The Meaning of Devin Nunes’ Revelation of “Incidental” Spying on the Trump Campaign by the Obama Administration

Fred Fleitz
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Posted: Mar 23, 2017 10:36 AM
The Meaning of Devin Nunes’ Revelation of “Incidental” Spying on the Trump Campaign by the Obama Administration

Although congressional Democrats and the mainstream media will never admit it, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ statement yesterday that the personal communications of the Trump campaign and possibly Trump himself were collected by U.S. intelligence agencies through "incidental collection" is a bombshell.

Specifically, Nunes said:

"None of this intelligence collection was related to Russia or investigations of Russian activities or the Trump team.

"The U.S. Intelligence Community on numerous occasions collected information on U.S. citizens involved with the Trump transition. Nunes said this collection was legal and incidental.

"Details associated with U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no intelligence value, were widely disseminated in Intelligence Community reporting.

"Additional names of Trump campaign team members were “unmasked” from these intelligence reports."

In response to this new information, Nunes asked the FBI, CIA and NSA directors to provide a full account of these surveillance activities. Nunes posed these questions that he wants the Intelligence Committee to investigate:

"Who was aware of this collection?

"Why was this collection not disclosed to Congress?

"Who requested and authorized the additional unmasking of the names of Trump officials from intelligence reporting?

"Whether anyone directed the Intelligence Community to focus on Trump associates.

"Whether laws, procedures or regulations were broken."

So what does this mean?

I believe this new information confirms that the Obama administration really was using U.S. foreign intelligence agencies to conduct domestic surveillance of the Trump campaign. Nunes’ information suggests this may have been done by scouring intelligence collected for other reasons to find references to Trump aides that Obama officials could leak to the news media to hurt Trump before and after the election.

If intelligence agencies were including personal information about Trump officials of no intelligence value in intelligence reports, this could be a serious instance of intelligence politicization by intelligence officials and possibly a violation of the law.

Nunes’ disclosure that names of other Trump officials were “unmasked” from intelligence reports that had nothing to do with Russia or an investigation of these officials is very disturbing. Unmasking the name of a U.S. citizen from an intelligence report is a serious matter and is only done in extraordinary circumstances. [When information on a member of Congress is incidentally collected by NSA, it is destroyed and not disseminated unless there is a compelling national security reason not to do so.] Based on what Nunes said and intelligence leaks against Trump before and after the election, I believe there is a strong possibility this unmasking was politically motivated.

Nunes’ information could move this story past the Trump Tower wiretapping and GCHQ allegations, both of which appear to be false and have distracted attention from real issues. I have believed for some time that Obama officials abused U.S. intelligence agencies to collect information to hurt Trump before and after the election through FISA warrants to collect against Trump campaign officials and by looking for references to Trump officials in NSA and CIA reports collected for other reasons. Nunes’ statement suggests the latter might have occurred. We still don’t know whether the FISA warrants were requested.

Nunes’ press conference may help congressional Republicans and the Trump administration recover from the damage done by the circus-like House Intelligence Committee hearing on Monday that Democratic members exploited – helped by the fickle FBI Director James Comey -- to promote unproven and scurrilous allegations against the Trump team and downplay illegal leaks of national security information to hurt Trump. The media has ignored the contentions by Republican committee members and President Trump that the abuse of U.S. intelligence and the leaking of intelligence to hurt Trump are where the real crimes were committed in this case. Nunes’ disclosure bolsters this argument. This information also at least partially vindicates President Trump on his allegations that the Obama administration spied on him.

Addendum: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff released a statement via Twitter criticizing Nunes for the above disclosure before he shared this information with the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff said it is not possible to conduct a credible investigation when Nunes makes disclosures in this way. This is laughable since Schiff proved by his conspiracy theorizing and mudslinging for the cameras at the Intelligence Committee hearing on Monday that he has no interest in a credible investigation. Kudos to Congressman Nunes for fighting back against Schiff and his politicization of intelligence oversight to smear President Trump.

— Fred Fleitz is senior vice president for policy and programs with the Center for Security Policy. He worked in national-security positions for 25 years with the CIA, the State Department, and the House Intelligence Committee. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz