In this occasional series, we will bring you up to speed on the biggest national security stories of the week.
If you've caught even a few minutes of cable news in the past week, you've probably heard about the “Nunes memo” and the controversy it has stirred. The document, which was released Friday, has created a massive fissure between Democrats and Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, and even pitted President Trump against his own FBI director, who has publicly expressed concerns about the memo being made public.
But what exactly is the Nunes memo, and how did it come to roil Washington so intensely? Here are the answers to basic questions you might have about the document and how it came to be.
What is the Nunes memo, and how did it come to be?
The Nunes memo is a four-page document, created by the staff of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), that alleges the FBI abused its surveillance authority, particularly when it sought a secret court order to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser. It is the work product of Nunes’s months-long effort to investigate the FBI and Justice Department and their ongoing probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia.
The memo describes how a research effort funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee ended up playing a role in the FBI obtaining a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The research effort was that of former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who produced a now infamous dossier of lurid allegations against Trump. Steele had been hired for his work by Fusion GPS, an opposition research firm that had itself been hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Republicans have used that information to portray the monitoring of Page as a political ploy by Clinton and the Democrats, which they say casts doubt on the integrity of the Russia investigation. It must be noted, though, that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court process is generally a robust one, and it is virtually impossible that the bureau would have relied solely on unverified information in Steele’s dossier to obtain the warrant.
Listen to reporter Matt Zapotosky explain the controversy over the memo
Why are the Democrats so upset about the memo’s release?
The House Intelligence Committee has long done bipartisan work conducting oversight of U.S. intelligence services. As a part of that, the committee had been doing its own investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Nunes memo has essentially upended the probe, and the work has devolved into partisan bickering over the document’s release.
Democrats are upset for two primary reasons. First, Nunes’s staff created the document after reviewing classified and highly sensitive Justice Department files related to the Russia investigation. Democrats fear the memo could expose some of that material and harm national security. That is problematic in its own right, Democrats say, but also for the precedent it might set. In the future, the Justice Department and the FBI might be reluctant to turn over materials to the House Intelligence Committee out of fear the committee will make them public. Foreign intelligence partners watching from afar, too, might be more reluctant to cooperate with the United States out of concern that Congress might get access to their work and expose it to the world.
Second, Democrats are angry that the memo, in their view, cherry-picks facts to paint the FBI in an unfairly negative light. They say Republicans are essentially using the document to discredit the probe into the Trump campaign and ignoring information that is unhelpful to them. To that point, when Republicans voted to authorize the release of their memo — triggering an up-to-five-days review by the White House — they voted against releasing a Democrat rebuttal memo. Democrats have charged that that is an attempt to control the political narrative.
What is the FBI and Justice Department’s stance on all of this?
Initially, officials at the Justice Department had not even seen the memo, and the department wrote Nunes last week warning him against releasing the document until it could conduct its own review. On Sunday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray looked at it, and he asked to brief Republican lawmakers on his concerns with making it public. They did not let him do so. Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein also privately lobbied the White House against the memo’s release.
On Wednesday, Wray’s FBI issued a remarkable statement saying that the bureau has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” That puts the agency at odds with not just Republicans in Congress, but also Trump, who sees the document as helpful to himself and wants it released.
Notable about the FBI’s statement is that the bureau is not publicly expressing any concerns that releasing the memo could jeopardize national security, but rather, they are saying the document is wrong. Nunes fired back that the FBI was welcome to make public information that could clear up the record. But law enforcement officials have said the bureau is in a bit of a bind. That is because the information it might make public in its defense, according to the officials, is sensitive, and its release could be damaging to national security.
Why has this become such a big issue?
This is a big deal because it could have real implications for the Justice Department and the Russia investigation. Trump is said to believe the memo could help him convince people the FBI and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III are biased against him. It’s possible, even likely, he will use it in an effort to discredit that probe.
It’s also possible that the memo’s release could trigger leadership changes at the Justice Department. Trump has told associates he hopes new questions facing the Russia investigation could allow him to make changes at the department, and the memo could give him the questions he needs.