WASHINGTON - The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday the committee's Republicans altered a classified memo before sending it to the White House instead of sending the version they had shown to lawmakers and approved for release in a party-line vote.
The document, which the White House could decide to publicly release as early as Thursday, allegedly shows bias at the Justice Department against President Donald Trump.
Rep. Adam Schiff said in a letter to committee Chairman Devin Nunes that Democrats had discovered Wednesday evening that the memo had undergone "material changes" that committee members had not been able to review or approve, and that the situation was "deeply troubling."
"While the Majority's changes do not correct the profound distortions and inaccuracies in your document, they are nonetheless substantive," Schiff said.
A Nunes spokesman responded with a statement saying the version sent to the White House had only "minor edits" and that Democrats were trying to distract from the "abuses detailed in the memo."
"In its increasingly strange attempt to thwart publication of the memo, the Committee Minority is now complaining about minor edits to the memo, including grammatical fixes and two edits requested by the FBI and by the Minority themselves," the spokesman said.
Earlier Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it has "grave concerns" about the accuracy of the memo and had "a limited opportunity" to review the four-page document before the committee voted to approve its release.
Nunes called the FBI's objections "spurious."
"The FBI is intimately familiar with ‘material omissions' with respect to their presentations to both Congress and the courts, and they are welcome to make public, to the greatest extent possible, all the information they have on these abuses. Regardless, it's clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign. Once the truth gets out, we can begin taking steps to ensure our intelligence agencies and courts are never misused like this again," Nunes said in a statement.
Before issuing his letter Wednesday night, Schiff said in an op-ed article Wednesday in The Washington Post that the decision to release the document crossed a "dangerous line."
"Doing so without even allowing the Justice Department or the FBI to vet the information for accuracy, the impact of its release on sources and methods, and other concerns was, as the Justice Department attested, "extraordinarily reckless," he wrote. "But it also increases the risk of a constitutional crisis by setting the stage for subsequent actions by the White House to fire Mueller or, as now seems more likely, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — an act that would echo the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre."
The memo concerns an application by U.S. law enforcement authorities to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor contacts Trump campaign adviser Carter Page may have had with Russian operatives leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Some Republicans say the surveillance request may have been mishandled and could undermine special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russian meddling in the election.
The FBI said in a statement that earlier this week it told the Intelligence panel before it voted that the bureau had "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy." The FBI declined to comment to VOA Wednesday on the document's content.
Two Justice Department officials — Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd — have both raised concerns about the memo's content.
In a letter to Nunes, Boyd said the Republican push to release a memo would be "extraordinarily reckless."
Rosenstein warned White House chief of staff John Kelly that releasing the memo put classified information at risk and beseeched Trump to withdraw his support for making it public. According to The Washington Post, FBI director Christopher Wray was with Rosenstein at the White House meeting earlier this week.
Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller's Russia probe, reportedly told the White House his department was not convinced the memo accurately describes how the FBI conducts investigations. He warned that making the document public could set a dangerous precedent.
CNN reported Wednesday that Rosenstein visited the White House in December seeking Trump's support in fighting off document demands from Nunes. But the president had other priorities ahead of a key appearance by Rosenstein on Capitol Hill, CNN reported, citing sources familiar with the meeting. Trump wanted to know where the special counsel's Russia investigation was heading, and he wanted to know whether Rosenstein was "on my team."
On Tuesday, House speaker Paul Ryan defended release of the memo.
"There are legitimate questions about whether an American's civil liberties were violated," he said. "There may have been malfeasance at the FBI by certain individuals."
But even as he called for release of the memo, Ryan warned his Republican colleagues in the House not to oversell the information in the memo as a means to derail Mueller's ongoing investigation. Mueller is also probing whether Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey, the former FBI director who was heading the agency's Russia investigation before Mueller — over Trump's objections — was appointed to take over the probe.
Ryan said the need for "transparency" dictates the need to release the memo. But Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee say the Republican-drafted document is misleading.
The memo has become a flashpoint in politically divided Washington, with some Republicans increasingly voicing complaints about Mueller's months-long investigation and claiming that some Justice Department officials have worked to undermine Trump's presidency.
Trump has repeatedly said there was "no collusion" between his campaign and Russia. Last week, he said there also was "no obstruction" of the Russia investigation.
Fallout from the memo's publication could be severe. Any allegations of misconduct could give the president reason to demand the removal of senior FBI and Justice Department officials. Among potential casualties: Rosenstein and Mueller.
"I think this is part of a campaign to try and fire the deputy attorney general," Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, said. "We'll see how it plays out, but I hope that's not the final result."
Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor and a professor at Pace Law School, said the memo could lead to Mueller's dismissal. Trump has said he has no intention of firing either official.
But the memo's more lasting damage could be an erosion of public trust in the FBI and the Justice Department, institutions that closely guard their reputation as nonpartisan law enforcement agencies.
"To just excoriate these people (at the FBI and Justice Department) and suggest that they're all acting for political motives, to me, what it does is it undermines the public's confidence in law enforcement," Gershman said.
Jeff Seldin and Masood Farivar contributed to this report.