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What Did We Learn From The Nunes Memo?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With that in mind, we wanted to speak with someone with knowledge of the law and the inner workings of the White House and the Justice Department, so we called someone who has all of that - former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served in the George W. Bush administration. He was White House counsel before he headed the Justice Department. He's now dean of the College of Law at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Judge Gonzales, Dean, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

ALBERTO GONZALES: It's always good to be on your show. Thank you.

MARTIN: So today, the president tweeted that the memo totally vindicates him - his words - in the Russia investigation, calling the probe a, quote, "Russian witch hunt." Do you think that that's true?

GONZALES: Well, you know, it's not really my place (laughter) to contradict the president of the United States. But I will say that I think the Nunes memo, such as it is, has more to do with the FISA process in connection with that particular investigation than it does the Russian investigation. I don't think it proves overall bias at the Department of Justice, but it obviously raises questions. And I can see how some people would be concerned about how decisions are being made at the Department of Justice, particularly at the leadership level.

But as I said, there are still so many unanswered questions with respect to that particular investigation. And again, I don't - I'm not yet aware of the connection between that - what happened there and what's currently ongoing today.

MARTIN: So did we learn anything from the memo?

GONZALES: Well, I don't know. I mean, again, for example, I'd like to know whether or not the FISA application would have been granted even without this information everyone is now questioning. It's possible that there was additional information in the FISA application where the department would have gotten the approval of the FISA Court in any event.

I'd also like to know, was there actual knowledge by people like Rod Rosenstein when he certifies the application? Did he have actual knowledge about the source of some of this information? As a general matter, you know, the Attorney General - I'm working at my office when I'm a Justice, and two lawyers will show up unannounced a particular afternoon from the Office of Intelligence and Policy Review - that these people are experts in FISA and the requirements of FISA. They know extremely well. This is their job. And they come in with a stack of applications, and we sit down, and we talk about the applications. You don't have time to verify all the facts, quite frankly, in the application. You rely upon the experts.

And what you're mainly concerned about as the attorney general is to - is confirmation that all the requirements of FISA, all the requirements of that statute, have been satisfied in this application. You obviously - you're most concerned about surveillance of an American citizen here in this country. I think if I had been the attorney general, I would want to know if, in fact, some of the information - however relevant or important it was - that some of this information may have come from a questionable source. That would be something I would want to know as attorney general.

But it's quite possible that Rod Rosenstein - who is really the only player, I think, in connection with the Carter Page investigation that is still involved today with respect to the Mueller investigation - it's quite possible that he certified the application without having any actual knowledge about the fact that the source may have come from Mr. Steele.

MARTIN: Well, but the first FISA application was before he was in that job. That's one thing that has to be said. But before we sort of - let's just talk a little bit more about the big picture, if we can. You know, the Democrats have been vociferous about this, saying that this is about undermining the investigation into Russian meddling by attacking the personnel and the institutions. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan said on Thursday that the memo wouldn't impugn the Mueller investigation so - and then we have the president saying that this is a witch hunt and that it vindicates him. So, you know, at the end of the day, what is this all about, in your opinion?

GONZALES: (Laughter) I don't know if I'm in the best position to say what it's all about. I did say at the outset, based on what's in the Nunes memo, you know, it's hard to really make the direct connection or reach the conclusion that there is overall bias. Now, there may have been been improper bias or partisanship in connection with the FISA application of Carter Page. But again, you didn't have to impugn that bias to everyone in the Department of Justice, including the special counsel and his team. And I just can't get there, knowing Bob Mueller and knowing the senior leadership.

Now, let me just be perfectly clear about one thing. If someone does something improper at the Department of Justice, they should be held accountable. And I know that there have been decisions made by the senior leadership that has concerned, frustrated and infuriated some of the line investigators and some of the line prosecutors. And I get that. And there should be accountability.

But again, I think there's - a lot of people are making a lot of accusations here, trying to tie what happened with respect to Carter Page with the Mueller investigation. And based on the Nunes memo, I can't get there quite yet. It - we may be able to do so in the future, but as of yet, I have a difficult time getting there.

MARTIN: Let me - a couple more questions for you before we have to let you go. In your tenure, you were criticized for politicizing the Justice Department, in essence, allowing political affiliation to hold too much sway. And there were Republicans who had that concern. I'm wondering why the House Republicans, at least, seem to be all of one voice on this. Outside the government, people with intelligence and national security backgrounds are expressing deep concern but not among House Republicans. I wonder if you - why that is.

GONZALES: You'll have to ask the House Republicans.

MARTIN: OK.

GONZALES: I really don't know. It is true that - you know, it is true that you have to be careful, certainly within the Department of Justice, with respect to the appearance of bias or partisanship, even though some bias and partisanship might be allowed in connection with development of policy, for example. But with respect to investigations, that's something you have to be very, very careful about. But with respect to answering your question, you'll have to ask the House Republicans.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, drawing on your experience, both as White House counsel and as attorney general, what do you think should happen now? The Democrats would like their counter-memo to be released, if we could call it that. What do you think should happen now?

GONZALES: Well, listen. Everyone - certain Republicans were talking about how - about the importance of transparency. Well, I think the Democratic (laughter) memo then should be released. But as a general matter, let me just say, I am worried about the release of information that goes back to a FISA application. We are in court periodically - when I say we, the Department of Justice is in court periodically facing challenges from people who want to have access to FISA applications.

So the more we talk about this publicly, if we give up information relating to the FISA application, it makes it more difficult for the Department of Justice to protect FISA applications. The way that we ensure accountability at the Department of Justice in connection with FISA is through the work, the oversight work, of the Intel Committees. Now, I'm troubled by assertions that the Congress has asked for this information for a year and that the FBI has refused to turn it over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK.

GONZALES: The only justification that I can think of as to why they wouldn't turn it over is because that - because the information related to - the information that Congress wants relates to an ongoing investigation, and there is concern that turning that...

MARTIN: OK.

GONZALES: ...Information over may be leaked and compromise that investigation.

MARTIN: We have to let you go. That was former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, now dean at the Belmont University College of Law. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.