How the House Intelligence Committee Broke

How the House Intelligence Committee Broke

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In the summer of 1977, Massachusetts Representative Tip O’Neill made an optimistic pitch to his leery colleagues as they prepared to vote against a resolution that would establish the House of Representatives’ first Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: The panel would be “nonpartisan,” he promised. “There will be nothing partisan about its deliberations.”

Four decades later, that promise has proven illusory. The committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election so divided the panel’s Republicans and Democrats that the chairman considered building a physical wall between staffers. In dueling memos, members clamored to declassify information about one of the intelligence community’s most sensitive national security tools. And Democrats claim the probe ended prematurely, with key witnesses and lines of inquiry—such as the possibility that Russia holds financial leverage over the president—left unpursued, a charge Republicans adamantly deny.

Earlier this month, with a vote to send their conclusions to the intelligence community to declassify and release, Republicans officially ended the panel’s year-long investigation into Russia’s election interference. No Democrats voted to release the GOP report, which the committee’s ranking member, Adam Schiff, condemned as partisan and characterized as a “fundamentally unserious effort.” “It’s Cat in the Hat,” said Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell, referring to the famous children’s book. “Simple. An embarrassment.” Republican Representative Mike Conaway, who took the lead on the probe last April, said the Democrats were on “a fishing expedition” with no end in sight. “We’ve found no evidence of collusion,” he told reporters. Just “some bad judgment.”

The House Intelligence Committee has not always been a model of bipartisanship and cooperation—its Senate counterpart has traditionally been far more unified, mostly by virtue of longer term limits and different rules. But the degree to which the committee’s infighting and dysfunction has spilled into public view over the last year—through leaks, television appearances, and press conferences—has been remarkable. And it is a case study in how Russia’s election interference has only deepened divisions among the political leaders tasked with responding to it.

“I never thought it would get to this point,” said a former staffer who worked on the committee from 2005 to 2010. “When I came on board, HPSCI had gone in the ‘80s and ‘90s from being a very quiet organization, with everything done behind closed doors, to somewhat more of a public entity with the 9/11 commission. You started to see more sharp-elbowed politicians at head of these committees soon after that, and more partisan bickering. But it was very rare that that partisan bickering got out into the public.”

“It’s never been this bad,” said Mieke Eoyang, a former HPSCI subcommittee staff director who now serves as vice president for Third Way’s National Security Program. “At its most partisan, the majority and minority might have used the intelligence community to have a fight with each other, but not to denigrate the IC itself.” Schiff pushed back, however, on the premise that the committee is broken. “It’s important to recognize that even though the Russia probe suffered from a different point of view on our mission—I viewed our mission as getting to the truth of what the Russians did, the chairman viewed his mission as protecting the president—we’ve managed to compartmentalize the rest of the committee’s work,” Schiff said in an interview. “Our oversight of the agencies is done in a bipartisan way, such as with the Intelligence Authorization bill and the very difficult 702 bill. So the other work of the committee has gone on uninterrupted.” A spokeswoman for Conaway said he was not available for an interview, and declined to reply to requests for comment.

Schiff, as well as current and former staffers who spoke to me for this article—several off the record and most on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press either by the panel or by their current employers—identified a particular tipping point: Republican Chairman Devin Nunes’s late-night excursion to the White House last spring. That excursion, referred to as “the Midnight Run” among committee members and staff—triggered a chain of events that left Schiff and Nunes, as well as their respective staffs, profoundly at odds, these people said. “They used to get on really well before the Midnight Run,” said a current aide, referring to Schiff and Nunes. At least one outlet described their relationship as “something of a bromance.” Now, Nunes tweets regularly about “fake news,” “leaks from Congress,” and Democrats’ obsession with “Russia conspiracy theories.” In a recent Fox News appearance, he said he has “no faith” in Special Counsel Robert Mueller because he has not investigated the “felony” leaks coming from the intelligence community. It is not clear how Nunes knows what Mueller is or is not investigating. His spokesman did not return a request for comment.

Nunes oversaw the committee’s politically charged probe into the 2012 terrorist attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, and has sparred with intelligence and defense officials over his desire to install an expensive U.S. intelligence facility in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic. The first two years of joint Schiff-Nunes leadership, though, were “remarkably bipartisan and productive,” said another former committee staffer who worked closely with Schiff and Nunes and left the panel last year. “A decision to be bipartisan makes all the difference. The Midnight Run was a mistake, but everything after that was a decision. And at the end of the day, Nunes decided not to be bipartisan. The pressure on him from the White House was too great.”

“He’s got a very complicated psychology,” this person, a former Democratic staffer, said of Nunes. “He really believes in loyalty, but if he perceives you’ve crossed him, you’re dead to him.”

