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Republican Memo Accuses Top Law Officers of Abusing Power

By Peter Heinlein, Steve Herman February 02, 2018

The House Intelligence Committee has released a bitterly disputed memo outlining allegations by Republicans that FBI investigators abused their powers in their probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The memo was made public Friday, shortly after President Donald Trump approved declassification of the memo, which was written by the committee's chairman, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes.

A significant part of the memo focuses on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants that permitted FBI surveillance of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, a businessman with interests in Russia. There had been concerns about Page's alleged contacts with Russian intelligence agents.

The memo asserts that a dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele was an "essential part" of the FISA application on Page, and that the FBI did not mention the Steele dossier had been funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, or that Steele had previously made anti-Trump statements.

Support of memo

Speaking to reporters at the White House Friday, Trump described the contents of the memo as "terrible." During a photo opportunity with North Korean defectors, Trump said, "I think it's a disgrace what's going on in this country. ... A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that."

When asked by a reporter whether release of the memo makes it more likely that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would be fired, Trump replied, "You figure that one out."

Rosenstein supervises the Russia probe and named special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the investigation.

Release of the memo intensifies the battle between Trump and his Republican allies in Congress on one side, and Democrats and top FBI officials on the other about whether the probe into Russian interference in the presidential election was affected by political bias on the part of investigators.

Nunes issued a statement Friday expressing hope that the actions of Intelligence Committee Republicans would "shine a light" on what he called "this alarming series of events."

"The committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes," Nunes said. "Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies exist to defend the American people, not to be exploited to target one group on behalf of another."

House Speaker Paul Ryan released a statement saying the "concern outlined" in the memo is a "legitimate one." He said he supported both the release of Nunes' memo as well as the Democrats' minority memo.

"It is critical that we focus on specific actions and specific actors and not use this memo to impugn the integrity of the justice system and FBI, which continue to serve the American people with honor," Ryan said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement late Friday defending the president's decision to declassify the memo, which she said "raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the Government's most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens.

Sanders said the decision had been made after consultation with Trump's national security team – including law enforcement officials and members of the intelligence community.

Critical of memo

The minority Democratic members of the committee issued a lengthy statement lambasting Nunes' decision to release the memo, saying it contains "misleading allegations against the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation [and] is a shameful effort to discredit these institutions, undermine the Special Counsel's ongoing investigation, and undercut congressional probes."

The Democratic statement accused Republicans of setting a "terrible precedent" by releasing classified information that will do long-term damage to the intelligence community for the purpose of protecting Trump against expected charges in the Russia probe.

"The sole purpose of the Republican document is to circle the wagons around the White House and insulate the President," the Democratic statement said. "Most destructive of all may be the announcement by Chairman Nunes that he has placed the FBI and DOJ under investigation, impugning and impairing the work of the dedicated professionals trying to keep our country safe."

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, issued a separate statement questioning what he calls "serious mischaracterizations" in the Republican memo.

"The Majority suggests that the FBI failed to alert the court as to Mr. Steele's potential political motivations or the political motivations of those who hired him, but this is not accurate," Schiff wrote. "The GOP memo also claims that a Yahoo News article was used to corroborate Steele, but this is not at all why the article was referenced."

Intelligence community reaction

Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement on the memo Friday, saying he has "great confidence in the men and women of this Department [of Justice]. But no department is perfect. Accordingly, I will forward to appropriate DOJ components all information I receive from Congress regarding this."

The president of the FBI Agents Association Thomas O'Connor issued a statement Friday defending the rank-and-file officers and their commitment to their work.

"The American people should know that they continue to be well-served by the world's preeminent law enforcement agency," the statement said. "FBI Special Agents have not, and will not, allow partisan politics to distract us from our solemn commitment to our mission."

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said he sees the FBI's concern as being more political than substantive.

"Notably, the objections by the FBI have been to the memo being "inaccurate" by "omission," he said. "That does not sound like a concern over classification. It sounds like a concern over public embarrassment or criticism."

"It is a curious thing to see Democrats expressing outrage at the notion that the committee would ever question the classification of material by the FBI," he added. "Agencies have long been notorious for over-classification of information and the use of classification authority to shield officials from public exposure or criticism."

David B. Cohen, political science professor at the University of Akron, said he sees release of the Nunes memo as part of a Republican campaign to discredit the Russia probe being carried out by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is also a former FBI Director.

"Trump seems to be laying the groundwork for further firings of high-level DOJ personnel including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as well as the pardoning of key witnesses and family members, Cohen told VOA.

"By utilizing a sustained strategy of publicly criticizing and discrediting the upper ranks and career civil servants of the FBI and DOJ, Trump is attempting to inoculate his base and others that are sympathetic to his plight for when he fires Rosenstein, Mueller and others," Cohen said.

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