Congress Executive Branch Intelligence

It Was Worse than You Think: The House Intelligence Meeting on the Nunes Memo

Quinta Jurecic
Wednesday, January 31, 2018, 7:56 PM

On Monday, Jan. 29, the House Intelligence Committee convened to vote on whether to release to the public the much-discussed memo on alleged surveillance abuses prepared by Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. As we now know, the committee’s Republicans—over the Democrats’ objections—did indeed vote to #release it.

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On Monday, Jan. 29, the House Intelligence Committee convened to vote on whether to release to the public the much-discussed memo on alleged surveillance abuses prepared by Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. As we now know, the committee’s Republicans—over the Democrats’ objections—did indeed vote to #release it.

The memo itself is not yet available to the public (though it will likely become so at some point over the next few days). But the transcript of the committee’s Jan. 29 meeting is. Notably, in the hours before the transcript was made public, the FBI released a rare statement voicing “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Nunes dismissed the FBI’s comments as “spurious.”

You can read the transcript for yourself here, but below is a quick and dirty summary of what took place.

The meeting begins with Schiff laying out the three motions he intends to introduce:

  • The motions are as follows: first, a motion to make available to all members of the House a memo prepared by the committee’s minority, rebutting the Nunes memo; second, a motion to allow the Justice Department and FBI to review both memos and brief the committee before the vote on whether to release the Nunes memo; and third, a motion to require that if the Nunes memo is released to the public, the minority memo be released alongside it. Schiff emphasizes that only he and Rep. Trey Gowdy have seen the underlying intelligence on which the Nunes memo is based (only members of the Gang of Eight have access to the intelligence, but Gowdy viewed the intelligence for the majority).
  • Nunes says he has already introduced Schiff’s first motion, and agrees to allow the full House access to the minority memo. Rep. Mike Conaway (a Republican who has been leading the Russia investigation alongside Schiff in the wake of Nunes’s unofficial recusal) says he will vote in favor only if the minority memo “does not disclose information that would be harmful to national security.”
  • Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley complains that the memo has distracted the committee from its work on the Russia investigation. Conaway points out that Steve Bannon is scheduled to come in for a second hearing on Wednesday (this hearing has since been canceled), but Schiff notes that the committee has yet to schedule a follow-up hearing with Corey Lewandowski. Nunes chimes in: “This is not a place to discuss the Russia investigation.”
  • Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell argues that releasing the memo to the public will breach an agreement between the committee and the Justice Department that “there would be limited access to the mostly highly sensitive of materials as relates to Russia.” (Schiff has raised this concern elsewhere.) Swalwell makes the point that Nunes’s memo risks destroying the relationship between the committee and the intelligence community, making it impossible for the committee to function as an oversight body.

Nunes calls a vote on Schiff’s first motion:

  • The motion asks whether the committee should share the minority memo with the full House. All committee members vote in favor except Republican Rep. Mike Turner, who was reportedly unable to make it back to Washington in time for the vote.
  • Nunes then reads into the record a letter from Republican Rep. Peter King calling for the Nunes memo’s public release under House Rule X, clause 11(g). Rep. King speaks in favor of the memo’s publication, noting that FBI Director Christopher Wray discussed the memo with Nunes and Gowdy the day before.
  • In response to King’s comment regarding Wray, Swalwell asks “what did the FBI say as to dissemination to the public?” He does not receive a response.
  • Democratic Rep. Jim Himes asks Nunes whether his memo will be released in full or whether “references to highly classified information” will be redacted. Nunes does not directly answer, but suggests that the memo will be released without redactions, saying only: “We will make the content available.”

Schiff makes his second motion:

  • The motion is to postpone the vote until the FBI and Justice Department can review the Nunes memo in full and brief the committee. Nunes announces that “the Department of Justice and the FBI have been under investigation by this committee for many, many months for FISA abuse and other matters … I would urge my colleagues to vote no, we are not going to be briefed by people that are under investigation by this committee.”
  • None of the Democrats appear to have been aware of this investigation. Quigley argues that Nunes has violated rule 9(a) of the committee’s rules, which requires the committee to conduct investigations “only if approved by the chair in consultation with the ranking minority member”—meaning Schiff. But Schiff says that this is the first he’s been formally notified of it.
  • Quigley asks Nunes whether he has coordinated the memo with the White House. “As far as I know, no,” says Nunes. Quigley then asks whether any of the majority’s staff have coordinated with the White House. Nunes refuses to answer and cuts him off.
  • Himes voices his concern that the committee will apparently be releasing the memo unredacted, noting that “an immense amount of classified information will be available to the public.” He warns about the dangers of voting on both memos’ release before any of the committee members beyond Schiff and Gowdy view the underlying intelligence.
  • Swalwell suggests that, if Nunes insists that the FBI and Justice Department are under investigation, the committee could pass the memo to an inspector general of another agency for review before its release. He suggests the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Nunes does not respond.

Nunes calls a vote on Schiff’s second motion:

  • Schiff requests a delay of the memo’s release until after a briefing by the FBI and Justice Department. The Republicans vote it down along party lines. All Democrats vote in favor.

Schiff makes his third motion:

  • Schiff now requests that the minority’s memo be released publicly alongside Nunes’s memo. Conaway says that he will oppose the motion. He would prefer for the minority memo to go through the same process as the Nunes memo: pause for a “time of reflection” after releasing the memo to the House before releasing it to the public.
  • Schiff argues the majority is behaving hypocritically: the committee’s Republicans criticized Hillary Clinton for what FBI Director James Comey called her “extremely careless” handling of classified information, but they are now planning to vote to release classified information in what the Justice Department called an “extraordinarily reckless” fashion.

The committee votes on Schiff’s third motion requesting the minority memo’s release to the public.

  • All present Republicans vote against it. All Democrats vote for it, with the exception of Rep. Jackie Speier, who votes present.

Finally, the committee votes on Nunes’s motion to release his memo to the public.

  • All Republicans present vote in favor—except for Rep. Will Hurd, who has stepped out of the room and will add his “aye” vote retroactively at the end of the meeting. All Democrats vote against making the memo public.
  • Schiff calls for another vote on his motion to release the minority memo alongside the Nunes memo, now that the committee has voted for the Nunes memo’s release. The vote is the same.
  • Schiff requests that the transcript of these proceedings be released to the public as soon as possible. Nunes adjourns the meeting.

It’s interesting to compare the unanimous Republican vote to #ReleasetheMemo with the less-than-enthusiastic attitude of much of the committee majority toward the document itself. When Benjamin Wittes and I reached out to the offices of every committee Republican (except Nunes) and asked whether the representatives had faith in the factual conclusions of the memo, only three members of the committee answered in the affirmative (six did not respond to our repeated requests to contact them, and three responded but conspicuously did not answer our question as to the memo’s integrity). But all thirteen Republicans voted for the document’s release. Likewise, of the majority, only Nunes, Conaway and King speak up over the course of the meeting—and Conaway’s points are mostly procedural, not a substantive defense of the memo. Also notable is that Rep. Chris Stewart told us last week that he would support the Nunes memo’s release if sensitive information were redacted, and yet voted for the unredacted memo’s publication. During the meeting, Conaway similarly voiced concerns over publication of classified information—albeit regarding the minority memo—but voted in favor of the unredacted Nunes memo’s release as well.

Update: As of 10pm on Wednesday night, Schiff announced on Twitter that Nunes has shared a different version of the document with the White House than the committee voted on. Schiff argues that this means that the memo has not been properly voted on by the committee—which would presumably mean that the president can't give his approval to make it public. With reports that the White House plans to release the memo tomorrow, it's not clear what happens next.

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

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