FBI and White House in conflict over classified memo

The FBI and White house are in conflict over a push by Republican lawmakers to release a classified memo

President Trump with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray (Photo: LA Times)
President Trump with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray (Photo: LA Times)

The FBI has publicly challenged a push by Republican lawmakers to release a controversial memo which might reveal anti-Trump bias at the agency.

On Wednesday, the FBI said that it had "grave concerns" about the accuracy of a disputed Republican memo on secret surveillance during the 2016 campaign that President Trump has promised to release.

The FBI said it only had a "limited opportunity" to review the classified four-page memo prepared by aides to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), a close Trump ally who chairs the House Intelligence Committee.

"As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy," the nation's premier law enforcement agency said in a two-paragraph statement.

The White House has reportedly indicated it could be published later on Thursday. It has to approve the top-secret memo release.

"It will be released here pretty quick, I think, and the whole world can see it," White House chief of staff John Kelly told Fox News Radio.

Democrats have said the memo is an attempt to discredit the FBI-led Russia inquiry.

The public pushback escalated the conflict between the White House and senior officials at the Justice Department, who approved the FBI statement, as well as senior figures in the intelligence community, who have previously warned that release of the classified GOP memo could endanger national security.

"It's like a neon billboard blinking, 'Danger, don't you dare do this,'" said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor who studies the presidency. "This is a sign of war."

The FBI decided to go public after FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who is supervising Mueller's investigation, failed to convince the White House or House Republicans that the GOP memo is misleading and its underlying classified material should remain secret.

On Wednesday night, Democrats on the committee accused Republicans of having secretly altered the memo before giving it to the White House.

Representative Adam Schiff said the document had "material changes", meaning it was not the same as the one voted on. He said it should be withdrawn and reviewed again prior to any possible public release.

The four-page document, compiled by staffers for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, says the Department of Justice abused the Fisa surveillance programme to unfairly target a member of Donald Trump's campaign.

Nunes said that he wasn't surprised that the FBI wants to keep the memo secret.

"Having stonewalled Congress' demands for information for nearly a year, it's no surprise to see the FBI and [Justice Department] issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies," he said in a statement.

"It's clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counter-intelligence investigation during an American political campaign," he said. "Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again."

Nunes, who served on Trump's transition team and rallied to his defense when Trump falsely claimed last year that President Obama had Trump's "wires tapped," has argued that the FBI has treated Trump unfairly.

According to lawmakers who have reviewed it, the document purports to show the agency obtained a warrant to spy on a Trump campaign aide after submitting as evidence the unproven "Russian dossier".

That dossier was compiled by former UK intelligence agent Christopher Steele with money financed in part from the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Democrats and law enforcement officials say the four-page GOP memo "cherry-picks" information from a much longer application to the FISA court. Those documents typically run 50 to 60 pages, officials said.

The GOP-led House committee voted along party lines Monday to release it.

The committee voted against simultaneously releasing a written rebuttal from Democrats, who contend that the GOP memo deliberately misstates facts for partisan purposes.

The decision then moved to the White House, and Trump told a lawmaker after his State of the Union address Tuesday night that he was "100%" planning to release the memo. On Wednesday morning, John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, said on Fox News Radio that the memo "will be released here pretty quick, I think, and the whole world can see it."

Kelly was less equivocal, saying Trump wanted "everything out so the American people can make up their own minds and if there's people to be held accountable, then so be it".

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