America’s intelligence agencies conduct routine surveillance on a wide variety of foreign agents and suspected criminals. When U.S. citizens contact these agents (and/or criminals) they can become “incidental” objects of surveillance, themselves.
In the months following the 2016 election, multiple members of the Trump transition team — possibly including the president himself — became just that. Or so the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee said Wednesday.
“I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition,” Representative Devin Nunes told reporters on Capitol Hill. “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.”
Why, exactly, Nunes was making this information public was not immediately clear. The Republican congressman is leading an ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. One piece of that investigation concerns the possibility that members of the Trump campaign aided and abetted Russian activities. This week, the FBI revealed that it has devoted considerable time and resources to investigating that possibility.
So, it’s odd that Nunes would publicly disclose some of the (ostensibly) classified intelligence that the government has obtained on members of the Trump team.
And it’s even odder that Nunes failed to brief the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee before disclosing that information — and odder still that Nunes went on to personally brief President Trump on his findings.
But Nunes’s story is that the incidental surveillance that he’s just learned about does not involve Russian entities. All of the intercepted material was innocuous and of no intelligence value. Thus, the identities of the American citizens intercepted via this (wholly legal) surveillance would normally have been out of official intelligence reports. And yet, several members of the Trump team were identified in such reports. Not only that — their intercepted communications were spread throughout the intelligence community.
Nunes stipulated that none of this validates the president’s baseless claim that Barack Obama wiretapped his phones. But the congressman did strongly suggest that the incidental intelligence was improperly handled.
Which is a bit ironic, given that Nunes’s statement was, itself, seems to be an example of the improper handling of classified information. In fact, just two days ago, Republican congressman Trey Gowdy argued that anyone who reveals the details of classified, legally obtained surveillance information is guilty of “felonious leaking.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, lambasted Nunes.
“This is not how you conduct an investigation,” Schiff told reporters at a press conference. “You don’t take information that the committee hasn’t seen and present it orally to the press — and to the White House — before the committee has a chance to vet whether it’s even significant.”
Schiff explained that — while the names of Americans caught up in incidental surveillance are typically “masked” in intelligence reports — those names can be “unmasked” under certain circumstances. He noted that Nunes had provided no evidence that anyone’s name was unmasked improperly. Further, Schiff claimed that, in conversation with Nunes, the House Intelligence chair complained of intelligence reports in which the names of Trump team members were masked — but enough context was provided that he, Devin Nunes, could tell who they were.
“The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House, because he cannot do both,” Schiff said. “I think the actions of today throw great doubt into the ability of both the chairman and the committee to conduct the investigation the way it ought to be conducted.”
The Democratic congressman then called for an outside commission to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Meanwhile, Trump greeted the news that members of his transition team had communicated with foreign agents (and/or criminals) as a vindication of his (still baseless) claim that the first black president was a “bad (or sick) guy” who tapped his phone.
At this point, the intelligence practices Nunes just disclosed appear far less concerning than the congressman’s own behavior. As Marcy Wheeler notes, if Nunes missed the “intelligence value” in the reports he surveyed, his trip to the Oval Office might have been a crime:
Nunes then said he was headed to the White House to tell Trump which, if there is any legal interest in any of these intercepts (as there might be if they pertained to Mike Flynn’s communications with Turkey, for example), then Nunes just committed obstruction of justice.
Nunes has already given the public plenty of reasons to doubt his qualifications for leading an investigation into the Trump administration.
To name just one: On Tuesday, Nunes was asked about Carter Page and Roger Stone — two Trump associates whose ties to Russia have raised suspicions.
Nunes claimed he had never heard of either man.
Even though both men have been subjects of intense media scrutiny for months; and Nunes is leading an investigation into the (alleged) Russian actions that produced that media scrutiny; and, on March 3, Nunes referenced both Stone and Page when he said, “there was a New York Times story where three Americans were named … And I was asked whether or not I was going to bring those people before the committee and ask them questions. And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Here is the relevant excerpt from that New York Times story:
The F.B.I. has closely examined at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Mr. Flynn.
At best, Nunes seems to lack the memory necessary to lead an effective investigation.
At worst, he lacks a great deal more than that.