How Adam Schiff secretly thwarted efforts to bring transparency in Russia probe

Democrat demanded DNI keep evidence from Trump, holds transcripts that were supposed to be made public.

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Rep. Adam Schiff reads articles of impeachment on Capitol Hill
Rep. Adam Schiff reads articles of impeachment on Capitol Hill
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Last Updated:
April 20, 2020 - 10:55pm

In late September 2018 with a mid-year election approaching, the often bitterly divided House Intelligence Committee forged a rare bipartisan moment: Its Republican and Democratic members voted to make public the transcripts of 53 witnesses in the Russia collusion investigation.

But what was hailed as an act of transparency has not been fulfilled 19 months later, even though U.S intelligence has declassified and cleared the transcripts for release.

The answer why lies in the backroom dealings of Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat and its current chairman, according to interviews and memos obtained by Just the News.

Shortly after Schiff took over from Republican Rep. Devin Nunes as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) in 2019, he sent a letter to the office of then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

The letter obtained by Just the News specifically ordered that the witness transcripts — some of which contained exculpatory evidence for President Trump’s team — not be shared with Trump or White House lawyers even if the declassification process required such sharing.

“Under no circumstances shall ODNI, or any other element of the Intelligence Community (IC), share any HPSCI transcripts with the White House, President Trump or any persons associated with the White House or the President,” Schiff wrote in a March 26, 2019 letter to then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

“Such transcripts remain the sole property of HPSCI, and were transmitted to ODNI for the limited purpose of enabling a classification review by IC elements and the Department of Justice,” Schiff added.

U.S. intelligence officials said Schiff’s request made it impossible for them to declassify 10 of the transcripts, mostly of current and former White House and National Security Council witnesses, because White House lawyers would have had to review them for what is known as “White House equities" and presidential privileges.

But 43 of the transcripts were declassified and cleared for public release and given to Schiff's team, but they have never been made public despite the committee’s vote to do so, officials said.

One senior official said the 43 transcripts were provided to Schiff’s team some time ago, and the 10 remain in limbo. Asked how long House Intelligence Democrats have had the declassified transcripts, the official said: “You’ll have to ask Mr. Schiff.”

A spokesman for Schiff and House Intelligence Committee Democrats did not return an email Monday seeking comment.

If Schiff possesses the declassified transcripts, he does not appear to have told Republicans on his committee. Several GOP lawmakers and staff on the committee told Just the News they have never been alerted that ODNI finished its review.

Schiff’s letter provides some detail on what prompted his demand to keep the transcripts from Trump or his lawyer. It came just as Special Counsel Robert Mueller was releasing his final report, which declared there wasn’t evidence to prove the core allegation lodged against Trump by Democrats — that Trump had colluded with Russia to hijack the 2016 election.

Schiff’s letter to Coats states that his staff was briefed earlier in March 2019 about how ODNI planned to handle the declassification, including the need for White House lawyers to review certain transcripts for information that could be covered by executive privilege.

It was that process that set off the alarm bells for Schiff’s team, the letter shows.

Republicans had hoped the witnesses’ testimonies would be released before the 2018 election so Americans could see some of the problems with the Russia probe and the false narrative of collusion that had been foisted on the public. That never happened, and the declassification efforts dragged into 2019, when Democrats took control of the House.

GOP lawmakers have emphasized they specifically would like to see the testimonies of key figures like former Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Michael Sussmann, a private lawyer for the Democratic Party, be made public for context and new revelations.

While that hasn’t happened yet, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz has released bombshell information, including that the FBI submitted false and unverified evidence to secure surveillance warrants targeting the Trump campaign in the Russia probe.

Newly declassified footnotes from the Horowitz report released last week show the FBI's key informant in the case, the former British spy Christopher Steele, may have been the victim of Russian disinformation. More declassified evidence from that probe is expected to be released later this week.

In the meantime, Republicans who led the House Intelligence Committee probe in 2018 when the witnesses were interviewed are trying to learn what came of the transcripts.

Schiff’s letter to Coats suggests that at the time the new Democratic chairman was still interested in releasing the transcripts.

“I hope our staff can reach agreement soon on a schedule for returning the transcripts to the Committee for ultimate public release,” he wrote.

Nearly 13 months since the letter, that release has not happened.

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