Devin Nunes Just Proved Why We Need An Independent Trump-Russia Investigation

Credibility gone
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. walks out of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, to speak with reporters following a meeting with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. walks out of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, to speak with reporters following a meeting with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In the latest episode of “What in the World is Happening on Capitol Hill,” Congressman Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has added more fuel to the fire of President Trump’s wiretapping lies. On Wednesday afternoon, Nunes held a brief press conference telling reporters that communications by the Trump transition team, possibly including Trump himself, were “incidentally” monitored by members of the intelligence community. Here is his full statement:

“I recently confirmed that, on numerous occasions, the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.

· Details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration — details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value — were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting.

· I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked.

· To be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or any investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.”

For those not yet fluent in the convoluted language of press briefings, the vagueness of this statement has spurred more questions than it answers. The language used was unclear, and even Nunes himself admitted that this information does not speak to any wrongdoing, prompting interest as to why he chose to present it to the press. Additionally, Nunes chose to first publicly announce these findings, then proceeded to brief the President, all before informing the Democratic members of his committee. This decision has cast a political pall over an already divisive investigation, and Nunes has since apologized to his fellow committee members.

What Nunes’ Statement Actually Means

In the intelligence community, “incidental collection” refers to information collection that occurs when a U.S. citizen speaks to foreign targets of surveillance under FISA orders. It is illegal for the intelligence community to spy on U.S. citizens without warrants, though some have claimed that incidental collection provides a loophole for the government to do so. As a safety net, the identities of American citizens that these foreign targets speak to are supposed to be “masked” — e.g. blacked out on any intelligence form that is generated based on the information gathered. An identity can be unmasked for certain reasons; for example, if there is evidence of criminal activity, or if the identity is needed to understand the intelligence.

According to Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, 20 people — including himself — have the ability to unmask the identity of the American side of an intercepted communication.

While Nunes made sure to stress that the collection of this information was perfectly legal, he felt that unmasking the identities of members in the Trump transition team was “inappropriate.”

“It looks like it was legal, incidental collection that then made its way into intelligence report,” Nunes said. “Nothing criminal at all involved.”

This is where the water become a little more murky. While there is nothing untoward revealed by an American speaking with a foreign target of U.S. surveillance, the idea that multiple members of the Trump transition team would be speaking with such targets is cause for concern.

Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer for the CIA and the NSA, told NBC News that he found it “rather interesting” that more than one member of the transition team would have had a conversation incidentally collected, for it is generally uncommon for American’s to speak with foreign targets. The idea that multiple instances would occur under one roof is enough of a statistical improbability to raise serious questions.

The Politics of it All

Regardless of what will be revealed as a result of Devin Nunes’ claims, the way he presented this information has become a story in and of itself. As the the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he sits as a supposedly impartial and unbiased head of investigation into claims of Russian interference in the Presidential election. Nunes brought his ability to do so into question when he decided to brief both members of the press and the White House on his findings, before including the Democratic members of his team in the discussion.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who is the top ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, fired back in a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

“The chairman will need to decide whether he is the chairman of an independent investigation into conduct which includes allegations of potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, or he is going to act as a surrogate of the White House, because he cannot do both. And unfortunately, I think the actions of today throw great doubt into the ability of both the chairman and the committee to conduct the investigation the way it ought to be conducted.”

It is well known that Nunes supports Donald Trump. However, his actions on Wednesday combined with his past regarding his connections with the White House, suggest that he may not be able to remain unbiased in the investigation he currently heads. The Washington Post previously reported, that the White House had asked Nunes to help minimize stories connecting the the Trump team to Russia.

During Nunes’ White House briefing on Wednesday, he reportedly told the President his claims were “possible,” if the President were referring to broader surveillance. Given the vast and varied rejection of the President’s claims, from multiple high ranking and credible sources, this seems almost inarguably partisan.

An Unreliable Narrator

When the story turns from being about the investigation into who is leading the investigation, there is a problem. This is not the first time Devin Nunes has come under fire for less-than-unbiased actions. He previously denied being aware of Roger Stone and Carter Page, two key players in the ongoing inquiry into connections between Russia and the Trump team. Both have been subject to mass media attention, and were referenced in a New York Times article which Nunes blasted on March 3, during a television interview with a local news affiliate in his district. In the interview Nunes stated,

“I think where people are getting confused at is, there was a New York Times story where three Americans [e.d. note: including Stone and Page] were named in that story. And I was asked whether or not I was going to bring those people before the committee and ask them questions. And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I said we cannot go on witch hunts against the American people just because their name ends up in a newspaper story, because look, we know this, all newspapers are biased …”

Nunes denied knowing men he had previously defended because he does not trust the impartiality of The New York Times.

Additionally, at the moment, there is no way to assess the truth of Nunes’ “incidental collection” claims. As far as the public is aware, no one else has seen the information to which he is referring. Rep. Schiff has not and while the White House has been briefed on the matter, there is no evidence that they have seen the report either. While these claims are most likely true, the analysis Nunes has provided is clearly partisan and biased, bringing his credibility to the forefront of the news cycle.

Credibility — exactly what one wants questioned if they are leading the most important investigation in America today.

News // Congress / Donald Trump / Politics / Russia