House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes on Thursday stepped aside from the probe of Russian actions during the 2016 campaign, saying he needed to deal with a congressional ethics inquiry into claims he improperly disclosed classified information.
Democrats rejoiced at the news. “The White House made a fool of Chairman Nunes, and he has deeply tarnished his credibility as Chairman and the credibility of his Republican colleagues,” declared Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. There is no question that this was a blow for the chairman, following his revelation that Obama administration officials had collected information of Trump transition members incidentally, unmasked it, and widely disseminated it. But the victory for Nunes’ critics could be pyrrhic.
For one thing, stepping aside on the Russia inquiry isn’t as big of a deal now as it might have been months ago. That’s because the Russia investigation isn’t really going anywhere. On March 9, BuzzFeed reported that Democrats on the committee are worried that their base is expecting dramatic results that simply won’t be coming.
Even some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee now quietly admit, after several briefings and preliminary inquiries, they don’t expect to find evidence of active, informed collusion between the Trump campaign and known Russian intelligence operatives, though investigators have only just begun reviewing raw intelligence. Among the Intelligence Committee’s rank and file, there’s a tangible frustration over what one official called “wildly inflated” expectations surrounding the panel’s fledgling investigation.
“The Russia narrative has been a sensational marketing effort, but the investigation won’t live up to the hype,” Michael Sainato writes. Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept has a good rundown of the problems caused by Democrats hyping Russian conspiracy theories.
Now, perhaps there will be something that comes out that changes everything, but after the better part of a year involving claims that the end was near for Donald Trump, people seem to have a general idea of Russia’s efforts that’s gone unchanged.
Nunes not having to deal with that part of his duties frees up time to focus on an area of investigation that has proved fruitful: the Obama administration’s leaking against the Trump administration.
Everyone knows that there was leaking, because multiple media outlets published the leaks. These many leaks were sourced to high-level Obama officials, though their identities were kept anonymous by the journalists publishing the information.
Two weeks ago, there was a breakthrough. Nunes revealed that he’d seen dozens of reports of information collected on U.S. citizens close to the Trump transition. Their information had been unmasked despite the lack of intelligence value in the reports. This had nothing to do with Russia, and the information was widely disseminated, according to Nunes. While many in the media immediately attempted to downplay the news or distract from it, earlier this week it was revealed that Obama’s National Security Advisor had requested such unmasking dozens of times. She was not the only Obama official to request the unmasking.
After initially denying knowledge of Nunes’ revelations when he first made them, Rice later defended her requests for unmasked information when it came out she was one of the Obama officials to request the unmasked information. Rice says she “leaked nothing to nobody,” although she is not known for her truth-telling. Still, in order for a leak campaign to work, the leaker didn’t need to also be the person who requested the unmasking of information on U.S. citizens or the person who made sure the unmasked information was distributed widely. But the unmasking would be a necessary first step.
The point is that Nunes was doing the tenacious oversight that enabled this news to be discovered. And he can spend his time focused on getting to the bottom of the Obama administration’s leaking scandal without having to spend time on the Russia portion that was already wrapping up. He’ll need that time to deal with the bureaucracy’s resistance to oversight. Intelligence agencies are “stonewalling” efforts to figure out who leaked protected information to the press:
“Our requests are simply not being answered,” one House Intelligence committee source told Fox News. “The agencies are not really helping at all and there is truly a massive web for us to try and wade through.”
A source in the Senate Intelligence Committee had a similar story.
“Any information that will help find the wide extent on the unmasking and surveillance is purposely not being provided,” the source said.
As for the ethics investigation, that too might be a problem for Democrats. Activist groups filed the accusations against Nunes, though ranking member Adam Schiff was making similar noises about an ethics violation. Nunes says the charges are “entirely false and politically motivated.” He asked the Ethics Committee to expedite their review.
The claim from Nunes critics is that his oblique mentions of FISA surveillance mean he has revealed classified information.
“The existence or non-existence of a FISA warrant is a classified fact,” Bradley Moss told Tim Mak of The Daily Beast.
A former NSA lawyer pooh-poohed the idea that this would be viewed as a violation.
But the fact is members of intelligence committees are not perfect about how they handle disclosure of classified information. Schiff has a reputation for lacking discretion, but many other Democratic members would be sure to face problems if mild mention of already public surveillance was cause for censure or oblique denials of FISA warrants. If Republicans wanted to make life difficult for Democrats on the committee, they could. Or as one anonymous official on the committee said, “There is evidence that some Democrats have leaked classified material — both inadvertently and intentionally.”
The House is busy with health care discussions and on a spring break. But Rep. Nunes will continue to dig into the potentially improper handling of information collected on Trump associates. And now he’ll have more time to do so. Those who watched him investigating previous intelligence problems know he is like a dog with a bone when it comes to getting to the bottom of wrongdoing. Whether Democrats agree with Nunes’ decision to go public with the news of the unmasking and dissemination of information about Trump associates, the fact that the public knows about it means that an investigation must continue.