Even during the most difficult of times, when Congress had seemingly lost the capacity to govern and partisan storms raged across Capitol Hill, the intelligence committees remained largely insulated from the nation’s increasingly self-destructive politics.
On Monday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, moved to release a memo written by his staff that cherry-picks facts, ignores others and smears the FBI and the Justice Department — all while potentially revealing intelligence sources and methods. He did so even though he had not read the classified documents that the memo characterizes and refused to allow the FBI to brief the committee on the risks of publication and what it has described as “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The party-line vote to release the Republican memo but not a Democratic response was a violent break from the committee’s nonpartisan tradition and the latest troubling sign that House Republicans are willing to put the president’s political dictates ahead of the national interest.
The reason for Republicans’ abrupt departure from our nonpartisan tradition is growing alarm over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. In a matter of months, the president’s first national security adviser and a foreign policy adviser have pleaded guilty to felony offenses, while his former campaign chairman and deputy campaign manager have also been indicted. As Mueller and his team move closer to the president and his inner circle, a sense of panic is palpable on the Hill. GOP members recognize that the probe threatens not only the president but also their majorities in Congress.
In response, they have drawn on the stratagem of many criminal defense lawyers — when the evidence against a defendant is strong, put the government on trial. The Nunes memo is designed to do just that by furthering a conspiracy theory that a cabal of senior officials within the FBI and the Justice Department were so tainted by bias against President Donald Trump that they irredeemably poisoned the investigation.
This decision to employ an obscure rule to order the release of classified information for partisan political purposes 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.” 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 Rosenstein, an act that would echo the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre.
As multiple investigations work to unearth the full truth, the president has lashed out with Nixonian ferocity at the Justice Department, the FBI, congressional investigators and the media.
Unlike President Richard Nixon, who waged his Watergate fight without the same kind of vocal allies, Trump not only has an entire media ecosystem dedicated to shielding him from accountability but also senior Republicans on the Hill who have cast aside their duty to uphold the law and perform oversight in favor of protecting the Trump presidency — no matter the cost. Nunes may have wielded the committee gavel here, but the ultimate responsibility lies with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, who lacked the courage to stop him.
Ryan, who has never served on the Intelligence Committee, seems not to understand the central bargain underpinning the creation of the intelligence committees after Watergate. In exchange for the intelligence community’s willingness to reveal closely guarded national secrets to a select group of members and staff for the purposes of oversight, the committees and the congressional leadership pledged to handle that information responsibly and without regard to politics.
That contract has now been spectacularly broken by the creation of a partisan memo that misrepresents highly classified information that will never be made public. Intelligence agencies can no longer be confident that material they provide the committee will not be repurposed and manipulated for reasons having nothing to do with national security. As a result, they will be far more reluctant to share their secrets with us in the future. Moreover, sources of information that the agencies rely upon may dry up, as they can no longer count on secrecy when the political winds are blowing.
This is a grave cost for short-term political gain.
The obscure rule that the majority has relied upon contemplates a responsible president who will consult with the agencies affected and reject a misleading and partisan declassification effort. Sadly, this is not something we can expect from the current occupant of the Oval Office. He will have to answer for his actions. But there will be no avoiding congressional complicity in the shattering of yet another norm of office, check and balance.
Adam Schiff is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
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