The powerful head of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday accused the FBI and the Justice Department of bad faith in trying to suppress key sensitive details of the Russian election meddling scandal in 2016 and the Obama administration’s handling of the investigation.
In the latest sign of rising bad blood between congressional Republicans and the nation’s top law enforcement agencies, committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, took to the Senate floor to say the FBI and Justice Department appeared to be abusing classification standards to prevent the release of information to back up his criminal referral for Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer and author of the infamous Trump opposition research dossier, for lying to federal investigators. He said the lack of cooperation raised larger questions.
“If the Justice Department is afraid of independent oversight, that just reinforces people’s suspicions and skepticism,” he said. “The only real way to reassure people is to let the sun shine in and let the chips fall where they may.”
The Judiciary Committee head also voiced sympathy for House Republicans who he said are facing some of the same classification issues in trying to get out their findings on what they say may be abuses of government surveillance programs by the Obama administration and the FBI as the Russia collusion probe was gearing up in the final months of the presidential race.
The Senate Judiciary Committee “has access to the same information that the House intelligence committee saw before drafting its summary memo ,” Mr. Grassley said. “Based on what I know, I agree that as much of this information should made be public as soon as possible, through the appropriate process.
“Most of this story can be told, and should be told,” he added. “The American people deserve the truth.”
President Trump has repeatedly denied any charges of collusion with Russia, and his allies on Capitol Hill have sharply criticized why and how the FBI and Justice Department moved ahead with the politically charged probe.
House Democrats decried what they called a “pattern of behavior” by congressional Republicans, the White House and “the political leadership of the Justice Department” to discredit the entire probe and impugn the integrity of the career FBI investigators.
In a letter Wednesday to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, respectively, wrote, “It seems obvious that the goal of these attacks is to undermine [special counsel Robert Mueller’s] investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”
Mr. Grassley made the comments amid mounting frustration by House and Senate Republicans that the FBI and some Justice Department officials were trying to sharply restrict the public release of information on how they handled the Russia investigation and the possible illegal surveillance of Trump associates when deciding to open the case during the presidential campaign.
House Republicans are also running into classification roadblocks while trying to make public their own four-page memo, put together by Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, summarizing results of a Republican staff investigation into abuses by the Justice Department and FBI in the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“It sure looks like a bureaucratic game of hide-the-ball rather than a genuine concern about national security,” Mr. Grassley said.
Last week, House intelligence committee members voted along party lines to release the four-page memo, sparking an online frenzy that the memo be declassified and made public.
WikiLeaks has offered $1 million to anyone who could send it a copy. Suspicions that Russian social media trolls are actively amplifying the Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo have also led to calls for a congressional investigation.
Republicans say they have seen information that vindicates their argument that the president was smeared politically by the Washington establishment after his election, while grossly exaggerating any connections between his campaign and Russia. They charge that political bias within the FBI led to the opening of the investigation, relying heavily on an unverified dossier that was funded by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats counter that Republicans are distorting the intelligence to undermine the credibility of the FBI as Mr. Mueller’s investigation grinds on.
On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee and an outspoken critic of the House Republicans’ handling of the investigation, announced that Democrats intended to release their own FISA memo on Monday that he said rebuts many Republican claims.
“Regrettably, it has been necessary for committee Democrats to draft our own memorandum,” Mr. Schiff said, “so that members of the House are not left with an erroneous impression of the dedicated professionals at the FBI and [Department of Justice].”
Mr. Grassley also defended the request he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, made this month for the government to open a criminal investigation into Mr. Steele and what they say were his contradictory accounts of his findings in the dossier.
The lawmakers in their referral said Mr. Steele appeared to have misled the FBI in trying to hype the contents of the dossier to the media, which the two senators said violates federal law. Given that some Trump campaign figures were charged with lying to the FBI, the senators argued, Mr. Steele should face the same scrutiny.
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.