Paul Ryan is reflecting on his legacy as House speaker in the wake of his announcement that he will not seek re-election this November. Among the things he’s proud of was the recent budget deal to increase defense spending, claiming it will strengthen America’s national security. But money isn’t everything, especially in national security.
Sadly, Ryan has presided over the abrupt destruction of one of Congress’s most important national security functions: intelligence oversight. As the sole person in this country with the ability to rein in or replace the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), Devin Nunes, Ryan bears ultimate responsibility for Nunes’ bizarre and counterproductive behavior.
HPSCI is one of the few remaining “Select” Committees in Congress, meaning the speaker alone picks the committee chair and the membership for the Republicans. (The minority leader does the same for the Democrats.) Under House rules, the speaker may, at any time, remove any member of a select committee at his or her discretion. In the past, members have been stripped of their committee assignments for causing problems for the leadership. Thus, unlike other committees, where the caucus or a steering committee has a say in the committee leadership, HPSCI is effectively under Ryan’s thumb. So he owns Nunes’ shameful handling of the Russia probe, and his hijincks on behalf of the White House.
Nunes wasn’t always a bad egg. After Speaker John Boehner announced that he was relinquishing the job,he appointed the Fresno congressman to chair HPSCI. Nunes was known as a loyal partisan and a Ryan ally, but at the time he seemed like a traditional Republican when it came to intelligence oversight, and had a good relationship with the members of his committee.
Unfortunately, something dramatic changed after Donald Trump won election. During the weeks before Trump took office, Chris Christie was removed as head of the transition team and with him, former Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, a respected ex-chair of HPSCI who ran the committee in a bipartisan, serious fashion. In came Nunes, who helped select national security appointees and set up the administration’s national security agenda. Unlike many who serve on transition teams, however, Nunes didn’t enter the administration, but returned to HPSCI to run the committee and conduct oversight over the national security foundations that he had laid.
Then, three months after his inauguration, after President Trump claimed that his predecessor had “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the election, Nunes dashed off in the middle the night, racing to the White House, and the next day, calling two bizarre press conferences where he accused Obama’s team of improperly “unmasking” the identities of Trump associates. The claim never withstood close scrutiny, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, downplayed the claims, saying that the issues was created by Nunes, and promptly said nothing more about the matter. This bizarre incident led to Nunes’ temporary recusal from running the Russia investigation in favor of his colleagues, Michael Conaway (R-Texas), Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.).
And yet, by this January, it was clear that Nunes was still very much involved in the investigation and was pressuring the Justice Department to turn over highly sensitive documents related to ongoing criminal investigations to congressional investigators—including an application for a FISA warrant on Carter Page, who the government suspected of a spy for Russian. The Department of Justice objected, and went so far as to send Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Chris Wray to plead their case directly to Speaker Ryan against turning over the document. Such applications are highly sensitive, reveal the government’s sources and methods, and are not even shared with the defense—and certainly never in full. Further, turning over the document would be a break from past congressional practice of not interfering in ongoing law enforcement investigations. Yet Ryan backed Nunes.
The following month, the House drafted its report accusing the FBI of misconduct in handling the Page FISA application, an explosive allegation that lacked any context for how FISA applications are generally conducted. And, shockingly, the committee decided to release the memo, sending it to Trump to declassify, over the objection of FBI and the Department of Justice, who called the release “reckless.” Within a few weeks, a disgruntled Gowdy announced he wasn’t seeking re-election, saying he wanted to a job “where facts matter,” followed shortly by Rooney. Both men, centrally involved in the investigation, were abandoning safe Republican seats at a time when the GOP Caucus could ill-afford to defend open seats, even in safe districts. Two other Republicans on the panel, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N..J), had already announced their retirements in swing districts.
Things got even worse when, in the beginning of March, it was clear that HPSCI, under Nunes’ leadership, had leaked text messages of Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to Fox News. This allegation showed that something was seriously outside the historical culture of respect between the two committees. On a bipartisan basis, Warner and Burr went to Ryan to complain about Nunes’ behavior.
But Nunes apparently isn’t finished. On Tuesday, he threatened to hold in contempt and impeach Rosenstein and Wray if they did not providing other documents that are part of the government’s case against people charged in the Mueller investigation. This isn’t oversight—it’s a bald-faced attack on America’s law enforcement institutions that runs contrary to the GOP’s long-standing respect for the rule of law.
In the Navy, the commander of a ship is held responsible went the ship runs aground, even if he or she wasn’t at the helm. It doesn’t matter that Nunes is the one making day-to-day decisions about the direction of HPSCI. Ryan is still in charge of the House—he owns this.
There’s a broader imperative at stake in our national security, and there are a few simple steps Ryan could take to begin to restore the legitimacy of the House’s intelligence oversight. He could start trying to fix the problem in his remaining nine months, rather than dumping it on the next speaker and leaving it to him—or, ahem, her—to fix.
First, Ryan should remove Nunes and pick a more cautious, balanced member to lead the panel. One option would be Conaway, the next most senior member of the committee, who had tried to keep afloat the bipartisan investigation and was working well with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member.
Next, Ryan could encourage Conaway to give the staff a fresh start with career professionals who are respected on both sides of the aisle, like recently fired Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert or former Republican staff director Mike Allen.
Ryan should also make sure that the attacks on law enforcement and the intelligence agencies should cease immediately—shut down this talk of censuring and impeaching the FBI director and the deputy attorney general. It’s one thing to disagree with the policy decisions that are made, and entirely another to take action against individual political appointees for doing their jobs.
And finally, Ryan should make clear that it is time to get back to basics and get out of the business of running interference for Trump. Congress is an independent branch of government, and the speaker doesn’t owe anyone anything politically. He can be true to his Republican principles. He could force HPSCI to get back to its essential work of oversight of intelligence sources and methods, in understanding collection gaps and ensuring that programs are adequately resourced. He could restore some checks to a system that is completely unbalanced. He has nine months left. The time to start is now.