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In our opinion: Dueling congressional memos hurt American democracy

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Cliff Owen, AP

This month, the House Intelligence Committee turned the Russia investigation into a source of partisan squabbling — more so than it already was — casting doubts on the independence of the investigation, threatening national security and further undermining public confidence in the legislative branch — all in the interest of scoring political points. Going forward, committee members should work to ensure they collaborate, not compete, to maintain the integrity of America’s democracy.

The Republican and Democratic factions fundamentally disagreed over the FBI’s integrity in the Russia investigation. Specifically, the dispute centered on whether the FBI was fully honest in seeking a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court warrant to monitor interactions between former Trump adviser Carter Page and his associates in Moscow.

Republicans took issue with the fact that the FBI’s court justification for surveillance was partially based on the infamous “Steele dossier” — a piece of opposition research funded by the Clinton campaign that made explosive allegations against Donald Trump. To alert the public to this concern, Committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., wrote a memo that included both the allegations against the FBI and classified intelligence. In the tense days prior to its release, Russian bots led a social media campaign in favor of the movement to #ReleaseTheMemo while the FBI warned the committee that the memo was misleading and could hurt national security.

Although we consistently endorse transparency and accountability for our elected leaders, the memo’s publication exacerbated partisan divides over the Russia investigation — further politicizing what should be a matter of nonpartisan national security. While many Republicans supported the release in the interest of transparency, Democrats questioned Nunes’ motives as a longtime defender of Trump who was previously recused from the Russia investigation for collaborating with the White House.

Additionally, some feared that the memo would enable the president to discredit the FBI’s findings, undermining the independence of the FBI. Trump recently told friends he “believes the memo would expose bias within the agency's top ranks and make it easier for him to argue the Russia investigations are prejudiced against him.”

In a rebuttal attempt, committee member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., published a memo from the Democrats, despite opposition from the White House. In the Schiff memo, Democrats verify that the FBI did, in fact, notify multiple Republican-appointed federal judges that they used the dossier as a source. Republicans contend the disclosure was not explicitly clear, as it was placed in a footnote.

Yes, it’s a dense subject, and yes, the political fighting can rightly be interpreted as making a mountain out of a molehill. This kind of semantic spat should have first been subject to serious internal review — within both the FBI and the House — before being adjudicated in the public eye. Instead, this open back-and-forth only propagates an image of instability to both Americans and to the world, harming national security and discrediting the role of congressional intelligence committees.

Ensuring the independence of the intelligence community is essential for the health of the country’s democracy. The allegations levied in the Nunes memo were serious, but in light of the rebuttal levied in the Schiff memo, they amounted to a disagreement that could have been resolved privately. Having this concern play out in the public sphere only imbues partisanship into a process that should be free from political bias.