WASHINGTON — The FBI said Wednesday that it had “grave concerns” about the accuracy of a classified memo crafted by Republican lawmakers that allegedly shows bias at the Justice Department against U.S. President Donald Trump.
A White House official said late Wednesday that the memo was likely to be released Thursday, Reuters reported.
However later Wednesday night, Representative Adam Schiff, the intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat, said he had discovered Nunes had sent a version of the Republican memo to the White House that was “materially altered” and thus was not what was approved for release by the committee’s vote.
A spokesman for Nunes did not immediately respond to a request for comment. And an aide to Schiff did not immediately respond when asked how Schiff had obtained that information.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had “a limited opportunity” to review the four-page memo before the Republican majority on the House intelligence committee voted this week to release it, pending a review by Trump.
In a conversation picked up by a television camera after his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Trump told a congressman that he was “100 percent” in favor of disclosing the memo.
Memo ‘under review’
White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah told VOA Wednesday, “The memo is under review, and all thoughts about how we should act are being considered.”
The memo concerns an application by U.S. law enforcement authorities to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor contacts that Trump campaign adviser Carter Page may have had with Russian operatives leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Some Republicans say the surveillance request may have been mishandled and could undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election.
The FBI said in a statement that earlier this week it told the Intelligence panel, before it voted, that “we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Nunes fires back
Representative Devin Nunes of California, chairman of the House intelligence committee, who commissioned the memo, fired back Wednesday for what he called “spurious objections” to the release.
“The FBI is intimately familiar with ‘material omissions’ with respect to their presentations to both Congress and the courts, and they are welcome to make public, to the greatest extent possible, all the information they have on these abuses. Regardless, it’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence 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 said in a statement.
Representative Schiff said in an op-ed article Wednesday in The Washington Post that the decision to release the document crossed a “dangerous line.”
“Doing so without even allowing the Justice Department or the FBI to vet the information for accuracy, the impact of its release on sources and methods, and other concerns was, as the Justice Department attested, ‘extraordinarily reckless,’ ” he wrote. “But it also increases the risk of a constitutional crisis by setting the stage for subsequent actions by the White House to fire Mueller or, as now seems more likely, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — an act that would echo the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre.”
Two Justice Department officials, Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, have both raised concerns about the memo’s content.
Boyd, in a letter to Nunes, used the wording “extraordinarily reckless” to characterize the release of the memo. Rosenstein warned White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that releasing the memo would put classified information at risk, and he beseeched the president to withdraw his support for making it public. According to the Post, FBI Director Christopher Wray was with Rosenstein at the White House meeting earlier this week.
Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s Russia probe, reportedly told the White House his department was not convinced the memo accurately describes how the FBI conducts investigations. He warned that making the document public could set a dangerous precedent.
CNN reported Wednesday that Rosenstein visited the White House in December seeking Trump’s support in fighting off document demands from Nunes. But the president had other priorities ahead of a key appearance by Rosenstein on Capitol Hill, CNN reported, citing sources familiar with the meeting. Trump wanted to know where the special counsel’s Russia investigation was heading, and he wanted to know whether Rosenstein was “on my team.”
On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin defended the release of the memo, saying, “There are legitimate questions about whether an American’s civil liberties were violated” as authorities sought to monitor contacts Page may have had with the Russian operatives.
Ryan said the need for “transparency” dictated the need to release the memo. “There may have been malfeasance at the FBI by certain individuals,” he said.
But even as he called for release of the memo, Ryan warned his Republican colleagues in the House to not oversell the information in the memo as a means to derail Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election. Mueller is also probing whether Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey, the former FBI director who was heading the agency’s Russia investigation before Mueller, over Trump’s objections, was appointed to take over the probe.
The memo has become a flash point in politically divided Washington, with some Republicans increasingly voicing complaints about Mueller’s months-long investigation and claiming that some Justice Department officials have worked to undermine Trump’s presidency.
Trump has repeatedly said there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia and last week said there also was “no obstruction” of the Russia investigation.
Fallout from the memo’s publication could be severe. Any allegations of misconduct could give the president reason to demand the removal of senior FBI and Justice Department officials. Among potential casualties: Rosenstein and Mueller.
“I think this is part of a campaign to try to fire the deputy attorney general,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “We’ll see how it plays out, but I hope that’s not the final result.”
Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor and a professor at Pace University’s law school in White Plains, New York, said the memo could lead to Mueller’s dismissal.
Trump has said he has no intention of firing either official.
Some experts say the memo’s more lasting damage could be an erosion of public trust in the FBI and the Justice Department, institutions that closely guard their reputation as nonpartisan law enforcement agencies.
“To just excoriate these people [at the FBI and Justice Department] and suggest that they’re all acting for political motives, to me, what it does is it undermines the public’s confidence in law enforcement,” Gershman said.
VOA’s Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from Reuters.