Jason Zengerle publicly announced his profile of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., in today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine with the snarky tweet, “My latest for the @NYTmag on Devin Nunes, who’s been propagating, not to mention falling for, conspiracy theories since before the Deep State was even in a gleam in Donald Trump’s eye.”
It’s an accurate summation of the hit he attempted to place on Nunes, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). The only problem is the case he attempts to make is riddled with errors and full of embarrassing and deliberate material omissions.
For example, Zengerle writes that a “suspicious” Nunes was wrong to believe that “Obama administration officials were ignoring evidence in a cache of documents collected from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, showing that Al Qaeda was much stronger than the administration publicly contended.” Zengerle says Nunes’ predecessor as chairman of the intel committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, agreed with Obama officials’ assessment and told Nunes the documents Defense Intelligence Agency officials were analyzing at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., showed nothing significant on that score.
“But Nunes wasn’t convinced. On a Saturday in May 2013, he flew from Washington to Tampa and paid a visit to Centcom headquarters himself, where he demanded to meet with the analysts reviewing the documents, in the hope of uncovering evidence of Al Qaeda’s strength—and an Obama administration cover-up,” Zengerle writes. “But after a meeting with the Army major general who headed Centcom’s intelligence wing, Nunes came back to Washington empty-handed.”
There are multiple problems with this supposed example of Nunes being a conspiracy theorist who chases after illusory and meaningless things. Primarily, it was Rogers and the intelligence officials who were wrong, and Nunes, Mike Pompeo, independent analysts, and others pushing for transparency who were right.
The cache did, in fact, dispute the public claims of the Barack Obama administration, which had overtly political reasons for claiming al-Qaeda was being defeated. Far from conspiratorial, Nunes’ pursuit of transparency was quite successful. Nearly half a million documents were finally made public in November 2017. One of the claims this release debunked was that al-Qaeda had been weakened by being cut off from an isolated Osama bin Laden.
The New York Times’ own terrorism reporter Rukmini Callimachi made this exact point in a panel discussion in November 2017, following the release of the cache. She noted she first started seeing problems with the official intelligence community claims about al-Qaeda through her reporting in Timbuktu, Mali:
Suddenly I was seeing that this group that I was told really had no ties … with no connection, exactly, was in fact being micromanaged by al Qaeda central. When the first set of Abbottabad documents came out, if you read them carefully with this knowledge in mind, you can find evidence of this micromanaging. For instance, in the letters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula where you see them giving each other instructions, guidance, etc. But the overall narrative that I think was being pushed to the press, and if you look back at the editorials that were done when that trove came out, was an image of bin Laden isolated. He had lost control of this group. I remember one of the headlines describing him was a ‘lion in winter.’ In fact, the new trove that has now come out confirms very much what I was seeing in Mali, which is not just real connective tissue, but connective tissue to the point of them being micromanaged from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Very minor personnel decisions are being decided by the group thousands of miles away.
Far from being a right-wing conspiracy theory, the view that al-Qaeda was stronger than the Obama administration publicly contended has even been made by the Obama administration officials themselves. Mike Morell, the deputy director of the CIA during the relevant period, came to see the official narrative as false, a development he explains in his book “The Great War.” Morell specifically credits the cache of documents found in the bin Laden raid.
Other journalists who extensively reported on the bin Laden documents came to the same conclusion. “Obtaining the documents presented an opportunity to check what the intelligence community thought it knew about al Qaeda and its leaders against what actually happened. Who were our good sources? Who was providing misinformation? Was there a source who had better visibility into leadership decisionmaking than we’d assessed? Someone we relied on who wasn’t as important as we’d thought?” The Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes wrote. “In some important respects, the bin Laden documents were like the answer key to a test you’d taken. It’s telling that many in the intelligence community didn’t want to review their work or revisit their conclusions.”
Thom Joscelyn, senior editor of Long War Journal, worked on the bin Laden cache story for years. He told The Federalist that Zengerle’s characterization was wrong and flat-out inaccurate. He credited Nunes for being one of the officials who pushed the Obama administration to release a few more hundred files than the 17 hand-picked documents that were released to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in 2012. Nunes included language in the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act requiring more declassification and release of files, which resulted in a few hundred more being made public by the end of Obama’s second term.
Joscelyn says the mounds of new data in the hundreds of thousands of documents released in November 2017 will change the history of the post-9/11 wars and reshape how we understand what was effective and what we got wrong in the al-Qaeda conflict. The files reveal the face of bin Laden’s “ideological and genetic heir” Hamza bin Laden, bin Laden’s private reflections on Arab uprisings and the appropriate response to them, that bin Laden was not a mere figurehead as previously assumed but fully in charge of al-Qaeda’s global network, al-Qaeda’s complicated relationship with Iran, and the history of the Iraqi insurgency and al-Qaeda’s role in it. More on the significance of the trove here, here, and here.
HPSCI had rarely done real oversight in its past, Joscelyn observes. “Real oversight means questioning everything you’re given and understanding that you’re dealing with interested parties, some of whom do wonderful work on behalf of the American people and other times their interests are not necessarily benign. You need constant scrutiny of the sprawling multi-billion-dollar intelligence complex whether you’re on left or right,” he said.
Not only did Nunes not come up empty-handed in his dogged pursuit of transparency with the bin Laden cache, he was completely vindicated about the need to not bend the knee to intelligence officials when they claim to know better than their congressional overseers about transparency.
