President Donald Trump has granted Attorney General William Barr “full and complete authority” to declassify government secrets, issuing a memorandum late on Thursday that orders US intelligence agencies to co-operate promptly with Barr’s audit of the investigation into Russia’s election interference in 2016.
The president’s move gives General Barr broad powers to unveil carefully guarded intelligence secrets about the Russia investigation, which the attorney general requested to allow him to quickly carry out his review, according to the memo.
“Today’s action will ensure that all Americans learn the truth about the events that occurred, and the actions that were taken, during the last presidential election and will restore confidence in our public institutions,” the White House said in an accompanying statement, which Mr Trump then tweeted.
The president has labelled the investigation of his campaign a “political witch hunt”.
His Republican allies in Congress who have reviewed some of the related files argue that the FBI investigation was opened based on flimsy and questionable evidence of wrongdoing, and that surveillance of campaign advisers to Mr Trump was improper.
“This is candidly part of the president wanting to make sure the American people have the entire story of what went on and what will be construed by most people as improper activity within the FBI.
It’s also the very first step in rectifying and repairing the damage done by certain people at the FBI,” said Mark Meadows, one of the president’s biggest defenders on Capitol Hill.
Mr Meadows said he discussed with the president how granting General Barr this authority would provide answers about whether the investigation was biased.
Conservative lawmakers, such as Mr Meadows, have insisted to friends in the administration that declassifying these documents will help Mr Trump protect his presidency and further distance himself from any political fallout from the Russia investigation, according to multiple people involved in those discussions.
The move is likely to further anger Democrats who have said that Mr Barr is using his position as the nation’s top law enforcement official to aggressively protect the president and attack his critics.
Adam Schiff, who as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee leads one of the ongoing congressional investigations of President Trump, called the action “un-American”.
President Trump and Mr Barr, Mr Schiff said in a statement on Thursday night, are conspiring to “weaponise law enforcement and classified information against their political enemies”.
The president is the government’s highest authority over whether national secrets remain classified.
His order gives Mr Barr significant authority over agencies that typically hold their secrets close and don’t declassify them easily.
While the memo states Mr Barr should consult with the head of an agency before declassifying its secrets, it also demands that he get prompt responses and documents from the intelligence community.
Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff at the CIA during the Obama administration, warned that, with his directive, President Trump was entering “dangerous territory”.
“Stripping the intelligence leaders of their ability to control information about sources and methods, and handing that power to political actors, could cause human agents to question whether their identity will be protected,” Mr Bash said.
General Barr has tapped John Durham, the US attorney for the District of Connecticut, to investigate the origins of the Russia probe.
Separately, the Justice Department inspector general is examining the handling of various aspects of the case. Mr Barr has said the inspector general’s work is expected to be completed in May or June.
President Trump’s memo highlights how much he has grown to trust Mr Barr.
Mr Barr has said “spying” was conducted by the government against the Trump campaign – an accusation Trump has levelled repeatedly but that current and former FBI officials have denied.
Mr Barr has been criticised by former FBI director James Comey and other former law enforcement officials for using the phrase “spying” to discuss how investigators monitored some Trump campaign advisers who had extensive contacts with Russians.
His critics argue that General Barr is parroting the president’s loaded wording, when surveillance was a proper part of a counterintelligence investigation looking at whether Russians were trying to influence Mr Trump’s campaign aides.
The Washington Post