Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd, a CNN national security analyst, served on the National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 during President Barack Obama’s administration and in the US Treasury Department under President Bush.. Follow her @sam_vinograd. Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, a CNN political analyst, New America fellow and the editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment,” a book that Princeton University Press plans to publish this March. He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are solely theirs.
Rep. Devin Nunes launched a partisan bomb, one that is distracting the oversight panel he heads from pressing business.
The committee’s actual mission is critical at a time when we need more, and not less, attention on strategic national security risks.
We’re all trying to read the tea leaves, with the GOP memo out and the Democratic counter memo sitting at the White House (and Trump administration officials hedging on whether and when they may approve its release). But we may be losing the forest through the trees.
The memos have become the big story in Washington, one that has obscured the fact that Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee (HPSCI), has wasted an extraordinary amount of time, attention and resources on alleged abuses by the FBI – instead of doing his job.
That isn’t to downplay the importance of getting the Democrats’ memo out – the misinformation spread by the Nunes memo needs a response. But both of these memos are tactical diversions from the actual work that Chairman Nunes should be doing with his committee members.
Nunes perhaps purposefully moved his committee in the exact wrong direction with the release of the infamous memo about Christopher Steele’s dossier.
With every second that HPSCI spends on the memos, it is just a fact that they’re spending less time on key national security work, the committee’s actual mission.
It’s worth noting that Nunes and his colleagues made a decision about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) when they voted to reauthorize the controversial Section 702 less than a month ago. During the heated debates about section 702, Nunes could easily have raised broader questions or concerns about abuses to the FISA process in a more appropriate context.
With all of the same information before them, the committee reviewed legislation, they voted and it passed. The House rejected an amendment from civil libertarians to limit the ability of the government to use information collected on US citizens. The committee, controlled by Republicans, made a decision to leave the program alone, no matter how much Nunes and his memo make of the allegations of purported FISA abuses revealed this week.
Last March, the HPSCI announced an investigation into Russian election interference, ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia, and other related issues. This was – and remains – no small task. Witness interviews, document reviews and hearings take a lot of time to do, and even more time to do well.
Based on the gravity of the issues at hand – the security of our democracy – it should undoubtedly be a priority focus for HPSCI and especially for the chairman. Nunes had to recuse himself from this investigation after his unmasking charade, but the rest of the committee’s time would be well spent trying to salvage a credible investigation, particularly as we are nine months away from the 2018 midterms.
Hard-working committee members may have hit pause on the investigation to mitigate the impact of the Nunes memo, but Russia’s Vladimir Putin hasn’t skipped a beat. CIA Director Pompeo told the BBC last week that “there had been no significant diminishing of Russian attempts at subversion in Europe and the U.S.”
The Russian threat is metastasizing while Congress, the administration and the public dissect a 3.5-page document and speculate about the Democrats’ response to it. Meanwhile, this past weekend, reports surfaced underscoring the expanding Russian digital campaign.
Following their unprecedented amplifying of the #releasethememo hashtag, Russia pushed new hashtags stoking “deep state” conspiracy theories.
The bottom line is that an official from Homeland Security says that Russia potentially tried to penetrate, hack or monitor election systems in 21 states during the 2016 election. The US intelligence community has cited ongoing Russian information warfare, and campaign officials have pled guilty to lying about contacts with Russians who considered campaign officials ripe targets. Russia has no reason not to repeat this performance, which means the HPSCI has every reason to double down on their investigation, not get distracted from it.
The HPSCI has no reason to continue wasting its time, because the committee members can rest assured that there are other mechanisms in place to make sure that any FISA abuses – as alleged in the Nunes memo – are investigated. The Department of Justice has an inspector general whose job it is to prevent any abuse of power or corruption.
The current IG is no partisan stooge. In 2015, Michael Horowitz clashed with the FBI over sharing documents over his ability to gain access to FBI documents, including wiretaps, in timely fashion so that he could conduct investigations. Right now, any concerns about the role of Steele and others in the FISA authorization to watch Carter Page should remain on his desk.
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There’s already more than enough on the HPSCI members’ desks. The committee’s work on cybersecurity is not just limited to Russia.
As President Trump’s recent National Security Strategy pointed out, “Malicious state and non-state actors use cyberattacks for extortion, information warfare, disinformation, and more.” North Korea, China, and hackers all around the world seek access to our most private information and the HPSCI’s focus on working with the intelligence community on defensive and offensive cyber operations couldn’t be any more timely.
It’s time for the HPSCI to get back to work.