On Wednesday, March 22, Republican Devin Nunes accused U.S. spy agencies of abusing their powers by gathering and disseminating information relating to members of President-elect Trump’s transition team – possibly including Trump himself. Nunes said he was alarmed after seeing intelligence reports disseminated within the Obama administration after November 8 that apparently were records of relatively routine surveillance of foreign nationals that “incidentally” included references to known Trump associates.
His assertion set the media world on fire as he rushed to the White House to “brief” the president on the existence these intelligence excerpts:
Almost two weeks after President Donald Trump’s tweets accusing his predecessor of wiretapping Trump Tower, the Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee tried to offer some support by saying that the president’s team was caught up in a U.S. surveillance net.
Indeed, immediately after speaking with Trump, Nunes held another press conference where he seemed to invite the conclusion that he had seen materials that suggested something some sort of nefarious “surveillance” – if not literally illegal or “wiretapping” – had been going on during the Trump transition involving the U.S. intelligence agencies and directed toward Trump and his advisors (which, incidentally, included himself as member of the Transition team.
“What I’ve read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity — perhaps legal, but I don’t know that it’s right,” Nunes said to reporters outside the White House. “I don’t know that the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read.”
Trump himself, in his first recorded comments following the Nunes briefing, likewise said he felt at least “somewhat” vindicated in terms of his assertions about Obama’s alleged wiretapping of Trump tower by what Nunes had to say.
Nevertheless, the fact is that Nunes chose not to reveal the identity of his source – whom he said he trusted ― for what he purported to reveal, and indicated that he had merely been shown the documents and that they were not in his possession, as he asked the U.S. intelligence agencies to provide him with copies of the intelligence reports to which he was referring.
The problem is that there’s no way to assess the truth of Nunes’ claims. He says he has full faith in his source, suggesting it’s someone within the intelligence community, but it’s not clear that anyone besides Nunes has seen the “reports” to which he referred: Adam Schiff, the Democratic ranking member of the committee, has not, and while Nunes briefed both Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan, there’s no indication he showed them the report.
The Atlantic magazine also pointed out in the same story that Nunes had reportedly been asked by the Trump team to help tamp down stories about Russian connections to the Trump campaign allowed the Democratic Vice Chair of the Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff to suggest that Nunes was acting more like a surrogate for Trump than an unbiased investigation Chair.
Put aside several issues that Rep. Nunes conduct also raised: (1) why he did not share the information with the Vice Chair or the Intelligence Committee; (2) why he shared it with the Trump administration, which Nunes – thanks to the sworn testimony of FBI Director James Comey less than 48 hours earlier – knows is under FBI investigation with respect to the question of collusion with Russian efforts to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election; (3) why he abruptly cancelled public testimony scheduled from the former heads of U.S. intelligence agencies under President Obama that he himself had specifically asked to produce the intelligence reports Nunes said he had been shown by the unnamed source.
The core unanswered question or the moment remains “who” and what “documents” are the source for Nunes claims: a question that might actually be answered by a simple trip to the checkout counter of your local supermarket! For the fact is that all the essential elements of Nunes’s story had already appeared in the National Enquirer edition of March 27 – available on the grocery store newsstand as early as March 20 – two whole days before Nunes held his initial press conferences. Here are direct quotes (copy not available online as of this writing) of the key excerpts from the Enquirer story that are strikingly similar to the claims Nunes made just two days later:
“132 PAGES OF SPY TRANSCRIPTS REVEALED”
“U.S. SPIES TELL ALL”
“Efforts to obtain a FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] warrant were initiated by political operatives in the Justice Department, and not by the FBI, all the way up to the attorney general or deputy attorney...They were not initiated because of possible criminal activity, but requested by officials acting on political motivations.”
(Quoting Larry C. Johnson, and an ex-CIA employee from 1985-89, whom the Enquirer cited as one of its sources.) Nunes made similar references to apparently legal FISA court surveillance requests.
Another source, NSA employee William Binney,
told the ENQUIRER how the Obama administration turned the NSA’s Stellar Wind program against Trump for political sabotage!...He told us Trump’s phones ARE tapped and that ‘transcripts exist of the intercepted calls!’
Further, the Enquirer said,
our spy sources inside America’s intelligence community allowed The ENQUIRER (emphasis theirs) to view 132 pages of those transcripts – outlining the contents of calls made from numbers inside Trump Tower in NYC to other unspecified numbers. What’s more, and as The ENQUIRER can now relate, those calls were mundane and innocuous.
Were the documents Nunes was shown which he said showed instances of intelligence intercepts revealing the identity of Trump associates “monitored,” ostensibly legally through FISA, taken from the “132 pages” the Enquirer cited two days earlier? Were either or both Binney and Johnson the sources who showed Nunes the intercepts?
Lest I sound too much like the Enquirer itself in terms of spinning conspiracy theories, it is also worth noting that the same Enquirer story pointed out that it could now “reveal the Trump administration is itching to expose such shenanigans through a congressional inquiry that could end with charges of treason an illegal wiretapping.” Nunes, chair of the relevant congressional inquiry, certainly scratched that “itch” with his story in remarkably short order.
Whether or not any inquiry ever establishes that the Trump team colluded with Russian efforts to affect the U.S election outcome, it does seem worth investigating whether there has been any colluding going on between the Trump administration and Rep. Nunes, if only through the medium of the Enquirer and its sources. Notably, the magazine’s publisher, David Pecker, is a long-time friend of President Trump.
Indeed, the same Enquirer story reiterated the tale, cited approvingly by the president, that British intelligence had intercepted Trump calls and “turned the data over to Obama spooks in America” ― an assertion forcefully denied days before by all the U.S. intelligence agencies, including the holdover head of the NSA under oath in front of Nunes committee. Even Nunes wouldn’t go that far with the Enquirer script.
Possibly also aware that the supermarket tabloid’s headline of “Proof Obama Wiretapped Trump,” Nunes distanced himself directly from such an assertion and also backtracked recently on his claim that the intercepts he viewed showed that Trump had been “monitored.”
Nevertheless, the questions raised by the startling similarity between Nunes’s original assertions and the story just days earlier in the Enquirer require, at a minimum, disclosure of the sources and documents Nunes has thus far kept hidden – nothing less will resolve whether he is fit to lead an unbiased inquiry into the potential Russian involvement with Trump associate in that country’s election meddling, and the charges by Trump that Obama illegally wiretapped him.