(L-R) U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, Mike Conaway, R-Midland and Will Hurd, R-Elotes all serve on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. | Official House Portraits
Three Texans voted on the U.S. House committee that paved the way for President Donald Trump’s release Friday of a a high-profile GOP memo alleging surveillance abuses by the FBI. The committee’s deliberations shed light on their thinking on the divisive issue.
WASHINGTON – The U.S. House Intelligence Committee released a highly controversial memo involving the FBI’s surveillance methods of the Trump campaign Friday afternoon, capping off a dramatic week within the oversight arm that includes three Texans: U.S. Reps. Mike Conaway, R-Midland, Will Hurd, R-Helotes and Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio.
At its heart, the four-page memo aims to discredit a dossier commissioned in 2016 of then-candidate Donald Trump and the alleged activities of him and his associates with Russia.
Known in Washington as “the Nunes” memo, named for U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes of California, the document charges that because Democrats in part paid for the the dossier, it should not have been used in surveillance court arguments involving a former Trump adviser, Carter Page, in 2016.
Republican leaders said over the course of the week that the memo must be released as a matter of protecting American citizens’ civil liberties and for government transparency.
Democrats, Justice Department officials and leaders of the FBI strongly urged against the memo’s release, arguing it would jeopardize the sources in which federal government collects intelligence. Critics have also questioned the memo’s accuracy. Furthermore, Democrats argue the main reason for the memo’s release was to begin to lay the groundwork to upend the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election by giving senior administration officials grounds to fire those overseeing the investigation.
Before President Trump authorized the declassification of the memo on Friday morning, the House Intelligence Committee voted for that outcome on Monday on a party-line vote. The committee is the most secretive arm of the Congres but it released a transcript of its deliberations earlier this week that revealed how members came to their decisions.
Conaway is the most prominent Texan on the Russian issue and was tapped last year to lead the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
“I intend to vote in favor of releasing the minority memo to the House under the – subject, of course, that it does not disclose information that would be harmful to national security,” said Conaway at the meeting. “It is sight unseen. I would vote for it assuming that – sight unseen – assuming that we could trust our colleagues to not reveal issues that would be harmful to national security.”
Castro, the lone Texas Democrat on the committee, had a far different view at the Monday meeting and has appeared on television all week arguing against the memo’s release.
He urged against releasing the Republican memo and added that if the committee did so anyway, he hoped it would be disclosed along with a Democratic rebuttal.
“If the majority is going to move forward and release its memo to the public, I would hope that it would have the courtesy and fairness to either wait for the minority’s memo to also be ripe, as you have described it, or to somehow release them at the same time,” he said.
“To not do that would be reckless,” he added.
Conaway said he would not support the release of a second memo, a Democratic rebuttal, saying such a motion would be “premature.”
“I am not sure of the efficacy of waiting on our memo,” Conaway said. “It is in fact right I believe to send it to the president. But to ask us to do that with a memo we have just read — or haven’t even actually read I think would be irresponsible.”
Beyond the members’ positions, the transcripts are revelatory in how this secretive committee functions.
Conaway proved over the last year to be something of a peacemaker who calmed tensions between Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
Through the meeting, Conaway stuck with his GOP colleagues in their determination to release the memo, but he frequently interjected with clarifications that appeared to assuage the Democrats on the committee.
“I just want the gentleman to know that I respect his efforts and the extraordinarily complicated position he is in in these endeavors,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat.
But even that personal affection had its limitations.
Later, Quigley invoked his hometown’s notorious reputation for bareknuckled politics.
“I saw the worst of the worst,” he said of Chicago politics. “They got nothing on you on this one, folks.”
Hurd, the other Texas Republican serving on the committee, has unique insight into the debate as a former CIA agent but was mostly quiet throughout the meeting, according to the transcript.
On Friday morning – just prior to the memo’s release – he penned an op-ed published by the Washington Post explaining his decision.
“My vote to release the memo was not about discrediting the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election,” Hurd wrote. “It was not about debasing the hard-working men and women serving in the FBI. Rather, I supported the release because I do not agree that an American citizen’s civil liberties should be violated on the basis of unverified information masquerading as intelligence.”
He pointed to the dossier as problematic but maintained that the memo ought not be grounds to obstruct the ongoing special counsel investigation into the 2016 election.
“Let me be clear, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation must continue to ensure that our democracy was not compromised by Russian interference,” Hurd wrote.