The FBI, the White House, and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee were embroiled in a public standoff Wednesday over the expected release of a Republican memo criticizing the bureau’s use of secret surveillance orders.
In a highly unusual move, the FBI issued a statement challenging the classified memo’s anticipated release, saying: “We have grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact” its accuracy.
The FBI’s statement followed remarks made by President Trump on Tuesday night indicating he wanted the document to be made public.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the Intelligence Committee chair, fired back at FBI officials, calling their objections to the memo’s release “spurious.”
“It’s clear,” Nunes said in a statement of his own, “that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counter-intelligence investigation during an American political campaign. Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again.”
Nunes appeared to be referring to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant obtained in October 2016 on Carter Page, at the time a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser. The Republican memo, written by intelligence committee staffers in early January, details alleged abuses of surveillance authorities, according to people familiar with the matter.
It is highly unusual for the White House and the FBI to be publicly at odds over a matter of national security, and it was unclear what impact the disagreement might have on the standing of FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, two Trump appointees who went to the White House on Monday to urge that the memo not be released.
That private lobbying effort now has morphed into a public fight, the outcome of which is unclear. Both sides expect that the memo in question will be released soon.
The FBI statement said federal agents carefully adhere to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which provides a legal framework for national security investigations.
“The FBI takes seriously its obligations to the FISA Court and its compliance with procedures overseen by career professionals in the Department of Justice and the FBI,” the statement said. “We are committed to working with the appropriate oversight entities to ensure the continuing integrity of the FISA process.”
Its statement Wednesday underscores the concerns among federal law enforcement and intelligence officials who say that the memo is inaccurate and that its release would set a dangerous precedent for disclosures of classified information involving political affairs.
Current and former law enforcement officials said a major concern inside the FBI is that the rules governing classified information will impede their ability to respond to the memo’s accusations when it becomes public.
Senior FBI officials believe the allegations of abuse are not only inaccurate but unfair, and that the bureau would not be able to effectively counter the memo’s claims because most details of any counterargument would be classified, current and former officials say.
On Tuesday night, Trump told a Republican lawmaker he would “100 percent” authorize the memo’s release. The exchange following his State of the Union address was caught by television cameras as he departed the House chamber.
The president’s comments appeared to jump ahead of plans to assure critics that the White House is putting the memo through a formal vetting process before he makes a decision about its release. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN on Wednesday morning that the president had not “seen or been briefed” on the memo’s contents before he made those comments Tuesday night. Sanders also said the White House planned to “complete the legal and national security review that has to take place” before deciding whether the memo should be released.
“There’s always a chance” the memo won’t be released, she added. “No one here is going to make a decision that jeopardizes national security.”
Later Wednesday morning, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Fox News radio that the memo will “be released here pretty quick,” just as soon as the White House’s national security lawyers finish “slicing and dicing and looking at it so that we know what it means.”
The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines Monday to make the four-page document available to the public, something that will happen if Trump does not act to block its release within five days. With approval from the president, the release could happen sooner.
During a Monday meeting at the White House, Wray and Rosenstein warned Kelly that the memo’s release could compromise intelligence-gathering sources and methods, and threaten national security. But despite those warnings, Trump has made his desire to release the memo clear.
The memo was written after the intelligence panel procured from the FBI and Justice Department documents related to a now-famous dossier of allegations concerning Trump and his purported ties to the Kremlin. In his statement Wednesday, the congressman accused the FBI and Justice Department of having “stonewalled” lawmakers’ for nearly a year.
His statement further suggests the Justice Department relied, at least in some part, on information provided by the dossier’s author, British ex-spy Christopher Steele, to obtain the surveillance warrant for Page.
The memo alleges that Steele passed bad information to the FBI — though people familiar with the document said it does not determine whether he did so intentionally or by mistake. Officials familiar with the Page case have said Steele’s information represented a small part of the secret application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Republicans have long been suspicious of the dossier, particularly since learning that Steele’s work was paid for by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats allege that the GOP memo is nothing but a hit job designed to weaken the federal law enforcement agencies behind special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including Trump’s alleged ties to Russian officials. They have prepared a memo countering the allegations in the GOP memo written by Nunes’s staff, but the Democrats’ document is available only to members to read in a secure facility.
The House Intelligence Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), has accused Nunes of orchestrating an “effort to circle the wagons around the White House and distract from the Russia probe.” Schiff also has suggested Nunes coordinated with the Trump administration to release memo, noting “it is hard for me to escape the conclusion that this is anything but doing the bidding of the White House,” according to a transcript of the intelligence panel’s Monday night closed-door meeting.
When asked by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) if he had coordinated with the White House to release the memo, Nunes said: “As far as I know, no.” When pressed whether his staff had done so, Nunes refused to answer.
Sanders told CNN on Wednesday that she was “not aware of any conversation or coordination” between Nunes and the White House on the production or release of the memo, but she did not rule out the possibility. “I just don’t know the answer,” she said.
John Wagner contributed to this report.