In a report published this afternoon in USAToday, http://usat.ly/2nojfXw, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee was attributed as saying that “communications involving members of President Trump’s transition group were “incidentally collected” by U.S. intelligence officials following the November election.”
According to the report, updated from its first publication,
“Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., did not identify other transition members swept up in the surveillance, adding that he has viewed “dozens” of such intelligence reports that appeared “legal” but perhaps “inappropriate.” “What I’ve read bothers me, and I think it should bother the president himself and his team, because some of it appears to be inappropriate,” Nunes told reporters at the White House after briefing the president on the findings. [Note that the original USAToday story included this line, “”I think the president is concerned and he’d like to see these reports.”] [Note also that Sean Spicer has been reported saying that Nunes spoke to the press before informing Trump]
The chairman said the intelligence reports were not part of a criminal investigation or the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election. Rather, he said the collection was related to broader intelligence gathering activities.
Nunes also has rejected the president’s claims that Trump Tower had been wiretapped. And he said “none” of the newly disclosed surveillance was related to “any investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.” [emphasis added]
“Details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration—details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value—were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting,” Nunes told reporters Wednesday. Nevertheless, Trump, while meeting Wednesday with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters that he felt “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’ statements.
” I must tell, you I somewhat do,” the president said. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found, I somewhat do.” Before briefing the president, Nunes said he also notified House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., of the information. Nunes suggested that the information came from one or more whistleblowers. “It came through the proper channels and the proper clearances,” Nunes said. “This was information that was brought to me that I thought the president needed to see.” He said the National Security Agency has been cooperative, but the FBI so far has not.
Nunes said the surveillance itself appeared to be legal — presumably through a warrant from Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — but that the concern was what intelligence agencies did with that information. He would not rule out that senior Obama administration officials received the intelligence or that they were involved in the “unmasking” of the citizens identified in the reports. [Note that he can’t rule Obama’s officials “in” either] But he also re-stated his belief that Obama did not order the wiretapping of Trump Tower, as Trump himself has suggested in a series of March 4 tweets and subsequent public remarks.
“From what I’ve read, there seems to be some level of surveillance action — perhaps legal, but I don’t know that it’s right,” he said. Nunes said nothing he shared with the president was within the scope of the FBI’s investigation into ties between Russia and Trump associates. “The reports I was able to see did not have anything to do with the Russia investigation,” the congressman said. “The president needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there, and I have a duty to tell him that.”
The source of that duty is not clear. The chair of the House Intelligence Committee does not report to the President. I would think that in the midst of an on-going FBI investigation involving the President’s staff, present and former, and possibly the President himself (the investigation is in early stages), the chair would not go running to the President with every piece of information he discovers that he thinks helps exonerate the President or gives more ammunition for the thoroughly discredited claims that the former President Obama ordered electronic surveillance of Trump Tower. Moreover, Nunes concedes that the surveillance he claims to have discovered was legal. The basis for his suggestion that it was not “right” is not clear.
The first USAToday report also stated that “White House spokesman Sean Spicer characterized the Nunes’ information as “startling,” saying that it required additional investigation.” Clearly, Nunes’s disclosures have had the intended effect of bolstering the President’s team in promoting the false narrative that Trump Tower was surveilled.
This hasty action by the chair of the Intelligence Committee speaks volumes about the objectivity of the Republican-managed Committee’s involvement in the FBI investigation and is further compelling, indeed overwhelming, evidence for the need to appoint an independent prosecutor to oversee the investigation of the Trump-Russia connection.
The USAToday report goes on to quote Nunes thus: “I think the president is concerned and he’d like to see these reports.” And then this:
“The chairman said the reports and incidental collection of names were not part of a criminal investigation or the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Russia interference in the 2016 election. Rather, he said the activities were elated [sic] to intelligence gathering.”
I am not an expert in these matters but I’m having a hard time distinguishing between these disclosures by the chair and what the Trump administration, and the chair himself, have repeatedly decried as “leaks.” Apparently, the only bad leak is one that doesn’t help the false presidential narrative. Furthermore, if the documents reviewed by the chair were indeed related to “intelligence gathering,” why did he feel it was appropriate for him to rush to the White House with the information?
Despite all this hoopla, the report states that “Nunes also rejected the president’s claims that Trump Tower had been wiretapped. But he said “none” of the newly disclosed surveillance was related to “any investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.” By disclosing this “unrelated information,” Nunes appears to have fed the President the talking points he needs to continue his discredited (by both the FBI and NSA) claim of wiretapping. Chair Nunes has, it seems to me, removed the last shred of doubt about his inability and/or unwillingness to lead a proper investigation into the President and his minions. He is too beholden to the President and way too anxious to exonerate him. What is required here is an independent leader of a serious investigation. Failing that, any ultimate exoneration by the Republican led House Intelligence Committee will be suspect.