U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden added his voice Friday to the growing political crossfire over the conduct of investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
But Wyden, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says little was gained Friday when House Republicans released a politically charged memo that Wyden termed "a whole lot of nothing."
The document, which drew rebukes from national security officials and Democrats, asserts that federal law enforcement officials abused their surveillance authority to spy on a low-level adviser to Donald Trump's campaign suspected of being an agent of Russia.
That Justice Department investigation was taken over last year by a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller. It already has resulted in two guilty pleas — including one by Trump's former national security adviser — and two indictments including a former campaign chairman.
"We've got a whole lot of people for which there is pretty strong evidence of links to the Russians," Wyden said Friday night at a town hall meeting attended by more than 300 people at David Douglas High School.
"I think when you've got something like that, what you have to do is keep your antennae up for diversionary tactics and smokescreens."
But Wyden said he is determined to see completion of the investigations by Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose work has been bipartisan — and largely out of the public eye.
"I've said it in every single county — and it's a good note to wrap up on — that as long as I'm Oregon's guy on the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Russia investigation is not going to be swept under the rug," Wyden said. "End of discussion."
'Laughable hack job'
Wyden described as a "laughable hack job" the memo, written by congressional aides at the behest of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who remains chairman but has stepped aside from leading the House Intelligence Committee investigation. The committee voted along party lines to release it.
Democrats will seek to force a committee vote on releasing their own 10-page rebuttal of the memo.
"The minority party (Democrats) asked for a chance to put out their version of what Mr. Nunes was reporting," Wyden said. "In all the time I have served on the (Senate) Intelligence Committee … I have never seen an instance where only one side is allowed to present a view. That alone ought to be of enormous concern to our people."
Still, Wyden said the political infighting should not overshadow the other investigations by Mueller or by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"As far as I can tell, there are no Republicans in the U.S. Senate jumping up and saying they support what was done in the House of Representatives," Wyden said.
Wyden said he would support legislation to shield Mueller, who was named as special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself because of his own contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign.
According to news reports, Trump sought to have Mueller fired last year, but was dissuaded when his own White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the order. Trump has denied the reports, which first appeared in The New York Times.
"The law is clear," Wyden said. "You cannot fire Robert Mueller without cause."
If Trump did so anyway, he added, "it would cause a major constitutional crisis."
The real abuse
Wyden weighed in with a written statement earlier Friday, after the memo was released, and spoke at the town hall in response to someone who questioned whether federal officials violated the civil rights of the campaign aide, Carter Page.
Wyden said the memo presented only one side — and an incomplete one — of the justification offered by FBI and Justice Department officials to a special panel for a wiretap warrant of Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Nunes was an advocate of a six-year extension, which passed the House on Jan. 11, of warrantless surveillance. Wyden has been a longtime critic of surveillance without limits — and has mustered bipartisan support for a pending alternative in the Senate. The current surveillance authority ends in April.
"I question Mr. Nunes' newfound love for civil liberties and privacy. He is talking all about how we've got to do something about warrant abuse," Wyden said.
"But let me tell you something. Mr. Nunes seems to have been one of the ringleaders of warrant abuse, because he was on the side of driving through the House a reauthorization of FISA that means we are going to have even more law-abiding people swept up in searches when we go after targets overseas, where it's appropriate to go after them."
Wyden was asked later about the recent refusal of the State Department to impose new sanctions against Russia — despite overwhelming bipartisan approval by Congress last year — and a listing of officials and oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin that was widely criticized as incomplete and sloppy.
"This is getting a little bit of congressional pushback," he said. "We are going to be fighting a real battle on this."
Full text of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's reaction to release of a House Republican memo accusing federal law enforcement officials of abusing their surveillance authority to wiretap a former campaign adviser to Donald Trump suspected of being an agent of Russia:
"It's clear to me that this laughable hack job of a memo was a whole lot of nothing, hyped up to undermine the Mueller investigation. For weeks we have been talking about this ultimately meaningless memo, rather than the fact that an ever growing number of Trump associates are under indictment. Every member of this administration's national security team should explain whether or not they agreed with the administration's decision to greenlight the use of classified information for nakedly partisan ends, which lays bare the hypocrisy around the argument that pervasive secrecy is necessary for national security.
"However, if my colleagues are serious about their newfound concerns to protect Americans against unnecessary government surveillance, I urge them to rethink their votes last month to expand government spying powers under FISA Section 702. They should bring the USA RIGHTS Act back up for a vote to ensure our government is protecting Americans' rights as well as their security."