Democrats Say Republicans Secretly Altered FBI-Russia MemoBy
Schumer accuses Nunes of interfering with Mueller inquiry
Only two members of committee have seen classified sources
Democrats charged Wednesday night that House Republicans secretly altered a controversial memo drawn from classified information on how the FBI handled an investigation into Russian election meddling before sending it to the White House for review.
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said its members were "never apprised of, never had the opportunity to review, and never approved" revisions made by Republicans on the panel, led by Chairman Devin Nunes.
Schiff, who didn’t describe the changes, demanded that the memo, over which Republican and Democratic members of the committee had battled all week, be withdrawn and that the panel hold a new vote on whether to release it. The White House is currently reviewing the document to determine whether -- and how much of it -- can be released.
Schiff’s demand, backed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, represents the latest wrinkle in the battle over the memo, which is based on classified documents that only a handful of members of Congress have been allowed to read.
A Nunes spokesman, Jack Langer, responded that Schiff is complaining of minor changes, including grammatical fixes, and edits requested by the FBI and by the Democrats themselves.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican on the committee, defended Nunes on Thursday. “One small part” of the memo was changed “for protocol reasons” and “in no way does this effect the substance of the memo whatsoever,” King said on CNN.
Democrats pushed back against that characterization. Schiff described the changes to colleagues as “material and substantive,” Representative Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat on the committee, told MSNBC Thursday. Changing the document also violates congressional practices.
“When you’re declassifying something and a committee votes to release a certain set of language, you don’t then change that,” Himes said. “That’s not the way to do business in the Congress. And it’s indicative of the process -- or I should say lack of process -- that has accompanied this whole sordid effort on the part of Devin Nunes and his staff."
Schumer said in a statement Wednesday night that Nunes has "been willing to carry the White House’s water, attack our law enforcement and intelligence officials, and now to mislead his House colleagues.” Nunes, a California Republican, has called into question the origins of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and whether the campaign of President Donald Trump was involved.
John Brennan, a former CIA director under President Barack Obama, criticized Nunes and House Republicans for “reckless partisan behavior” on Thursday, and said an absence of leadership from the White House was contributing to the crisis.
“I had many fights with Congressional Dems over the years on national security matters,” Brennan said on Twitter. “But I never witnessed the type of reckless partisan behavior I am now seeing from Nunes and House Republicans. Absence of moral and ethical leadership in WH is fueling this government crisis.”
The Intelligence Committee voted along party lines Monday to release the memo after Republicans defeated a motion to allow more than two panel members to get a fuller briefing on the underlying information.
At this point, only two members of the committee and some members of its staff have seen the classified documents.
Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a committee member who announced on Wednesday that he would not run for re-election, helped prepare the four-page memo, which claims that officials at the FBI and Justice Department misled a surveillance court to obtain a warrant to spy on an associate of the Trump campaign. That investigation led eventually to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
Schiff wrote a competing Democratic memo depicting the Republican one as rife with errors and omissions. The FBI also issued a statement Wednesday saying that the GOP version is inaccurate.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has told the White House, which is reviewing the document for possible release in the coming days, that he is opposed to that step, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Other House Intelligence members, who only have access to the memos, are largely flying blind. Even Nunes, the chairman, hasn’t seen the raw intelligence reports.
“I don’t want to get into criticizing members of the staff but I will note that they are, along with Trey Gowdy and Adam Schiff, the only people” to see the actual reports, Himes said on MSNBC Thursday. “And that means no other members of the committee, no other staff had an opportunity to look at the underlying classified information here in order to form a judgment about whether the allegations in their memo are true.”
On Wednesday, the panel released a transcript of the session in which Republicans voted to release the GOP memo and delay the release of the Democrats’ version.
"We are all going to have egg on our face," said another House Intelligence member, Democrat Jackie Speier of California during that same private meeting. She and Himes argued that it may be premature to release either memo.
Outside the Intelligence panel, only a handful of committee chairmen or senior Democrats have access to the underlying intelligence documents, which are highly classified. House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte and the panel’s top Democrat, Jerrold Nadler of New York have seen them, according to Nadler. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, also said he has reviewed the source material.
The Justice Department “has limited the Judiciary Committee’s review to the chair and ranking of the full committee and the Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism,” Grassley said in a Jan. 24 speech on the Senate floor. “The government has also tried to severely limit the number of appropriately cleared staff who can review documents and take notes.”
Both the GOP and Democratic memos are based on congressional access to hundreds of pages of classified documents. Under an agreement negotiated by Nunes with the Justice Department, only a handful of designated committee members and staffers were able to read that material.
"There is absolutely no way for any of us to game out what the outcome is in three weeks from now when the press has done their thing, when the DOJ have made their arguments, about who gets tarred for being imprudent," Himes, the ranking Intelligence Committee Democrat behind Schiff, said at the Monday meeting. "But it is going to be somebody."
"Mr. Gowdy and I are apparently the only two members of this committee who have read the underlying material," Schiff said, adding that he’d asked that the entire committee be allowed to look at the documents, before the memo was released to the entire House. But he said he was refused that motion, on a party-line basis.
He was then defeated in a motion on Monday to have the Justice Department and the FBI to provide a classified briefing to the entire House to discuss the "issues and allegations," and the "potential repercussions" of publicly releasing both the Republican memo, and his Democratic counter-memo.
Nunes responded to that idea by saying, "the Department of Justice and the FBI have been under investigation by this committee for many, many months" for abuses on surveillance warrants and other matters. "That investigation continues. And I would urge my colleagues to vote no, we are not going to be briefed by people that are under investigation by this committee."
During the meeting on Monday, Democrat Mike Quigley of Illinois asked Nunes whether he had conversations about the Republican memo with anyone from the White House, and Nunes said, "as far as I know of, no." Pressed by Quigley if the committee’s staff had consulted with the White House, Nunes said he as chairman was not going to "entertain" the question.
Ultimately, Schiff pressed for his memo to get committee approval for release, explaining, "I believe House members have been misled, and I am loathe to see the public misled." Then, when Republicans voted to delay the release of the Democratic memo, Schiff said, "I understand the political stratagem.
"You want your memo to be out there for a week and the public to have only one version for a week so you can set the narrative. That makes this political exercise all the more transparent," he said.
— With assistance by Arit John