WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines Monday to make public a classified memo about some of the government’s most sensitive secrets, prompting Democrats to accuse the Republican majority of playing politics with national security to protect President Donald Trump.
Republicans have said the Republican-written memo examines how the FBI eavesdrops on suspects in national security investigations. They say it shows corruption in the FBI that is “worse than Watergate,” proving that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is based on a fraud.
Democrats say the memo is a grossly distorted attack on the Mueller probe, designed to “brainwash” people into erroneous conclusions, in the words of Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the committee.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, told reporters that Republicans voted to release the memo but voted against making the Democratic analysis of it public, at least for now.
“Today, you saw a vote to politicize the process,” Schiff said. “It’s a sad day in the history of the committee.”
In an interview later on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Schiff acknowledged that he didn’t know whether releasing the memo could harm national security.
“I would like to find out from the Department of Justice and the FBI if it will reveal sources and methods,” he said.
Trump has up to five days to object to the memo’s release. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday night that the White House had received the report, but a White House official said no decisions were planned before Trump delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
A Trump administration official told NBC News that it was unclear whether the Justice Department would have any say in what parts of the memo would be blacked out to protect sensitive sources and methods. FBI Director Christopher Wray traveled to the Capitol on Sunday to read the memo, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told NBC News. But it’s not clear whether he was able to take a copy with him.
Schiff said Republicans on the committee had officially launched an investigation of the FBI and the Justice Department, a contention that Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, a Republican on the committee, disputed, saying the panel was simply reviewing a specific point in the memo. The Judiciary Committee, not the Intelligence Committee, has oversight of the Justice Department.
Whether the memo shows wrongdoing by the FBI or not, legal experts say the release of such classified surveillance details would be extraordinary on two counts: It could spill extremely sensitive secrets, and it could undermine the secrecy of a pending criminal investigation.
“It’s astonishing,” said Orin Kerr, a former prosecutor who is now a law professor at the University of Southern California. “The idea of revealing the contents of a classified briefing to a judge — that can reveal lots of information other than what people are interested in. It would set a very dangerous precedent.”
Frank Figliuzzi, an NBC News contributor who is a former chief of FBI counterintelligence, said the Republican House members “are weaponizing and politicizing classified information, when they have much less intrusive remedies at their disposal.”
Jordan said on MSNBC that he disagrees, adding: “I think that transparency is a good thing, sunlight is a good thing. Let’s let the American people see, particularly in light of what we now know.”
Schiff told MSNBC that nobody but he and a single Republican had actually read the underlying documents on which the memo is based.
“They wanted to make a political statement,” he told Chris Hayes. “They wanted to do what they could to derail the Mueller investigation. At the end of the day, it was more important to them to circle the wagons around the president than it was to support the men and women of the FBI, support an objective pursuit of the truth in the investigation by Mueller and by our committee.”
According to sources familiar with it, the memo, written by House Republicans, is based in part on an application for surveillance of Carter Page, who was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. A source who has read the memo told NBC News that it mentions Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the memo says Rosenstein signed off on an extension of surveillance last spring, the first indication that such surveillance continued into the Trump administration.
In an email to NBC News, Page said he was overseas, and he declined to answer specific questions.
“The main ‘issue’ is a perennial misunderstanding about Russia that’s continued throughout much of the past century, particularly in Washington,” he said.
Republican House members have said the memo suggests that the FBI obtained its original Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, warrant to conduct surveillance on Page by citing the dossier compiled by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, which was funded in part by Democrats.
In fact, U.S. officials say the FBI had many other sources of information — including intelligence from foreign governments — suggesting possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, in addition to the dossier.
If the Republicans believe a national security warrant was obtained improperly, Figliuzzi said, they could have alerted the Justice Department’s inspector general or the judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, who sign the warrants. Instead, he said, they are taking a path that seems designed to inflict damage on the Russia investigation.
“It’s using a legal process for political ends under the guise of trying to identify a legal process that was allegedly used for political ends,” Kerr said.
Ken Dilanian reported from Washington. Alex Johnson reported from Los Angeles.
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