The top Democrats on two House committees accused Republicans on Friday of selectively leaking to the press sensitive communications that could put a “confidential human source” at risk.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, and his counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), also accused Republicans of “cherry-picking” portions of emails and text messages between British ex-spy Christopher Steele and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr to bolster a narrative that they were part of a conspiracy to undermine the Trump campaign in 2016.
The Democrats’ concerns, outlined in a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), arose out of an interview with Ohr that Republican members of the two panels conducted Tuesday.
The Justice Department originally provided the documents to the House Intelligence Committee. Some were marked “law enforcement sensitive” because they contained details relating to a confidential source, the Democrats said.
Gowdy, who is also a member of the Intelligence Committee, “reviewed these documents when they were first produced to [the intelligence panel] in March,” said his spokeswoman, Amanda Gonzalez. “He has never once shared these documents with a single individual outside of [the committee].” If members have concerns that sensitive information was released, they should raise their concerns with the Intelligence or Ethics committee, she said.
Goodlatte was not at the Ohr interview. A spokeswoman for the congressman, Kathryn Rexrode, said that “Mr. Nadler and Mr. Cummings’ comments would be better addressed” by the Intelligence Committee.
No Democratic members were present for the session, though some of their staffers were.
During the course of the eight-hour interview, the lawmakers “repeatedly referenced, read out loud from, and asked the witness questions” about the documents, which had never officially been provided to the two committees, the Democrats wrote.
They included Ohr’s emails and text messages with Steele and Ohr’s handwritten notes relating to his interactions with Steele.
During the interview, the lawmakers “never introduced these documents into the official record, never marked them as exhibits, never explained how they obtained them, and never provided copies to Democratic staff” who were present, the letter said.
“It is unclear whether Republican members consulted with the department prior to distributing these highly sensitive documents more widely or before using them during the interview with Mr. Ohr,” Cummings and Nadler said.
FBI and Justice Department officials have expressed concern to Democratic committee aides that the leaks of the Ohr-Steele communications could harm national security, potentially endangering confidential sources, said one Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. The officials also voiced exasperation with what they saw as a breach of trust by Republicans, after the documents were shared with the House Intelligence Committee on the condition they would be protected, the aide said.
“If Judiciary or Oversight Committee Republicans used materials during their questioning of Bruce Ohr that [the Justice Department] made available only to [the Intelligence Committee] but not to their committees, that would be in violation of rules that are supposed to govern the handling and use of sensitive information provided to the committee by executive-branch agencies,” said a Democratic aide to the intelligence panel who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the record. “No vote, which should precede any disclosure, has been taken in the committee to share or release any such information.”
Nadler and Cummings said in their letter that “select portions” of the documents were leaked to the press to create “false and misleading narratives.” For example, they stated, an Aug. 7 piece in the news outlet the Hill cites a portion of one email in which Steele wrote to Ohr: “There is something separate I wanted to discuss with you informally and separately. It concerns our favorite business tycoon!”
The Hill article stated that was “an apparent reference” to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In fact, Ohr explained in his interview Tuesday, the “business tycoon” in question was actually Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, the Democrats said.
They said the Republicans made the same mistake in the interview with Ohr when they read the same portion of the email and accused Ohr of discussing Trump with Steele.