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World & Nation

White House appears to be the source of Nunes’ surveillance claims

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Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
(Michael Reynolds / EPA)

The White House offered Thursday to show lawmakers intelligence reports that purportedly mention associates of President Trump, raising new questions about whether the president’s staff previously leaked details about the classified documents it is now offering Congress.

In a letter Thursday, White House Counsel Donald McGahn invited the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees to review the classified documents — apparently the same reports mentioning Trump transition officials that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the House committee chairman, said he was shown at the White House last week.

The developments seemed to confirm that the initial disclosure of the reports to Nunes alone was at some level a White House effort to shift attention away from the president’s discredited claim that then-President Obama ordered him to be wiretapped.

“In the ordinary course of business, National Security Council staff discovered documents that we believe are responsive” to a request from the House panel about intelligence information collected on Trump associates, McGahn said in his letter to the lawmakers. “We would like to make these available for … inspection.”

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Separately, a congressional aide said that Trump’s former national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, had been seeking immunity from prosecution in return for testifying to the House and Senate committees. The development was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“Gen. Flynn certainly had a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” his lawyer, Robert Kelner, said in a statement.

“No reasonable person, who has the benefit of advice from counsel, would submit to questioning in such a highly politicized, witch-hunt environment without assurances from unfair prosecution.”

The White House offer to allow members of Congress to see the intelligence reports came after the New York Times reported that two White House officials, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael J. Ellis, a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, helped Nunes gain access to the reports.

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Ellis had worked closely with Nunes when Ellis was the general counsel for the House Intelligence Committee. Cohen-Watnick, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official, advised the Trump transition team along with Nunes.

Cohen-Watnick is “in over his head” in the job, a senior intelligence official asserted, commenting on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, and doesn’t have the depth of experience at intelligence agencies that officials have come to expect of someone in his role.

He was brought into the White House by Michael Flynn before Flynn was fired as national security advisor in February, and several senior intelligence officials said they were surprised Cohen-Watnick wasn’t replaced when H.R. McMaster took over Flynn’s job.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) told reporters he would review the documents but was troubled by the the “cloak-and-dagger stuff” and the “circuitous route” that the White House appears to have used in providing the materials to Nunes, who has refused to disclose the source he received them from.

“If that was designed to hide the origin of the materials, that raises profound questions about just what the White House is doing,” Schiff said. “We need to get to the bottom of whether this was some sort of stratagem by the White House.”

He added that if the White House goal was to distract the committee from its investigation into whether the Trump campaign had contacts with the Russian government, “it will not be successful.”

It remains unclear whether the intelligence reports referred to by the White House describe actual conversations between Trump transition officials and foreign officials under U.S. surveillance, or whether the Trump associates are only mentioned by others in intercepted conversations, emails or other communications.

Trump said last week he felt partly vindicated by Nunes’ disclosure, saying that it backed up his previous claim that he had been “wiretapped” before the election by President Obama. Nunes, however, said that “never happened,” and that the surveillance he referred to took place after the election, was legally authorized and did not involve Russia.

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Nunes set off a firestorm last week when he disclosed at a hastily-called news conference that an unidentified source had told him of “dozens” of intelligence reports from court-authorized surveillance that included the names of transition teams members. He said he was going immediately to the White House to brief President Trump on the information.

Nunes subsequently admitted that he had received the information at the White House complex, claiming it was the only place where he could examine the highly classified intelligence report.

His spokesman conceded that Nunes did not know “for sure” that any Trump aides had actually been subject to surveillance, only that their names had appeared in intelligence reports, which could have resulted from other people talking about them.

He has refused to say more about his source, repeating that refusal Thursday.

“As he’s stated many times, Chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source’s identity, and he will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources,” said Jack Langer, Nunes’ spokesman.

In a letter Thursday to McGahn accepting his offer to examine the documents, Schiff said he hoped the White House would confirm that the reports “are the same as those first shared with” Nunes.

In his letter, McGahn did not disclose whether Trump associates were mentioned in the reports. He asked the House committee to investigate whether the information in the reports was legally collected and whether so-called unnmasking procedures, governing the disclosure of the names of U.S. citizens picked up by surveillance, were followed.

“Was there any improper unmasking or distribution of intelligence?” he said. “To the extent that U.S. citizens were subjected to such surveillance, were civil liberties violated?”

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To answer such questions, Schiff said, the committee would need White House help in getting intelligence agencies to explain “how the information was gathered,” and “what justification supported any unmasking or dissemination.”

“None of this is likely to be apparent on the face of these documents.”

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.

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 unmasking process 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.

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.

Nunes has questioned whether Trump associates’ names that should have been kept confidential were unmasked and then widely disseminated in the government in the closing days of the Obama administration.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, White House aide Stephen Miller, Trump 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.

Although the conversations referred to in the intelligence reports apparently do not involve Russia, Kushner was one of several Trump associates who met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition.

Flynn was ousted as Trump’s national security advisor last month after news reports disclosed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about phone conversations with Kislyak.

The calls were picked up by U.S. surveillance targeting the Russian envoy, and a description of the contents was leaked to the Washington Post after the Justice Department warned the White House that Flynn could be subject to blackmail.

Trump’s decision during his transition to shun many briefings from U.S. government officials and to use his own channels to reach out to foreign leaders may have contributed to an increased flow of intelligence reports about what ambassadors and other foreign officials in the U.S. were saying about the incoming administration.

david.cloud@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcloudLAT

 


UPDATES:

5:30 p.m.: The story was updated with news that former national security advisor Michael Flynn has discussed an immunity deal with congressional investigators.

The story was first published at 4:55 p.m.


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