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“The Memo”: Willful Ignorance and the House Intel Committee

(Photo: CSPAN; Illustration by POGO)

This week’s vote by the House Intelligence Committee to release the Majority’s memo alleging politically motivated surveillance abuse by the Justice Department and the FBI concerns us. But our concern is not because they decided to release classified information—rather it is because there has been a deliberate effort by Committee members to remain ignorant of the underlying facts surrounding the investigation.

In fact, Members of the Committee voted to keep themselves in the dark regarding the classified documents the memo is based on. Further, the Committee voted against even receiving a briefing from Intelligence agencies on these underlying documents.

These votes are the latest in a series of steps the Committee has taken in abrogation of its serious and essential obligation of overseeing the Intelligence Community. These actions instead increasingly appear to be motivated by a desire to provide political cover to the White House, which leads us to further question the dedication of the Committee’s leadership to ensuring our government functions effectively and with respect for the Constitution.

We are unequivocal and strident supporters of Congressional oversight. That is why we cannot stand by as political theater masquerading as oversight threatens the integrity of critical oversight institutions, such as the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Again, the vote to release classified information to the public in itself is not a bad action—POGO has argued that Congress has a right to declassify information. However, this would be the first time in the history of both the House and Senate Select Intelligence Committees that such a vote took place. Committee members shouldn’t take this task lightly, but should exercise the utmost caution and scrutiny of the information they want to release. This power should be wielded responsibly.

It wasn’t.

According to a transcript from the executive session about Monday’s vote to release the Majority memo, it appears Republican Committee members who were present took repeated steps to ensure they were willfully ignorant of the underlying documents. First, they voted in a previous session not to allow members of the Committee to read those underlying documents. Then this week they rejected a request to allow the Justice Department and FBI to brief the Committee on the documents and to offer their explanation of why they might contradict the Majority memo’s conclusions. Such measures would in no way have required changes to the Majority memo, or precluded its release, but rather simply offered full context and information that is critical to effective oversight. It is impossible to find a good faith explanation for why Committee members would choose to remain uninformed when responding to what they allege is highly important misconduct. Further, it appears the Committee rushed to vote without any real consideration of the sensitivity of the information contained within the memo. And while we don’t believe executive branch agencies should have veto power over the release of memos produced by a Congressional investigation, it is reasonable to ask that these agencies be given the opportunity to at least provide perspective on why they believe some classified information should be redacted.

It is bizarre that Members of Congress would not even hear out the concerns of the FBI Director who offered to meet and discuss the memo with House Intelligence Committee members before voting for its release.

It is hard to imagine that the Members who voted to #ReleaseTheMemo without doing a basic check on whether it accurately conforms with underlying documents will properly undertake their oversight responsibilities in the future. That is why we sent a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan asking that the Committee members who voted against being able to read the underlying documents be removed from their position on the Committee.

More importantly, it is clear that by turning oversight investigations into a show of political theater, the Members have seriously compromised the Committee’s ability to perform its basic oversight responsibilities in the future. Intelligence Committee oversight relies on both public trust in the Committee’s nonpartisan objectivity, as well as a cooperative—even if also adversarial—relationship with already too-opaque Intelligence Community agencies. By releasing a memo alleging serious abuse without conducting basic vetting as to its accuracy, the Committee will have lost public trust, and will be unable to effectively conduct genuine oversight of issues in the future.

These choices have weakened the panel’s own standing, and threaten to set back Congressional oversight efforts across the board. In light of their actions and the ramifications for oversight, we call for the removal of those Republican members who willfully chose to remain ignorant from their seats on the House Intelligence Committee.