A former top lawyer for the CIA, NSA, and Department of Defence expressed shock in an interview with Business Insider that House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes went to the White House Wednesday to share information with President Donald Trump — going at a time when Nunes’ panel is looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Robert Deitz, who held those posts in President Bill Clinton’s and President George W. Bush’s administrations, said Nunes’ Wednesday trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was “unbelievable.”
“What the hell is Nunes doing at the White House?” Deitz, currently a professor at George Mason University, said. “The idea that a person working in a committee that down the road at least is supposed to be looking into Russian influence in US elections … would go racing to the White House — and to do what? Get his tummy rubbed? — I just find unbelievable.”
“More over, he could well be disclosing information that is of course highly classified — of course, not that Mr. Trump doesn’t have the proper classifications, by definition he does — but, you just don’t pass that information on willy nilly,” he continued. “So I don’t get that scene at all.”
Nunes, a California Republican, caused a stir on Wednesday when he claimed to a press gathering that the intelligence community had “incidentally collected” information on the Trump transition team during the transition period. He went on to say the collection occurred on “numerous occasions” and was not related to the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.
“Details about US persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting,” Nunes said, adding the information he spoke of was collected legally, in his view, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The Trump administration was not aware of what he was describing to the press at that point, so he then went to the White House immediately following the press briefing to discuss his findings, which many observers found odd.
A member of Trump’s transition team, Nunes finds himself leading the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s effort to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election. It was during a hearing Monday in front of Nunes’ committee that FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau had been investigating potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government since late July. Comey also said the FBI and the Department of Justice could provide no evidence to back up Trump’s explosive Twitter claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped him, an item that Nunes insisted Wednesday his new revelations did not prove.
Following his meeting at the White House, Nunes told the press he found nothing wrong with briefing the president on information that could be related to an ongoing investigation into members of his administration and campaign team.
“Because what I saw had nothing to do with Russia and the Russian investigation,” Nunes said. “It has everything to do with possible surveillance activities, and the president needs to know these intelligence reports are out there, and I have a duty to tell him that.”
Nunes hadn’t shared the information he was discussing publicly and with the White House with his fellow intelligence committee members. The ranking Democrat on the Committee, Adam Schiff, blasted him in an early Wednesday evening press conference, saying Nunes’ moves compromised the independence of the investigation they were attempting to conduct.
Thursday, Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat on the committee, told CNN that Nunes apologised at their Thursday meeting.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Nunes said it was a “judgment call” to deliver the information to the president. He later said he would not do things differently if he had a second chance.
“There was a lot going on yesterday,” he said. “It was a judgment call on my part. Sometimes you make the right decision, and sometimes you make the wrong decision, but you’ve got to stick by the decisions you make.”
Late Thursday, in a reversal, a spokesman for Nunes told ABC News that the congressman does not know “for sure” whether Trump or members of the transition team were caught up in the communications he cited Wednesday.
Deitz told Business Insider that he doesn’t think the episode will lead to something such as Nunes having his intelligence clearances revoked. But, as Deitz put it, intelligence officials may be “less than wholly forthcoming about information” they share.
“Once Mr. Nunes does something like this, people in the intel community might be reluctant to, for example, share the true crown jewels,” he said.
Following his meeting with Nunes, Trump told reporters he felt “somewhat” vindicated by Nunes’ revelations, as the president has spent the better part of March defending his earlier claim that Trump Tower was wiretapped by Obama. He’s backed away from the claim slightly, saying that wiretapping meant more broad surveillance, but he has not distanced himself from the original claim, which was rebuked by many across the political spectrum.
Deitz said the revelation was “far from a vindication.”
“In some ways it’s almost the reverse,” he said. “That is, if, and let’s assume for a moment that someone getting [intelligence] collection from overseas [and] is getting a Trump person on the other line. It can be totally innocent. On the other hand, it could completely validate the notion that Trump people are talking to Russians.”
“So I don’t get the partial vindication argument at all,” he said. “To me, it raises more questions than it resolves.”
He added that “nobody” had claimed that members of Trump’s circle hadn’t been captured on such surveillance before, naming Michael Flynn, the ousted national security adviser, specifically.
“And so why it’s somehow ‘good news’ for Mr. Trump that some of his people have been captured in collection,” he said. “I don’t see how that is ever good news.”
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