatical errors and to make additions that Schiff and the FBI had asked for.
Democrats have drafted their own memo to rebut the Republican-drafted document. The majority on the House Intelligence Committee voted against making that document public earlier this week, although it could still be released.
But even as the embattled chairman has defended the memo, other senior Republicans have begun urging caution. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) this week pleaded with GOP members not to overplay the document's findings and not to tie it to the Mueller investigation.
"What this is not is an indictment on our institutions, of our justice system. This memo is not an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice. It does not impugn [Mueller's] investigation or the deputy attorney general," Ryan said Thursday at the Republican retreat in West Virginia.
"What it is, is the Congress's legitimate function of oversight to make sure the FISA process is being used correctly," he added, referring to a controversial government surveillance program. "If it wasn't being used correctly, that needs to come to light and people need to be held accountable so this doesn't affect our civil liberties."
Then, on Thursday, Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.) told reporters that Nunes should heed the FBI's concerns and share the memo with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) before releasing it publicly, noting that Burr has been unable to obtain the document.
"There are important national security considerations they need to weigh, and hopefully they're doing that," Thune said.
Thune also said if Republicans move forward in releasing the Nunes memo, they should release the document authored by Democrats at the same time.
The uproar over the Nunes document has stoked speculation that FBI Director Christopher Wray, tapped to lead the bureau after Trump fired former director James Comey, could quit if the memo is made public. There is also speculation that Trump could fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller's special counsel investigation after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters.
There is deep anger in the law enforcement community at Nunes and the Republicans, who had long been seen as allies of the FBI. Ron Hosko, a former assistant director at the FBI, expressed disbelief that the bureau is at the mercy of Schiff and the Democrats to defend its integrity.
"We have a cloud over the FBI and Justice Department and it was put there by Devin Nunes," Hosko said. "I don't believe it. It's not what you'd expect from our Congress."
How and when the Nunes document will be made public remains an open question. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), a senior member of the Intelligence panel, told reporters earlier in the week that it will likely be read into the congressional record, something that can only be done when the House is in session. The chamber is scheduled to convene for a pro forma session at 4:30 on Friday afternoon.
The precise contents of the memo remain unknown. However, it's believed to contain allegations that the FBI did not adequately explain to a clandestine court that some of the information used in a surveillance warrant application for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page came from what is known as the "Steele dossier," which is composed of opposition research partially funded by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Lawmakers that have reviewed the document have also said it will "name names," an indication that it could raise new questions about the conduct of FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who disparaged Trump in private text messages.
Strzok was a central figure in the investigation into Clinton's private email arrangement while secretary of State and the separate investigation into whether Trump officials had improper contacts with Moscow during the presidential race. Strzok and Page had been on Mueller's special counsel team but were reassigned last year.
"There's a problem with some of the people at the highest levels of the bureau and that needs to be investigated, and the American people need to understand why and that will be aided, not completely, but aided by the release of this memo," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told reporters on Thursday.
Committee Democrats describe the document as a dangerous politicization of intelligence – a cherry-picked set of data points designed to damage Mueller's investigation – and they have launched a broadside offensive against the document. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) is pressing Nunes on whether he worked with the White House to produce the memo in the first place, while Schiff is arguing that the memo should be withdrawn from the White House because it was edited after the vote.
It's unclear what changes were made. A spokesman for Nunes said that Democrats were "complaining about minor edits ... including grammatical fixes and two edits requested by the FBI and the Minority themselves."
Democrats say the changes are far more substantive. A committee source said the changes were "not cosmetic" and "try to water down some of the majority's assertions."
House conservatives are still pushing for the release of the memo.
"So the FBI is worried about omissions? Ok then – let's put all the documents out there. Tell Americans the full story. I don't think they want that either, though – they've been stonewalling Congress for a year. It's time for full transparency," tweeted House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), adding, "#ReleaseTheMemo."
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) sent letters to Ryan on Thursday demanding that Nunes be removed from the Intelligence Committee. Nunes broke House rules, Pelosi wrote, when he "altered the contents of the reckless, partisan memo" in an effort to "discredit the investigations into the Trump-Russia scandal."
"Chairman Nunes' deliberately dishonest actions make him unfit to serve as Chairman, and he must be immediately removed from this position," she continued.
"It is long overdue that you, as Speaker, put an end to this charade and hold Chairman Nunes and all Congressional Republicans accountable to the oath they have taken to support and defend the Constitution, and protect the American people."
Ryan rejected that call on Thursday.
Pelosi and Schumer "are just playing politics and they are looking for a political distraction," he said.
[Source: By Katie Bo Williams and Jonathan Easley, The Hill, Washington, 02Jan18]
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