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House panel votes to release secret memo critical of FBI

It hints at a new GOP target: deputy attorney general

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein approved an application to extend the surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein approved an application to extend the surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser. Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press/File 2018

WASHINGTON — Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted Monday evening to release a contentious secret memorandum said to accuse the Justice Department and the FBI of misusing their authority to obtain a secret surveillance order on a former Trump campaign associate.

The panel apparently disregarded Justice Department warnings that their actions would be “extraordinarily reckless.”

The vote threw fuel on an already fiery partisan conflict over the investigations into Russia’s brazen meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Republicans invoked a power never before used by the secretive committee to effectively declassify the memo they had compiled.

Democrats called the 3½-page document a dangerous effort to build a narrative to undercut the department’s ongoing Russia investigation, using cherry-picked facts assembled with little or no context.

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What comes next was less clear. Under the obscure House rule invoked by the committee, President Trump has five days to review the document and decide whether to try to block it from going public. The White House has repeatedly indicated that it wants the memo out, but Trump’s Justice Department had been working to slow or block its release.

The memo, which was made available to all members of the House, is said to contend that officials from the two agencies were not forthcoming to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge.

Republicans accuse the agencies of failing to disclose that the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign helped finance research that was used to obtain a warrant for surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser. The research presented to the judge was assembled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele.

The memo is not limited to actions taken by the Obama administration, though. The New York Times reported Sunday that the memo reveals that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, a top Trump appointee, signed off an application to extend the surveillance of Page shortly after taking office last spring.

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The renewal shows that the Justice Department under Trump saw reason to believe Page was acting as a Russian agent.

The inclusion of Rosenstein’s action in the memo could expose him to criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill and from conservatives in the media who have seized on the surveillance to argue that the Russia inquiry may have been tainted from the start.

Rosenstein is overseeing that investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. It was Rosenstein who appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel.

People familiar with the underlying application have portrayed the Republican memo as misleading in part because Steele’s information was insufficient to meet the standard for a FISA warrant.

They said the application drew on other intelligence material that the Republican memo selectively omits. That other information remains highly sensitive, and releasing it would risk burning other sources and methods of intelligence-gathering about Russia.

There is no known precedent for the Republicans’ action. Though House rules allow the Intelligence Committee to vote to disclose classified information if it is deemed to be in the public interest, the rule is not thought to have ever been used.

Typically, lawmakers wishing to make public secretive information classified by the executive branch spend months, if not years, fighting with the White House and the intelligence community over what they can release.

In a letter last week to Representative Devin Nunes of California, the committee’s Republican chairman, Stephen E. Boyd, an assistant attorney general, said it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release a memo drawing on classified information without official review. He said the department is “unaware of any wrongdoing related to the FISA process.”

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Democrats responded to the panel’s actions with outrage. “Clearly, House Republicans’ desire to protect President Trump has clouded their judgment and caused them to lose sight of what’s at stake: the security and integrity of our elections,” the office of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said.

The reference to Rosenstein’s actions in the House memo indicates that Republicans may be moving to seize on his role as they seek to undermine the inquiry.

Republicans could potentially use Rosenstein’s decision to approve the renewal to suggest that he failed to properly vet a sensitive application for a warrant to spy on Page.

No information has publicly emerged that the Justice Department or the FBI did anything improper while seeking the warrant involving Page.