Other staffers and members have blamed Schiff’s consistent cable-news presence for the breakdown in good-faith cooperation. “He has more face time on TV than, I think, any other member of Congress, and it’s always as ‘ranking member of the House Intel Committee,’” said the source who worked on the panel from 2005 to 2010 and is still in touch with his former colleagues. “And that’s an abomination. It shows that the very real job of oversight of the intelligence community is almost a secondary or tertiary objective.” Schiff’s tweets, like his television appearances, have focused on what he perceives as Republicans’ obstruction of the Russia investigation. He has attracted Trump’s ire more than once, earning the nickname “Liddle Adam Schiff.” Others I spoke to pushed back on the notion that Schiff was too accessible, noting that federal and congressional inquiries differ in that the latter is about educating the public—avoiding any exposure, then, would defeat the purpose.

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On March 4, 2017, Trump claimed that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the election. The claim faced significant pushback, including from members of Nunes’s own party who said they had seen no evidence of any illegal wiretapping.

Weeks later, the White House took Trump’s claim in a slightly different direction, with at least one official—who has never been publicly identified—telling Nunes in a late-night, private briefing on the White House grounds that certain Obama advisers had improperly “unmasked” Trump transition officials’ identities in classified intelligence reports. Schiff later described the episode as a “peculiar midnight run” because Nunes had been traveling home from a night out when he dashed out of the Uber he’d been sharing with a staffer and resurfaced at the White House, where he was told about the unmaskings. Bypassing his committee colleagues, Nunes briefed House Speaker Paul Ryan on the intelligence the next day. He then held a press conference about it, and later briefed the president directly. “I had a duty and obligation to tell [Trump] because, as you know, he’s taking a lot of heat in the news media,” Nunes said later. He insisted that he couldn’t have brought the documents back to the Capitol because it would have jeopardized their “proper chain of custody.”

“Was it shocking? Yeah, big-time,” said the former high-level committee staffer. “It was also shocking to his staff.” Nunes’s unusual decision to circumvent his committee fueled speculation that the White House had orchestrated a stunt to distract the press from the recent revelation—made by former FBI Director James Comey at an open House Intelligence Committee hearing—that the bureau was investigating potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. “They were talking all the time,” said the staffer who left last year, referring to Trump and Nunes, who served as an adviser on Trump’s transition team. “Nunes was still helping Trump staff the White House.”

Nunes subsequently tabled a critical hearing scheduled for March 28, 2017, in which former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates were scheduled to testify. The blowback was swift: Both Democrats and some Republicans were dismayed by the chairman’s actions, saying that by going to the White House grounds he had delegitimized the investigation. Republican Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina asked Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation, but Ryan resisted those calls, calling them “politics.”

“Paul Ryan is remarkably at the heart of all of this,” said the committee staffer who left last year. Eoyang agreed, noting that Ryan “is the sole person who controls Devin Nunes’s fate as chair. He could ask Nunes to go and replace him at any moment.” Ryan, who reappointed Nunes after succeeding former Speaker John Boehner, has shown little interest in taking up concerns about the chairman’s unusual methods, said the Democratic staffer who left last year. A spokeswoman for Ryan, AshLee Strong, vigorously denied that Ryan has been disengaged on intelligence committee issues. “This partisan assertion is not only slanderous but ludicrous and false. The speaker has been deeply dedicated to these issues since taking the office and insists on weekly briefings from the IC.”

Nunes ultimately stepped aside from leading the committee’s Russia probe when he came under investigation by the the House Ethics Committee, which spent roughly eight months examining whether Nunes’s press conference broke rules governing the public disclosure of classified information. The committee closed the case after seeking an analysis of Nunes’s statements by classification experts in the intelligence community, but was never able to obtain or review the classified information at the heart of their inquiry. The unmasking scandal lost steam as Nunes shifted his attention to alleged surveillance abuses by the Justice Department—a parallel probe that Democrats said they did not approve and had no control over, but to which a group of House Republicans were privy.

“The Democrats feel that Nunes has gone rogue, or that he’s trying to undermine the committee because he no longer serves in the top position on this investigation,” a Democratic aide told me last summer. In early September, Nunes bypassed Democrats and threatened to hold Attorney General Jeff Sessions and newly installed FBI Director Chris Wray in contempt if they did not respond to a subpoena for documents or testimony relating to the so-called Steele dossier—a document penned by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, outlining the president’s alleged ties to Russia. Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with Ryan in January to request that Nunes narrow his documents request, Politico reported at the time.

