Rep. Devin Nunes’ fight to publicly release his memo detailing potential abuses of power at the FBI has turned into a major test for Congress, which is trying to prove it can pierce the veil of secrecy that Republicans say has been used to hide wrongdoing in the government’s security agencies.
The memo from the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence could be released as soon as Friday, the White House said. President Trump read the document and sided with congressional Republicans who want the information made public.
“The president is OK with it,” a White House official said. “I doubt there will be any redactions. It’s in Congress’ hands after that.”
The decision pits Mr. Trump against FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has pleaded for the document to remain secret. Mr. Wray said the memo presents a skewed picture of his bureau, which secured the warrant that allowed the government to spy on Trump campaign figures in 2016.
But analysts say bigger issues are at stake, including Congress’ ability to oversee a powerful national security bureaucracy that may be trying to avoid a deserved black eye.
“Government agencies are notorious for overclassifying information to shield themselves from public embarrassment or criticism,” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told The Washington Times.
Democrats are pushing to keep the memo secret and are accusing Republicans of trying undermine the credibility of the investigation into Mr. Trump’s aides and their Kremlin ties by besmirching the FBI.
When Congress wants secret information to be released, it usually must go through extensive negotiations with security agencies to get clearances.
The agencies say they are trying to avoid revealing secret information, or sources and methods that could dry up if enemy actors are able to identify them based on the information released.
In this case, Mr. Nunes said, those aren’t concerns. But the FBI argues that Mr. Nunes is giving a skewed picture.
“As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said in a statement Wednesday.
Mr. Nunes and his fellow Republicans on the intelligence committee are using a previously untapped part of the House rules to push for public release over the FBI’s objections. Rule X Subsection 11(g) allows the committee to vote for public release and then gives the president five days to object.
The White House said Thursday that the president won’t block release after concluding that the memo doesn’t cause serious damage to classified material.
Mr. Wray, who was appointed by Mr. Trump last year, said Thursday that he will issue a rebuttal if the memo is released.
His predecessor as FBI director, James B. Comey, said Thursday evening on Twitter that the bureau has an obligation to speak out on politics. He compared the agency’s critics to a 1950s anti-communist crusader who is widely reviled in history books as a paranoid witch-hunter.
“All should appreciate the FBI speaking up. I wish more of our leaders would,” wrote Mr. Comey, who was fired by Mr. Trump. “But take heart: American history shows that, in the long run, weasels and liars never hold the field, so long as good people stand up. Not a lot of schools or streets named for Joe McCarthy.”
Democrats, and some Republicans, urged Mr. Trump to reconsider his decision and block the release.
“The president’s apparent willingness to release this memo risks undermining U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts, politicizing Congress’ oversight role and eroding confidence in our institutions of government,” said Sens. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, and Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has been his party’s leading public critic of Mr. Trump.
The fight goes to the tension at the heart of U.S. intelligence efforts and the ability of Congress to oversee activities that usually remain murky.
Mr. Turley said lawmakers pushing for secrecy were ceding their own oversight powers to the bureaucracy.
“It is curious to watch how many members are expressing anger with the committee for disagreeing with the FBI over a classification issue,” Mr. Turley said. “That is one of the reasons for the congressional intelligence committee to exist.”
Unprecedented public view
Douglas Charles, a Penn State University professor who has written books about the history of the FBI, said the agency has entered “unprecedented territory” by publicly challenging a president.
“There have been differences between presidents and FBI directors, but that was all behind the scenes,” Mr. Charles said. “I’ve been racking my brain to find something that even comes close to this.”
One of the reasons these battles remained shielded, Mr. Charles said, is because FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had amassed so much power and had such thick files that few politicians dared to confront him.
If anyone crossed Hoover, they likely would have been threatened with having a secret exposed. That kept some of the battles Hoover had with the Kennedy administration over the civil rights movement behind closed doors.
But Mr. Charles sees some similarities between the legendary FBI director and Mr. Wray’s decision to release a public statement. Hoover, a public relations master, was not afraid to release information to the media in order to get his way. He usually would do this if behind-the-scenes efforts failed.
“Hoover could always go public to get leverage, but it was never as obvious as this,” Mr. Charles said. “That is sort of how this is playing out with Wray. He failed behind the scenes to stop the memo’s release, so now he went public. That is a really old FBI thing to do.”
Lewis Schiliro, a 25-year veteran of the FBI and former director of the agency’s New York office, could not recall a similar battle between the bureau and a president. He is worried that the fight will erode public trust in the FBI.
This fight “is very damaging to the FBI,” he said. “The sad part is that you only have two or three people at the top of the bureau involved in this, and that’s not fair to all the agents out there sacrificing and doing the things that they need to do.”
Calls to fire Nunes
Mr. Nunes has become the center of the memo battle, with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the nation’s two top elected Democrats, calling for him to be ousted from the chairmanship.
“As Speaker, put an end to this charade and hold Chairman Nunes and all Congressional Republicans accountable to the oath they have taken to support and defend the Constitution, and protect the American people,” Mrs. Pelosi wrote in a letter to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.
Democrats say Mr. Nunes is a Trump loyalist who has politically poisoned the committee and now wants to twist intelligence to erode confidence in the multiple Russian election meddling investigations targeting the White House.
On Wednesday, the panel’s lead Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, accused Mr. Nunes of altering the memo after it was approved by Republican committee members but before it went to White House for further review. Republicans on the committee said the changes were cosmetic.
Speaking to MSNBC, Mr. Schiff said releasing the memo would violate a pact that the intelligence committees have with the FBI and other security agencies, which share data with the oversight committees on the condition that it not be released.
Mr. Schiff said Mr. Nunes was “maligning the FBI and Department of Justice to carry water for the president.”
Most Republicans are backing Mr. Nunes.
Mr. Ryan, who as speaker of the House appoints the intelligence chairman, said Mr. Nunes is leading an important investigation into potential civil liberties abuses.
Mr. Ryan said, however, that the memo shouldn’t be read as an attack on either the FBI or the Department of Justice.
“If American civil liberties were abused, then that needs to come to light so that that doesn’t happen again. What this is not is an indictment on our institutions of our justice system,” Mr. Ryan said.
House Republicans who have reviewed Mr. Nunes’ memo say it focuses specifically on possible abuses and, once public, will reflect badly on those in the upper levels of the FBI.
“The majority memo is specifically about FISA abuse and some misconduct that took place at the highest levels of the DOJ and FBI,” Rep. Lee M. Zeldin, New York Republican, said on MSNBC.
• Dave Boyer and Sally Persons contributed to this article.