EghtesadOnline: The Trump administration invited leaders of congressional intelligence panels to review documents it said raise questions about whether government spy agencies improperly identified President Donald Trump’s campaign officials and associates in the course of routine foreign surveillance.
In a letter signed by White House Counsel Donald McGahn, the administration said Thursday it was responding to a March 15 request from intelligence committees for “documents necessary to determine whether information collected on U.S. persons was mishandled and leaked.” It asks the committees to probe whether the intelligence was properly gathered, whether names were improperly revealed and “to the extent that U.S. citizens were subject to such surveillance, were civil liberties violated?”
According to Bloomberg, White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced the invitation during a briefing with reporters in Washington Thursday, shortly after the New York Times reported that two White House officials had provided House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes with reports showing that Trump and his associates were named incidentally by U.S. spy agencies monitoring foreign officials.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam Schiff, said he’s willing to review the material but questioned the administration’s motives, saying officials may be trying to disseminate information that helps Trump’s case. “I hope they’ll have some kind of explanation for why they chose this path,” Schiff told reporters at the Capitol.
The administration has been deflecting questions about Russian meddling in the presidential election by focusing on leaks of classified materials and, more recently, Trump’s allegations that his predecessor may have spied on him and his aides before and after the election. The spying claims and the leaks have become prominent sidelights to a broader investigation by the FBI and congressional intelligence committees into Russia’s campaign to disrupt U.S. politics and whether anyone close to Trump colluded with Russia.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday, several experts testified that Russia’s efforts began as early as 2008 and peaked during last year’s election. The moves included propagation of false news stories and the hacking of Democratic Party computer systems followed by the release of emails. Clint Watts, former FBI agent who is now a national security expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said other targets were prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the intelligence panel.
Rubio of Florida said Thursday that staff members on his presidential campaign were unsuccessfully targeted in July 2016 by hackers using an address in Russia and that former campaign aides were again targeted on Wednesday.
Inquiry in Turmoil
The House Intelligence Committee’s inquiry was thrown into turmoil when Nunes, a California Republican, last week held a news conference to outline material he said suggested some names of Trump associates were incidentally revealed during legal surveillance of foreign sources. He then went to the White House to brief Trump while refusing to share the information with other members of the committee. After repeated questions about how he got the material, Nunes said on March 27 that he met a source on the White House grounds.
Democrat Schiff, also of California, has called for Nunes to step aside from the investigation and accused him of doing the president’s bidding. Schiff said Thursday he is “more than willing” to go to the White House to review the material being offered but that the committee’s broader investigation must continue.
“This is not going to distract us from doing our Russia investigation,” Schiff said, adding that the White House action “raises profound questions.”
He said he didn’t know whether the material being offered is the same as the documents that were viewed by Nunes.
Nunes has refused to say who showed him the material, and Spicer has said he didn’t know the identity of Nunes’ source. The New York Times, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported Thursday that Nunes was shown the material by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, who works at the White House Counsel’s Office and previously worked on the House Intelligence Committee staff.
Cohen-Watnick was an aide brought into the White House by Michael Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser in February after Trump concluded Flynn had given misleading information about contacts with Russian officials.
“Our view was that the smart move was to make all the materials available to the chairman and the ranking member of the relevant committees,” Spicer said Thursday. “We want them to look into this, as we have maintained all along -- that I think there’s a belief that the president has maintained -- that there was surveillance that occurred during the 2016 election that was improper.”
Nunes has said, and the Times said it confirmed, that the material isn’t related to the investigation into Russian attempts to influence the election, nor did it necessarily show any illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens.
While the House investigation has been stymied by the dispute over the material shown to Nunes, the Senate Intelligence Committee is proceeding with its own investigation. Panel Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, vowed that the probe won’t be politicized.
“The public deserves to hear the truth about possible Russian involvement in our elections,” Burr said.
Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, echoed that sentiment, but also expressed concern about what he called Trump’s “wild and uncorroborated accusations” that then-President Barack Obama ordered Trump Tower wiretapped and about Trumps intermittent attacks on intelligence agencies.