Steve Hall, a retired CIA officer who also acted as the Clandestine Service’s senior liaison officer to Congress’s intelligence oversight committees, noted that there has always been a natural tension between the intelligence community and the congressional committees, whose oversight responsibilities at times clash with the IC’s “need-to-know” mentality. “There are times when staffers will push as hard as they can for information they don’t need, which increases that tension,” Hall said. “But when you have one of the leaders, like Nunes, doing the kinds of things he’s doing, it will definitely affect that relationship and create more concerns on the CIA side, and across the IC, as the panel tries to exercise more oversight.”

Democrats, meanwhile, had been wanting to subpoena the White House for documents related to the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, but the Republicans on the committee had “not been willing,” Schiff said at the time. In that sense, the tension on the committee was fueled as much by the subpoenas Nunes didn’t issue as the ones he did. The majority subpoenaed the bank for Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that hired Steele to research Trump’s Russia ties, to get a glimpse at the firm’s clients. But Deutsche Bank, the Trump family’s bank of choice for decades, was never compelled by the committee to produce records or testimony. Neither was Twitter (from which the Democrats hoped to obtain any direct messages exchanged between Trump associates and Russian agents), Jared Kushner, Sessions, former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump Jr., or Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen.

Schiff told me that recent revelations—in particular, a Wall Street Journal report revealing that longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone had boasted in an email to his friend Sam Nunberg about dining with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in August 2016—made it clear that the Republicans ended their probe too early. Stone never gave that email to the committee, Schiff said.

Nunes’s inquiry into the Justice Department was not officially acknowledged by Republicans until earlier this year, coinciding with the majority’s decision to release a controversial memo accusing the FBI of misleading a surveillance court when applying for a warrant to surveil early Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. That led to an unprecedented and highly public battle—involving rare condemnations by the Justice Department and FBI—over who would get the last word on the bureau’s credibility. Democrats drafted a rebuttal memo that included some of the exact wording from the FBI’s warrant, in an attempt to prove that the bureau acted properly.

Both memos were sent to the White House to declassify, in effect putting Trump, who is a subject of the ongoing investigation, in charge of evidence that could potentially be used against him. “Ideally, would you turn over any evidence at all to a potential suspect or witness in a case? No,” Swalwell, who sits on the committee, told me at the time. “But then you also risk the public losing faith in the FBI. So it’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation.”

For Nunes, the first phase of the Russia investigation ended when he had his staff pen the memo on the FBI and Carter Page. The second phase began in February with a look at whether State Department or intelligence officials played any role in the dissemination of the dossier. (By that point, the committee was so polarized that it was considering building physical barriers between majority and minority staffers.) “He’s targeting the whole cast of characters in Deep State Nine,” joked one person who’s landed in Nunes’s crosshairs. The House Intelligence Committee does not technically have oversight of the State Department, but Nunes “has his friend [Mike] Pompeo going to State which makes things easier,” said the committee staffer who left last year.

And then there were the leaks. When a portion of Hicks’s closed-door testimony—in which she admitted that the president had sometimes made her tell “white lies”—surfaced in news reports earlier this year, Republican committee members and staffers were furious and accused Democrats of leaking it, according to two sources with direct knowledge of their reaction who requested anonymity to discuss the investigation. In a particularly striking breach, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee leaked text messages between the Senate Intelligence Committee’s vice chairman, Mark Warner, and a Russia-connected lawyer to Fox News, congressional sources told The New York Times earlier this month.

Reporters are not the only ones on the receiving end of these disclosures. At one point late last winter, information about a witness’s closed-door HPSCI testimony was leaked to an attorney for Cohen, according to a source with direct knowledge of the episode. (A spokeswoman for Conaway, who was leading the investigation in Nunes’s place, denied that any witness testimony has ever been leaked by a staffer. Cohen’s attorney, Steve Ryan, declined to comment.) The witness, David Kramer, had been asked about his 2016 meeting with Steele. Cohen was named in the dossier as complicit in the alleged conspiracy.

The leaks speak to a broader problem, said the staffer who left in 2010, which is that the staff has evolved over time to include more political appointees rather than career intelligence professionals. “We started to have more and more political hacks come over from the member offices, and that was a bad trend in and of itself. There are a lot of people staffing the panel now who spent three to five years in the political arena as a fundraiser or a campaigner, and then got the ‘fun assignment’ on House Intel for which they know nothing.”

For now, the tit-for-tat continues: On March 12, Republicans released a one-page preview of their findings and announced that they would hold a business meeting on March 22 to vote on, and formally adopt, their final report. On March 13, Democrats released their own preliminary report setting out investigative leads they said were not followed by Republicans during the investigation. Shortly after the March 22 business meeting, the majority released a seven-page summary of the findings and recommendations that were included in their final report, whose declassification is still under review by the intelligence community. Among their findings: An acknowledgment that the committee remains “concerned” about Carter Page’s “incomplete accounts of his activity to Moscow.”

Source: technology

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