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House Intelligence chair partially backs off claim about surveillance of Trump transition team

Rep. Devin Nunes said that Trump's campaign was inadvertently spied on.

The head of the House Intelligence Committee partially backed away from his dramatic claim that officials in President Trump's transition team had been subjects of surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies, with an aide saying that Chairman Devin Nunes did not know "for sure."

On Wednesday, Nunes (R-Tulare) said that names of transition team members had come up in conversations that were referred to in U.S. intelligence documents summarizing surveillance. But until Nunes sees the actual documents, he does not know whether any of the transition officials were actually part of the surveilled conversations or were just talked about by others, spokesman Jack Langer said Thursday.

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"He'll have to get all the documents he requested from the [intelligence community] about this before he knows for sure," Langer said.

The partial walkback of Nunes' claim came as lawmakers stepped up calls for an independent investigation of possible links between Donald Trump's campaign and Russia. Nunes' decision to brief Trump about the surveillance claims before sharing them with other members of his committee put the House investigation under a cloud, say Democrats and some Republicans.

Nunes apologized to members of the committee at a closed-door meeting Thursday for having described the documents to Trump before sharing them with the panel. Democrats said, however, that he had not yet shown them any of the new evidence.

In a statement to reporters Wednesday and later at the White House, Nunes said he had learned of "dozens" of classified reports that recounted communications between members of Trump's transition team — and possibly the then-president-elect himself — and individuals who were legally targeted for government eavesdropping for counterintelligence.

He said the reports were widely shared within the U.S. government and that the identities of at least some Trump associates had been included in the reports, despite rules requiring that the names of Americans picked up by communications intercepts be kept confidential in most cases.

Numerous transition officials could have communicated with foreign ambassadors or others in the United States who were under court-authorized surveillance for counterintelligence purposes. If so, they could have inadvertently, but legally, been monitored by U.S. intelligence.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House aide Stephen Miller, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump's three eldest children all played formal roles in Trump's transition, along with many other Trump associates and former government officials. Nunes himself was a member of the transition executive committee.

It's also possible that Trump transition officials were mentioned in U.S. intelligence reports even if no phone conversations, email or other communications involving those officials were intercepted by U.S. intelligence.

Foreign officials under surveillance might have mentioned the names of Trump aides or claimed to have had conversations with them. A claim of that sort might have been considered important enough to be included in an intelligence report, a former intelligence official said.

Senior intelligence officials can decide to include names or other identifying information of Americans in classified foreign intelligence reports if they believe that doing so is important for understanding the intelligence, or if it shows clear evidence of a potential crime.

This process, known as unmasking, could have happened with the Trump transition team. It's unclear whether any names of Trump transition officials were unmasked in the documents Nunes referred to, or whether their identities were masked yet obvious from how they were described.

Critics said Nunes' actions had called into question his ability to run a fair, thorough investigation.

The top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, (D-Burbank), called for the Justice Department to appoint an independent prosecutor for the case.

Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said a special House-Senate panel should be appointed to conduct its own inquiry.

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"It's a bizarre situation," McCain, a frequent Trump critic, said of Nunes' actions.

"I think that this back-and-forth and what the American people have found so far is that no longer does Congress have the credibility to handle this alone," the senator said in an interview with MSNBC.

Any such move faces strong opposition, however. Republican leaders in the House and Senate have given no indication that they would back the creation of a special House-Senate panel, like the joint body that was created to investigate the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration.

Nor has there been any indication that the Justice Department is considering appointing a special counsel to oversee the Trump investigation.

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself from any decision about the inquiry after disclosures that he had multiple conversations with the Russian ambassador last year while he was still a senator. As a result, a decision about a special counsel would be up to the deputy attorney general. Trump's nominee for that post, career prosecutor Rod Rosenstein, is awaiting Senate confirmation.

But Nunes' decision to bypass his own committee and publicly reveal evidence that may be relevant to the investigation has roiled the House panel.

"It's no way to run an investigation," Schiff said in an interview. "You don't go to someone who is associated with people that are under investigation with evidence and withhold it from the investigatory body."

Trump told reporters that he felt "somewhat vindicated" by Nunes' disclosures. They came only a week after the president promised revelations to back up his accusation that President Obama had ordered him to be wiretapped during the campaign, which would be illegal.

Nunes said, however, that no such wiretapping ever took place. The surveillance he referred to, he said, came after the election, was conducted legally and was not targeted at Trump or his associates.

Nunes' disclosures came a day after FBI Director James B. Comey testified that the agency had opened a investigation into possible Trump campaign links with Russia.

Schiff said in the interview that links between Trump associates and Russia uncovered by the FBI went beyond circumstantial evidence.

"I can't get into specifics. What I can say is that I think the FBI investigation is more than justified," Schiff said.

"It's not the evidence that you would present at trial, to a trial jury, to prove [guilt] beyond a reasonable doubt," he added. "But it's the kind of evidence you would put forward when you're beginning an investigation.

"I think it certainly demands a thorough and objective investigation.''

Despite being dismayed by Nunes' actions, Democrats on the committee were not threatening to pull out of the committee's investigation, Schiff said.

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"People recognize that if the Democrats are not investigating this, then really no one is," he said. "So we're determined to plow on."

Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

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