Releasing the GOP memo may have broken a 'safety valve' on government secrets, experts say

Key Points
  • An incendiary GOP memo alleging abuses by the FBI was sent to Trump using a never-before-used rule that bypassed intelligence agencies' input.
  • The White House, and many Republicans in Congress, say the decision to release the memo was in the interest of transparency.
  • Experts say shutting out national security agencies for short-term gain could strain the relationship between institutions that is crucial to intelligence sharing.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (r) and Rep. Peter King leave the committee's meeting room in the U.S. Capitol, February 6, 2018.
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House Republicans' mad dash to release a fiercely contested classified memo could erode the relationship between U.S. intelligence agencies and Capitol Hill, experts say.

"It was tremendously destructive for the House and the Intelligence Committee as an institution," said Mark Lowenthal, former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee. "It was beyond anything I've ever seen. It was just wrong."

Last week, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, led by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., voted to release a memo alleging that biased and selectively presented evidence was used to extend surveillance warrants on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The memo was based on source documents from secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts, which only committee member Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., had read.

Through a House committee rule that had never before been successfully used, the majority sent the memo straight to President Donald Trump's desk for approval, giving him five days to decide whether to reject their disclosure request.

In doing so, Republicans not only disregarded the "grave concerns" of the FBI and Justice Department — they shut intelligence agencies out of their usual role in the review process.

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The White House, along with many Republicans in Congress, said the disclosure came in the interest of transparency.

"We certainly support full transparency," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in January. "It sounds like there are some members in the House that have some real concern with what's in that memo, and feel very strongly that the American public should be privy to see it."

But expediting the process by sidestepping intelligence agencies' input sacrificed a "useful check" on the government, said Lowenthal, who is now president of the Intelligence & Security Academy. "It's a safety valve for the republic."

The memo steadily subsumed the national political conversation after it went viral on Twitter in mid-January. It was classified to all but members of Congress, many of whom gave interviews describing a major scandal that would undermine special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The president had signaled his support for releasing the memo even before he had read it.

Trump claimed vindication with the memo's release, but critics dismissed the document as flimsy and incomplete.

Another wave is forming in the wake of the GOP memo's release. Democrats on the House intelligence panel responded with their own classified document, which they claim rebuts some of the assertions in the GOP memo. While the Republican majority at first shut down the Democrats' attempt the release their memo, the committee unanimously approved releasing the memo on Monday — using the same expedited process.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the memo has strained the growing rift between national security agencies, political parties and the White House.

"Intelligence agencies are candid with Congress about their own limitations and failings based on the assumption that Congress will respect the rules of confidentiality and classification," Aftergood said.

"When those rules are bent, either by unauthorized disclosures or by partisan maneuvers, the confidence on which oversight depends can be eroded."

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