Can this investigation be saved? That's a fair question to be asked about the House Intelligence Committee's probe of foreign meddling in last year's election after an extraordinary violation of protocol by its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).
Nunes went public Wednesday with sensational assertions that U.S. surveillance operations aimed at foreign targets had collected communications involving several members of President-elect Trump's transition team, and that some of the U.S. citizens were identified or "unmasked" despite a requirement that their names be suppressed. He also claimed that details about transition team members "with little apparent foreign intelligence value" were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting, presumably to various agencies.
Nunes' preemptive disclosure (and his interpretation of the information) surprised and angered Democrats on his committee; he reportedly has apologized for not informing them beforehand. Some experts are also questioning whether Nunes himself improperly discussed classified matters in public.
That Americans — including members of the Trump transition — might be "incidentally" recorded as the result of lawful surveillance of foreign officials and diplomats wouldn't mean that any law was violated. It would be troubling only if their identities weren't "minimized" as required by law before the information was shared among intelligence agencies. But by publicizing this information on his own — and going to the White House to brief President Trump about it — Nunes brought his credibility as an impartial investigator into question. He also assisted, even if unintentionally, in Trump's efforts to downplay questions about what the president has dismissed as the "ruse" of possible undue Russian influence on him or his associates.
Sure enough, Trump, who famously (and recklessly) accused former President Obama of ordering the wiretapping of Trump Tower during the election, said he felt somewhat vindicated by Nunes' revelations — even though FBI Director James Comey and Nunes himself have debunked that assertion.
This wasn't the first time that Nunes has come to Trump's assistance. At an Intelligence Committee hearing Monday at which Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers testified about Russian involvement in last year's presidential campaign, Nunes and other Republicans focused on leaks of classified information. Trump tweeted that same day: "The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information. Must find leaker now!"
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, complained that Nunes' decision to share information with the White House before he provided it to the committee was a "profound irregularity." He warned that Nunes "cannot conduct a credible investigation this way."
He's right: Nunes shouldn't be briefing the president whose election campaign his committee is expected to scrutinize. Unless the chairman can reassure the public and his colleagues, including the panel's Democrats, that his freelancing days are over, the public may look elsewhere — the Senate Intelligence Committee or a proposed 9/11-style independent commission — for a trustworthy account.