We discussed a couple weeks ago the process by which the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) may publicly release classified information. Pursuant to House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(A), HPSCI had voted on January 29 to release the so-called “Nunes Memo.” This vote authorized the committee to release the memo
after the expiration of a five-day period following the day on which notice of the vote to disclose is transmitted to the President unless, before the expiration of the five-day period, the President, personally in writing, notifies the select committee that he objects to the disclosure of such information, provides his reasons therefor, and certifies that the threat to the national interest of the United States posed by the disclosure is of such gravity that it outweighs any public interest in the disclosure.
House Rule X(11)(g)(2)(B).
On February 2, President Trump declassified the Nunes Memo in response to HPSCI’s action. Although HPSCI’s January 29 vote was not a request to declassify the memo, there is nothing inherently wrong with declassifying the memo prior to the expiration of the five-day period, thereby allowing the committee to release the document earlier. However, there was no requirement that the president declassify the document. Once the five days expired without an objection satisfying the requirements of the rule, the committee was free to release the memo regardless of whether it had been declassified.
It appears, however, that the declassification of the Nunes Memo was something other than the executive branch’s attempt to be helpful. On February 5, HPSCI again voted to invoke the disclosure rule, this time with regard to the rebuttal memorandum prepared by the Democratic minority (the “Schiff Memo”). In response the president has neither declassified the memo nor objected in accordance with the rule.
Instead, by letter to HPSCI dated February 9, White House counsel Don McGahn explained that because “the public release of classified information by unilateral action of the Legislative Branch is extremely rare and raises serious separation of powers concerns, as the Constitution vests the President with the authority to control access to sensitive national security information . . . we are once again treating the Committee’s action as a request for declassification pursuant to the President’s constitutional authority.” Moreover, although the president “is inclined” to declassify the Schiff Memo, he is “unable to do so at this time” because the memo “contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages.” According to McGahn, President Trump “encourages” HPSCI to work with the Department of Justice to revise the Schiff Memo “to mitigate the risks identified by the Department,” and the “Executive Branch stands ready to review any subsequent draft” of the memo “for declassification at the earliest time.”
There is only one problem with this cooperative sounding letter. The House rule does not require any declassification decisions by the president or anyone else. What it does require is an objection and specific certification by the president “personally and in writing.” These requirements are not satisfied by McGahn’s letter because McGahn is not the president and his letter does not contain the required certification.
McGahn’s position is that the executive branch will treat the HPSCI vote as if it were a request for declassification because otherwise HPSCI’s action would raise “serious separation of powers concerns.” This is a hitherto unknown means of constitutional avoidance. There was no ambiguity in HPSCI’s action and McGahn cannot pretend it did not happen because he thinks it might raise constitutional issues. It should be noted, moreover, that the executive branch has never before questioned the constitutionality of the House and Senate disclosure rules. McGahn’s only basis for doing so now is a single jump cite to Dep’t of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 527 (1988), a case which involved the executive branch’s authority to deny security clearance to its own employees.
HPSCI apparently wishes to work with the Department of Justice to ensure that nothing in the Schiff Memo jeopardizes national security. This is appropriate and reasonable. However, it is essential to protect its constitutional prerogatives that HPSCI make it clear it in no way accepts McGahn’s position with regard to the House rule. Once the five-day period expires, the executive branch has no standing to raise objections and HPSCI has no legal obligation to get permission from McGahn or anyone else before releasing the memo. Any redactions or other modifications that the committee wishes to make for national security reasons are entirely within its own discretion.