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In memo wars, House Intel Democrats face uphill battle

Intel memo controversy
Schiff: Memo was altered before reaching White House 07:36

Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are now closer to releasing a classified surveillance memo over the objections of Democrats on the committee, who face limited options to contain the expected fallout from the memo's release. In an interview with CBS News, the committee's top Democrat, Adam Schiff, D-California, outlined the minority's strategy -- mainly, pressing Republicans to simultaneously release the Democrats' 10-page rebuttal memo, which Schiff says "sets out the proper context."

The majority's memo, which was written by Chairman Devin Nunes' staff, is said to allege that the FBI relied on an unverified dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to wrongly secure surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). But Democrats on the committee say the GOP-backed memo amounts to Republican spin and selectively uses classified information to undermine the work of special counsel Robert Mueller. 

Democrats are not alone in trying to stop the release of the memo. The FBI and Justice Department also oppose its release. In a rare public statement on Wednesday, the FBI blasted the majority for"omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy." 

The committee voted on Monday to release the Democrats' memo to House members but voted down a measure to make it publicly available simultaneously, alongside the Republican document.

Schiff admitted the minority faces a tough climb in trying to stop the majority from publishing the memo, given the backing of the White House and many of the 200-plus GOP House members who have come to the committee's secure spaces to view it.

"There's not much we can do," Schiff told CBS. "This is really something where you usually count on a responsible president to step in or a speaker of the House who is willing to confront a chairman who is violating the policies and standards of the committee. But that is unfortunately not the case."

Earlier in the day both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, urging the removal of Nunes as Intelligence Committee chairman. They claimed Nunes has tainted the work and reputation of the committee with a partisan agenda geared toward protecting President Trump.

Schumer accused Nunes of fomenting "dangerous partisanship" that he said "seems to have taken precedent over the oath we all take to protect our nation." Pelosi wrote that "the integrity of the House is at stake."

Ryan called the Democrats' concerns "playing politics." A spokesman for Chairman Nunes did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked if he supported the Democratic leadership's calls for Nunes to be removed, Schiff said, "I think he needs to step aside for real now - and that may be the only way to restore credibility to the GOP leadership of this investigation."

Late Wednesday, Schiff wrote a letter to Nunes claiming there were "material changes" made to the version of the GOP memo shared with the White House, and demanding another vote be held on the "modified document." A committee source later said the changes had not been revealed until Democrats confronted Republicans on Wednesday evening.

A spokesman for the majority, Jack Langer said Democrats were "complaining about minor edits, including grammatical fixes and two edits requested by the FBI and by the minority themselves." But Schiff disputed that characterization, telling CBS that the changes were "not cosmetic." He declined to describe them because the memo remains classified.

"While there are some that could be considered grammatical, there are others that change the very meaning of important provisions," Schiff said, adding, "The version that's being released is not apparently the version that we voted on, and that's a real problem."

A senior administration official said Thursday the White House plans to return the memo to the committee Friday. At that point, the committee will release the memo under its timetable and procedure.

Democrats are insisting on a second vote on the GOP memo, because of what they say are "material" differences from the version they originally voted on. A second vote would trigger the same review process -- submission to the president for another 5-day period.

But there's no real mechanism for the minority to stop the memo's release or to force a second vote, unless some Republicans break rank. Schiff has implored committee members to think beyond the Trump administration "to the long-term damage that is being inflicted on these institutions," he said, referring to the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

"Because we'll be judged harshly if we allow ourselves to be complicit in what the White House is doing," he said. 

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