Even as another scandal appears to be emerging, involving Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, Mike Flynn who according to the WSJ has offered to testify in exchange for immunity, the Trump administration on Thursday invited leaders of congressional intelligence panels to review the documents it said raise indicate government spy agencies improperly identified President Donald Trump’s campaign officials and associates in the course of routine foreign surveillance.
According to Bloomberg, in a letter signed by White House Counsel Donald McGahn, the administration said Thursday it was responding to a March 15 request from intelligence committees for “documents necessary to determine whether information collected on U.S. persons was mishandled and leaked.” Specifically, it asks the committees to probe whether the intelligence was properly gathered, whether names were improperly revealed and “to the extent that U.S. citizens were subject to such surveillance, were civil liberties violated?”
The invitation announcement was made Sean Spicer during a briefing with reporters in Washington Thursday, shortly after a New York Times report that two White House officials had provided House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes with reports showing that Trump and his associates were “incidentally surveilled” by U.S. spy agencies.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff who previously called for Nunes to recuse himself of the Russian investigation, said he’s “more than willing” to review the material but questioned the administration’s motives, saying officials may be trying to disseminate information that helps Trump’s case. “I hope they’ll have some kind of explanation for why they chose this path,” Schiff told reporters at the Capitol.
Schiff has also accused Nunes of doing the president’s bidding. On Thursday, Schiff also said that the broader investigation must continue. “This is not going to distract us from doing our Russia investigation,” Schiff said, adding that the White House action “raises profound questions.” Schiff also said he didn’t know whether the material being offered is the same as the documents that were viewed by Nunes.
Meanwhile, at an open Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday on Russian interference in the elections, several experts testified that Russia’s efforts began as early as 2008 and peaked during last year’s election. In a depature from the conventional narrative that only Democrats were hacked, Clint Watts, former FBI agent who is now a national security expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said other targets were prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the intelligence panel
Rubio of Florida said Thursday that staff members on his presidential campaign were unsuccessfully targeted in July 2016 by hackers using an address in Russia and that former campaign aides were again targeted on Wednesday.
Ah yes, the old government-sponsored Russian hackers using “an address in Russia” to make sure they are not discovered by a cybersleuthing US senator.
In any case, while Nunes had refused to disclose who showed him the classified material, the New York Times reported on Thursday that Nunes was shown the material by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, who works at the White House Counsel’s Office and previously worked on the House Intelligence Committee staff. As reported earlier, Cohen-Watnick was an aide brought into the White House by Michael Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser in February after Trump concluded Flynn had given misleading information about contacts with Russian officials.
Nunes has said, and the Times said it confirmed, that the material isn’t related to the investigation into Russian attempts to influence the election, nor did it necessarily show any illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens.
While the House investigation has been stymied by the dispute over the material shown to Nunes, the Senate Intelligence Committee is proceeding with its own investigation. Panel Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, vowed that the probe won’t be politicized. “The public deserves to hear the truth about possible Russian involvement in our elections,” Burr said.
In light of the events in just the past several hours, we find that rather improbable.