An extraordinary public airing of the usually hidden inner workings of the U.S. intelligence community is rapidly casting doubt on the ability of lawmakers to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The probe, already clouded by President Donald Trump’s claims on Twitter that he had been “wiretapped” by his predecessor, was thrown into further disarray Wednesday when the lawmaker leading the inquiry alleged that conversations by the president and his staff had indeed been swept up in “incidental collection” activities.
Nunes: ‘Incidentally Collected’ From US Citizens on Trump Transition Team
“What I’ve read bothers me, and I think it should bother the president himself and his team,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told reporters after taking the unusual step of briefing the president personally.
“The president himself and others in the Trump transition team were clearly put into intelligence reports,” Nunes said outside the White House. “Some of it seems to be inappropriate.”
Nunes refused to say precisely where he obtained the intelligence reports, prompting swift criticism from the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, who called Nunes’ actions “gravely concerning.”
Schiff Discusses Need for Independent Commission
Calls for an independent commission
If the Chairman [Nunes] is going to continue to go to the White House rather than his own Committee, there’s no way we can conduct this investigation,” said Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “We need to have an independent commission,” he said.
A top Republican lawmaker also voiced concern that the process had run amok.
“No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don’t say that lightly,” Senator John McCain told MSNBC late Wednesday, calling for either an independent commission or a special committee to investigate.
The revelations by Nunes come just two days after FBI Director James Comey confirmed officials are investigating the Trump campaign’s possible connections with Russia. But Comey rejected Trump’s Twitter claims of wiretapping.
“I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” he told lawmakers Monday.
Trump says he feels vindicated
Asked about Nunes’ comments, Trump said Wednesday he felt vindicated.
“I must tell you that I somewhat do,” the president said. “I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.”
Nunes said he had only seen some of the dozens of intelligence reports that allegedly named the president and members of his team. But he emphasized the reports had “nothing to do with Russia and nothing to do with the Russia investigation.”
“I think it’s very significant, and we have to see where this leads,” Republican Congressman Peter King said. “It shows that there’s something there, and it’s a question of who authorized it.”
Nunes’ revelations may also lend more credence to claims by Trump supporters about a so-called “Deep State,” in which officials loyal to former President Barack Obama are actively trying to undermine the Trump White House.
Nunes: Incidental Collection of Trump Transition Team ‘Was All Done Legally’
“It’s incidental, it’s legal and it’s nefarious because the target as far as the intelligence community is concerned is the foreign national,” said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer, noting the officials who initially would have gotten the reports were all members of the Obama administration.
“That’s an issue especially if intelligence is being politicized [with] unmasked U.S. persons leaked to the press to discredit them,” said Pregent, now with the Hudson Institute.
Questions about Intelligence collection
Even if there was no nefarious intent, the latest development is likely to raise questions about the collection process and whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), designed to protect the identity and privacy of U.S. citizens, is being followed.
“The section 702 FISA collection process is like a huge Hoover vacuum cleaner that is sucking up a lot of material, including material that involves U.S. citizens, and it’s not clear to me that the NSA [National Security Agency] masking protocol is very effective,” Michael Desch, the director of Notre Dame University’s International Security Center told VOA via Skype. “It’s not clear to me that NSA always knows exactly what they’ve got.”
A distraction to the Russia investigation
But Democratic lawmakers remain skeptical that Nunes’ actions are about anything more than distracting from an investigation that may be starting to uncover signs of what some term possible collusion between Trump transition officials and Russia.
“There is more than circumstantial evidence now, “ Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee told MSNBC late Wednesday. “There is evidence that is not circumstantial and is very much worthy of investigation.”
Others are equally wary.
“This is a very underhanded action that is being done to try and besmirch the CIA, the FBI,” said California Democratic Representative Jackie Spier, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “This is turning into a spy novel and that’s not what we should be about.”
Some former intelligence officials say the way Nunes handled the intelligence reports also raises questions.
“It sounds like Nunes is bending over backwards,” said Paul Pillar, a veteran CIA officer now with the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “He’s going out of his way to sow doubt.”
Continuing questions about how Nunes obtained the reports
Pillar also questioned why Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was able to get intelligence reports that were somehow not available to the president.
“The president is just as much a consumer of the intelligence products,” Pillar said, adding that if Trump had simply asked “he would have gotten the whole package.”
Increasing friction between intelligence community, White House
There is also concern that this latest twist into an investigation aimed at examining Russia’s effort to influence the U.S. presidential election will only further inflame an already tense relationship between the intelligence community, the White House and Trump supporters on Capitol Hill.
“The implication is that the intelligence community did something improper,” said former CIA analyst Nada Bakos, now a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“That makes for a more contentious relationship between the committee and the intelligence community, which is not really helping,” she said. “This has become political football and that is not how intel collection and investigations should work.”
VOA’s Jesusemen Oni contributed to this report.