WASHINGTON (CN) – With President Donald Trump vowing to release a classified memo about the FBI that the bureau has called inaccurate, policy analysts said the divisive move is unlikely to promote transparency.
“Unless all of the underlying data and the full application is made public, the American public is not going to have a complete picture of exactly how this whole thing was handled,” the Cato Institute’s Patrick Eddington said in a phone interview. “This kind of selective declassification, it certainly smacks of cherry picking.”
Prepared by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, the 4-page memo probes the authority that the FBI invoked to obtain a warrant against former Trump campaign associate Carter Page.
Trump has been reviewing the 4-page memo since Monday when the committee voted along partisan lines to release it. After his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, the president assured Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina that he “100 percent” plans to let the committee release the memo.
Committee Chair David Nunes has touted the memo as showing that the surveillance of Page was improper, but the Department of Justice and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein have warned that the memo’s release could harm national security.
The FBI condemned the memo as well Wednesday.
“With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee vote to release it,” the FBI said in a statement. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
As part of its investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the FBI obtained a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to surveil Page’s communications shortly after reports of Page’s contacts with the Russian government caused him to step down as a national security adviser on the Trump campaign.
As the investigation has gained momentum in recent months, Trump and fellow Republicans have ratcheted up claims about a supposed FBI “witch hunt” fueled by institutional bias.
FISA warrant procedures would require a showing of probable cause that Carter was acting as a foreign agent for Russia, but House Republicans have questioned whether the bureau improperly relied on materials in the so-called Trump dossier, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
The 35-page dossier, much of which remains unverified, was partially funded by the Democratic National Committee after Republicans who solicited the opposition research against Trump opted to abandon the project.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called out Republicans on Tuesday for their rush to pass off an incomplete report.
“The memo characterizes underlying classified information,” Schiff said in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“But the chairman never bothered to take the time to go read the underlying information,” Schiff continued. “So how does he know whether the memo written by staff is even accurate.”
The House Intelligence Committee did not respond to a request for comment on whether Nunes, or the staff who compiled the memo, have reviewed the underlying materials.
A spokesman for Nunes likewise did not respond to an email asking if the congressman or his staff members had reviewed the underlying data used to produce the memo. Nunes did release a statement Wednesday, however, over what he called the “spurious objections” of the FBI and Justice Department.
“Having stonewalled Congress’ demands for information for nearly a year, it’s no surprise to see the FBI and DOJ issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies,” the California Republican said in a statement.
The Democratic Schiff hails from California as well. He said Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee prepared a counter-memo but that Republicans blocked them from releasing it.
Eddington with the Cato Institute noted in an interview the threat of compromising sensitive sources and methods would certainly explain why the Justice Department and FBI want the House memo to remain classified.
“If the Justice Department and the FBI are not willing – or are for that matter blocked by the administration from releasing portions of that FISA application to help people understand what’s going on – then that’s going to kind of create a polluted narrative that I think really becomes a problem,” Eddington said.
Growing Congressional Dysfunction
Daniel Schuman with Demand Progress says the partisan split over the memo is unprecedented, and shows complete degradation of the committee’s objectives.
“We can’t always see all the stuff that the FBI is doing, but [the intelligence committees] can see it,” Schuman said. “And they’re supposed to be skeptical, and they’re supposed to engage in real oversight.”
Like its counterpart in the Senate, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence emerged in 1975 after revelations that U.S. intelligence agencies had spied on U.S. citizens – including Martin Luther King Jr. – and attempted to assassinate foreign leaders.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, along with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, was one of several reforms brought about by congressional investigations of the intelligence abuses.
In Schuman’s view, however, the committees have appeared more concerned in recent years with bolstering the intelligence agencies than with protecting privacy rights.
Proof of that can be seen, Schuman said, in the bipartisan renewal earlier this month of Section 702 — a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows U.S. intelligence agencies to collect communications, like emails and phone records, of foreigners abroad without a warrant. Privacy advocates complain that the program incidentally sweeps up communications from U.S. citizens communicating with foreigners.
While Republicans insist that Page’s surveillance amounts an abuse of Section 702, Schuman noted that this position did not stop them from voting to renew and expand that provision.
And Democrats opposed to the memo’s release voted the same way.
“They have lost their perspective,” Schuman said.
“All that stuff, which they were supposed to stop, in fact they sort of joined hands to protect,” Schuman added.
National-security attorney Mark Zaid spoke about the committee’s roots as well.
“This committee in particular was not supposed to be full of friends or foes,” Zaid said in an interview. “It was supposed to be made up of members who conduct neutral oversight. And it’s not that at the moment.”
Zaid warned that the increasing politicization of the House intelligence committee will make intelligence agencies less inclined to trust and cooperate with it.
“They are staking out this battle that is going to have, potentially, repercussions for many years to come,” Zaid said.
Looking Back to Look Forward
While Democrats say the Justice Department’s independence is critical to its function, historian Daniel Feller noted in an interview this idea has been around only as long as the Watergate scandal.
“I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, but it’s a new idea,” said Feller, a professor at the University of Tennessee. “People don’t remember that John F. Kennedy appointed his brother to be his attorney general.”
President Trump held up former President Barack Obama’s friendly relationship with Attorney General Eric Holder as a more recent example.
“When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest,” Trump told The New York Times in a Dec. 28 interview.
Feller, who specializes in the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the 19th century, said government norms can change over time, making it difficult to assess the viability of claims that Trump’s conduct indicates a slide into authoritarianism.
“This is not the first time that a president has behaved outside certain accepted norms,” Feller said. “And it’s not the first time that a lot of people thought, ‘this is the end of the world.'”
Though Feller notes that he disagrees with most analogies between Trump and Jackson, he points to Jackson’s presidency to show that historical periods can look different in hindsight than they do at the time.
“In retrospect, Jackson’s presidency wasn’t the salvation of the American Republic, which is what his supporters thought it was,” Feller said. “Nor was it the end of the American Republic, which his detractors thought it was.”