Nunes: Intel Community Collected Information on Individuals Involved in Trump Transition
It’s not clear in what context officials were speaking with foreign officials under surveillance.
At a brief press briefing on Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.) said the intelligence community incidentally collected information on individuals involved in then-US. President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.
“Details of U.S. persons involved with the incoming administration … were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting,” Nunes said. He said that the identities of additional Trump transition team members were unmasked, or identified by name in intelligence reports. Former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were caught by surveillance, and his name leaked to the press earlier this year, prompting his abrupt resignation after less than a month in office.
Responding to questions from reporters, Nunes at first said that Trump’s personal communications had been collected by U.S. intelligence agencies. Pressed on the issue, Nunes said such collection was “possible” and that he required additional information from the intelligence community to confirm that Trump had been caught by government surveillance.
“I just don’t know the answer to that,” Nunes said, asked whether the collection included the president’s personal communications.
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), criticized in a statement Nunes’s decision to go public with the information and to brief the White House before sharing it with the committee as a “profound irregularity.”
“Because the committee has still not been provided the intercepts in the possession of the chairman, it is impossible to evaluate the chairman’s claims,” Schiff said in the statement.
The House Intelligence Committee is currently investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Schiff said Nunes’s actions on Wednesday imperiled that investigation’s credibility.
In a Wednesday press conference, Schiff said Nunes’s actions underscored the need for an independent commission to investigate Russian behavior, the establishment of which appears unlikely in the current Congress.
The allegation, levelled by a close ally of the Trump White House, that American intelligence agencies surveilled the president-elect threatens to further distract attention from multiple congressional investigations into the Trump campaigns ties to Russia and possible coordination with Kremlin operatives in their campaign to influence the 2016 election.
“I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia, or the investigation of Russian activities, or of the Trump team,” Nunes said. It’s not clear in what context Trump team officials may have been speaking with foreign agents liable to surveillance.
Nunes said he believed the surveillance was all done legally, and that the information collected “appears to be all legally collected foreign intelligence under” the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The material collected, he said, was widely disseminated among intelligence officials.
Nunes said he spoke with CIA head Mike Pompeo and NSA chief Mike Rogers. He had yet to speak to FBI director James Comey. Press secretary Sean Spicer noted Nunes briefed the media before he did the White House. “The media has more information than we do at this point,” Spicer said at Wednesday’s White House briefing.
Following that briefing, Nunes went to the White House, where he briefed Trump and held another short press conference, and said that some of the intelligence reports he had been supplied with contained information collected under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
If that is correct and if the communications of members of the Trump campaign or Trump himself were swept up by American intelligence agencies under the authority of FISA, then those individuals were in contact with a U.S. person determined by a court to be an agent of a foreign power.
Nunes has asked that the CIA, NSA, and FBI provide him with additional information related to this surveillance. There are, he said, “dozens” of reports containing “significant information” and proof of the surveillance.
“This information was legally brought to me by sources who thought we should know it,” Nunes said. He also said he does not believe Trump Tower was “wiretapped,” per the president’s accusation.
Trump appeared to draw a different conclusion. Asked on Wednesday whether he felt vindicated by Nunes, Trump said, “I somewhat do.”
On Monday, Comey acknowledged that the FBI has since the summer been investigating the Trump campaign’s possible ties to and coordination with Kremlin efforts to subvert the U.S. election. Since then, additional media reports have highlighted what appear to be deeper ties between Trump campaign officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s circle.
Nunes and his Republican allies tried to use Monday’s hearing to try to change the focus, zeroing in on leaks of classified information in the media that disclosed ties between Trump advisers and the Kremlin.
It remains unclear under what authority Nunes disclosed on Wednesday that the intelligence community collected the communications of Trump team members. Jack Langer, a spokesman for Nunes, told Foreign Policy in an email that “Chairman Nunes’ remarks did not divulge classified details.”
Speaking to reporters, Schiff said that Nunes’s comments were “inappropriate” but that he could not determine at this stage whether they had revealed classified information.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll