In the last three months of the Obama presidency, significant personal information from and about the Trump transition was collected and widely disseminated at intelligence agencies, according to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes.
Dozens of intelligence reports provided to Nunes by an unnamed whistleblower were floating around during the sensitive transition period following the election, he said. The information collection itself may have technically been legal, but the failure to properly mask the information “alarmed” the California congressman, who notified the White House of the surveillance and dissemination of information on Wednesday afternoon.
Many of the reporters present didn’t seem to grasp the significance of what Nunes revealed. You can — and should — watch that press conference here.
Nunes began his remarks by reiterating his Monday request that anyone with information on surveillance of Trump or his team come forward. “I also said while there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower, I was concerned that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.” While Nunes’ earlier refutation of Trump’s wiretap claim received outsize attention by the media, his concern about other surveillance did not.
He then dropped the bombshell: “First, I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition. Second, details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting. Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. Fourth and finally, I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or the investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.” Again:
1) Information was collected on the Trump team by Obama administration agencies.
2) This information had no reason to be shared in intelligence reports to Obama officials.
3) Obama officials may have flouted legally required attempts to minimize and mask personal identifying information.
4) This had nothing to do with Russia.
He later explained that these reports were related to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act-permitted information collections. Such collections of information on foreign sources require hiding and protecting information about U.S. citizens incidentally picked up during the process when disseminating reports on information gleaned. He even referenced how this reminded him of the trouble the spy agencies got in when failing to mask members of Congress they routinely picked up while spying on Israel. So his concern is not just that the personal identifying information was not masked, but that there appeared to be little or no foreign intelligence value in the spreading of information regarding the political opponents of the previous administration.
Nunes said he wants to know who was aware of this behavior, why it was not disclosed to Congress, who requested and authorized the additional unmasking, whether anyone directed the intelligence community to focus on Trump associates, and whether any laws and regulations or procedures were violated.
Here’s the scandal: “Details with little or no foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reports.”
— David Shor (@DYShor) March 23, 2017
Nunes says “it was essentially a lot of information on the president-elect and his transition team and what they were doing.” He also said, “What I read was clearly significant information about president-elect Trump and his team.”
When an administration is spreading around reports of political and personal discussions, failing to mask that information, and the information itself isn’t of foreign intelligence value, you have the makings of a huge scandal.
Many of the reporters at the press conference didn’t seem to know the significance of what they were being told, with many asking questions about Russia or the physical wire-tapping of Trump Tower, two issues Nunes had already specifically ruled out. Finally, a reporter asked whether Trump and his team were being spied on by the intelligence community.
The response from Nunes is something: “Well, I guess it all depends on one’s definition of spying. Clearly it bothers me enough, I’m not comfortable with it, and I want to make sure the White House understands it and that’s why I briefed the speaker this morning.”
Another reporter again asked if Nunes thinks the Obama administration spied on Trump and Nunes again said, “I’m not going to get into legal definitions here, but clearly I have a concern.” He’s cautious and diplomatic, but this is what he’s “alarmed” about. While incidental collection isn’t technically spying, the dissemination of such information without cause makes it look a lot like it is.
One reporter present at the press conference instead thought this was the big takeaway of learning that the Obama administration might have been spying on Trump during the transition period:
A lot of confusion regarding Trump/wiretapping and whether Trump is vindicated via Nunes statements. Let’s un-muddy the waters (1/5)
Trump’s claim: “Obama was tapping my phones in October,” and in “Trump Tower just before the victory.” (2/5)
Nunes info today doesn’t support Trump: Incidental surveillance of Trump team in Nov/Dec/Jan. Unclear if comms were from Trump Tower (3/5)
Nunes: No wiretapping.
FBI/NSA: No evidence to support tweets.
Senate Intel Committee: No evidence to support tweets. (4/5)
Conclusion: Nothing we’ve heard from Nunes/FBI/NSA vindicated Trump’s claim of wiretapping, and not during time period he referenced. (5/5)
Okay, then! Now that we’ve debunked the issue of whether Obama personally crawled into Trump Tower in late October to lay down wiretaps, can we talk about the significant information revealed by the House Intelligence Committee chairman regarding the Obama administration’s questionable behavior in November, December, and January? The selective leaking of Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders? The unmasking and smearing of Michael Flynn? Now that we’ve gotten the wiretap issue out of the way? Can we? Or as I put it on Monday even before this latest bombshell, “We should be having a conversation about the surveillance of a political opponent.”
Imagine that President George W. Bush had listened in on Obama transition team discussions and spread that information throughout the bureaucracy. Can you imagine how outraged the entire press corps would have been? And rightly so! Abusing foreign surveillance machinery to collect and spread information on political opponents is wrong. Selectively leaking that information via a coordinated campaign to a receptive media complex in order to give an unsubstantiated impression that a political opponent is illegitimate or compromised is also not great.
If the laws and regulations guiding the collection of information by spy agencies were violated by the party in power to hurt the opposing party, that’s banana republic stuff. It matters not whether the Trump team were officially the targets, whether the targets were designed to obscure the real targets, or whether it truly was incidental collection. The effect was that members of the Trump team had their privacy invaded, and that the information gathered was disseminated and even leaked to the public by the Obama-led bureaucracy.
While the media might be laser-focused on whether Obama personally wiretapped Trump, as Trump seemed to claim in his tweets a few weeks ago, the American public is not keen on the idea that other techniques or forms of electronic surveillance were used on Obama’s political opponents. Further, the media attempts to deflect and downplay and run interference for Obama officials and other Democrats regarding this significant information reveal a journalistic complex seeking not truth nor protection of civil liberties, but partisan point scoring.