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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

FBI has ‘grave concerns’ over release of Russia memo

Republicans say it reveals improper use of surveillance by the agency and the Justice Department

FBI director Christopher Wray is facing the publication of a memo which he believes will damage the agency. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
FBI director Christopher Wray is facing the publication of a memo which he believes will damage the agency. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

The FBI said on Wednesday that it had “grave concerns” about the accuracy of a classified memo on the Russia investigation that President Donald Trump wants to release to the public. It was the first time the bureau weighed in publicly on an issue that has openly divided the Justice Department and the White House.

In its unusual public statement, the FBI said it was given only a limited opportunity to review the four-page memo, which was drafted by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.

Republicans have said the memo reveals improper use of surveillance by the FBI and the Justice Department in the Russia investigation. But the FBI said Wednesday that important facts were omitted.

“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.

The statement escalates the intra-government conflict over the memo, which had already touched off a partisan brawl with Democrats and has pitted GOP lawmakers ordinarily supportive of surveillance against the FBI and the Justice Department. The FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General have told the White House releasing it could set a dangerous precedent.

But Mr Trump was overheard on Tuesday night telling a Republican lawmaker he was “100 per cent” in favour of releasing the memo, and his Chief of Staff said Wednesday the document is likely to be released “pretty quick”.

The encounter on the House floor with South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan was captured by television cameras after the State of the Union address. When Mr Duncan implored him to “release the memo”, the president said: “Oh yeah, don't worry, 100 per cent.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN on Wednesday that a legal and national security review of the document was continuing. Mr Trump had not read the memo “as of last night prior to and immediately after the State of the Union”, she said.

According to Republicans, the memo alleges surveillance misconduct in the early stages of the FBI’s investigation into potential Trump campaign ties to Russia. But Democrats have called the memo a “cherry-picked” list of GOP talking points that attempts to distract from the committee’s own investigation into Russian meddling in the election that sent Mr Trump to the White House.

The president has been telling confidants in recent days that he believes the memo will validate his concerns that the FBI and Justice Department had conspired against him, according to one outside adviser familiar with those conversations.

The memo arrived at the White House on Monday evening after Republicans on the House committee voted to release it. The White House Counsel’s office has been in possession of it, officials say.

The National Security Council is leading a review, which will also involve the White House legal team.

Under committee rules, the president has five days to object to its disclosure, though Mr Trump has urged the memo’s release and the White House may not adhere to the five-day waiting period.

It had not yet been settled whether the White House or the committee would handle the actual release, which could come as soon as late Wednesday or Thursday.

Representative Adam Schiff, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday that nothing in the memo vindicates Mr Trump.

House Speaker Paul Ryan supports the memo’s release, saying Tuesday that it shows “there may have been malfeasance at the FBI by certain individuals”. He did not provide additional details, only saying that “there are legitimate questions about whether an American’s civil liberties were violated by the FISA process”, a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But Mr Ryan said the memo shouldn't be used to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign was involved.