Suspicions that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) may have exaggerated the importance of classified intelligence reports in an effort to help the Trump administration were seemingly confirmed on Tuesday night.
CNN reported exclusively that foreign intercepts publicly disclosed by Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, contain no evidence that Obama administration officials acted improperly, a conclusion reportedly reached by both Democrats and Republicans who have viewed the classified documents.
Last week, Nunes abruptly recused himself from the House investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether or not the chairman improperly disclosed classified information when he announced the existence of the foreign intercepts during an impromptu press conference last month.
A former member of the Trump transition team, Nunes has been accused of colluding with the White House to derail his committee’s investigation into Russia by redirecting its focus with unfounded accusations aimed at the Obama administration.
After dark on March 21, Nunes is said to have met secretly with two White House attorneys to view intelligence reports that allegedly show Trump campaign associates incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance. The following day, he held a press conference, disclosing the existence of those reports to the public—an act which many legal experts argue constitutes the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
While repeatedly cancelling hearings about the Russian cyberattacks against the Democratic Party last summer, Nunes and the White House began publicly accusing Susan Rice, formerly Obama’s national security adviser, of improperly “unmasking” the names of Trump associates in the intelligence reports. But according to CNN’s congressional sources, those claims are entirely false.
One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as “normal and appropriate” for officials who serve in that role to the president.
And another source said there’s “absolutely” no smoking gun in the reports, urging the White House to declassify them to make clear there was nothing alarming in the documents.
Rice herself vehemently denied the accusations in TV interview on April 4: “The effort to ask for the identity of an American citizen is necessary to understand the importance of an intelligence report, in some instances,” Rice told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. Asked if anyone connected to the Trump campaign had been improperly unmasked, she said: “Absolutely not, for any political purposes, to spy, expose, anything.”
Both Nunes and the White House have accused Rice of improperly unmasking the names of Trump associates in intelligence reports; however, the process is more complex than was described. As national security adviser, Rice could only request that the names of U.S. persons be unmasked if identifying them was necessary to understanding the value of the intelligence. The request would also require the approval from one of 20 high-ranking officials at the National Security Agency; Rice did not have the authority to unilaterally unmask the names of Americans contained in the foreign surveillance reports.
In addition to serving on the Trump transition team’s executive committee—where he helped guide the nominations of Secretary of Defense Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis and Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo—Nunes also fundraised for Trump, bringing in roughly $1.3 million during the campaign.