The article’s central thesis—that good oversight is done by being a good boy and dutifully receiving and accepting reports from intelligence agencies, not by diligently scrutinizing those agencies—is repeated elsewhere. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., of all people, is praised for studying reports from intelligence agencies in contrast to Nunes, who does his own research. It’s a dubious assertion, and a poorly made argument.
Zengerle falsely claims, for instance, that Nunes jetted off for a two-week trip to Djibouti. “Never been there,” says Nunes. But he points out the implication that such a trip would be foolish is also false, given that Djibouti is a critical location where the Chinese just a built a base, is becoming a gateway to Africa for some nations, and is near the entrance to the Red Sea.
The Farm Story That Wasn’t
Another example of Nunes’ supposed conspiracy-mongering was also dramatically false. Zengerle wrote that Nunes “began his political career, appropriately enough, because he believed he had uncovered a sinister plot.” He was “utterly convinced that his alma mater was secretly planning to close its campus farm.” The College of the Sequoias announced it was selling 160 acres on which its campus farm sat, and Nunes decided to run for the school’s board of trustees to save the farm.
Zengerle then writes:
There was just one problem: The farm didn’t need saving. ‘We were selling off the old farm, and we were putting the money in a fund to buy a bigger piece of land to build a new farm,’ says John Zumwalt, who was then on the board. ‘Of course we weren’t going to get rid of it.’ (Agriculture has long been one of the college’s largest departments.) But in a community like the Central Valley, Nunes’s theory about a plot to close the farm resonated with voters, and he unseated the incumbent.
There is just one problem: Zengerle’s story was wrong and he deliberately omitted key facts that upend it. I spoke with Zumwalt, who said Zengerle and The New York Times “did a good job of being accurate without being truthful.” He said the Times called him three times and by the second call, he could see what they were after.
“You could tell they wanted me to say that Devin Nunes, when he first got elected, was trying to chase windmills and save a farm that didn’t need saving,” Zumwalt said. While he says he spoke the words above, he also told The New York Times that the other trustees had never publicized their plans for replacing the farm. He said they intended to buy a new farm, but a whole lot of people were skeptical about their future plans.
“We knew what was in our heart but, generally speaking, citizens are wise for distrusting government,” Zumwalt told me. He added, “We didn’t do a very good PR job. Before we started selling off the farm, we should have had a new one. [The New York Times] left that part out.”
Nunes said his campaign focus wasn’t even on saving the farm, although it was an issue of concern to constituents, focusing instead on how he’d bring a “new vision” to the board of trustees. Zumwalt also found it interesting that the paper includes a complimentary quote from him praising Nunes’ work as trustee. “They weren’t trying to make the case that he was a lousy trustee, but that he jumps to conclusions,” he said.
Oversight Is For Reflexive Support, Not Scrutiny
Zengerle, who like many mainstream journalists rose through the ranks of liberal magazines, botches most of his description of a House Intelligence Committee probe of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In Zengerle’s description, then-committee chairman Mike Rogers did proper oversight, mostly thanks to his previous career as an FBI agent, which meant he implicitly trusted intelligence agencies.
Zengerle claims Nunes pushed Rogers to pursue leads that didn’t check out. He claims Nunes “had heard that a drone operator at an American air base in Germany said a drone had been flying over the Benghazi compound during the raid and captured video of the incident. According to a source familiar with the investigation, Rogers sent a committee staff member, Michael Ellis, to Germany to find and interview the American drone operator—who, it turned out, wasn’t even in the drone unit that covered Libya and had been telling tales to his parents, which had somehow made their way to Nunes.”
Apparently none of this is true. Ellis never went to Germany, according to multiple sources on the House Intelligence Committee familiar with his travels. And Nunes said the first time he even heard this story was with Zengerle telling it: “I don’t know anything about a drone operator and I have no idea what they’re talking about there.”
Zengerle then reports that Rogers was frustrated and conflict between the two grew, adding that “Nunes refused to endorse” the final report from the committee. That’s true, but Zengerle leaves out the fact that many Republicans declined to sign the report because it seemed designed to protect intelligence agencies rather than to analyze what went wrong, was riddled with errors, and lacked evidence to support its conclusions. As Hayes reported at the time:
‘If this was a high school paper, I would give it an F,’ says John Tiegen, a former CIA officer who fought on the ground that night in Benghazi and lived through many of the events the report purports to describe. ‘There are so many mistakes it’s hard to know where to begin. How can an official government report get so many things wrong?’
It’s a good question. Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican who serves on the committee that produced the report, disputes the premise.
‘I don’t think this is the official government report. It’s Mike Rogers’s report,’ says Rooney. ‘The members of his own committee don’t even agree with it.’
A select committee that investigated Benghazi issued a separate report with reasonable and relevant findings, such as that the administration had misled the public about the attack both immediately and continually, that weak Benghazi security was a result of political considerations, that the military never sent any resources to help during the attack, that terrorists were not brought to justice, and that the administration obstructed the investigation.
The ‘Midnight Run’ and Other Untruths
The campaign against Nunes by the media and Democrats can be traced to his announcement that the Obama administration had engaged in worrisome collection and distribution of information on the Trump team during the transition. He said the information contained little to no foreign intelligence and had no reason to be shared in intelligence reports to Obama officials, that Obama officials may have flouted legally required attempts to minimize and mask personal identifying information, and that the information collection had nothing to do with Russia. He said he was worried the behavior may have been technically legal but improperly handled.
Many in the media responded by downplaying or denigrating his news, distracting with process complaints or quickly thrown-together stories from anonymous sources with no evidence claiming more breathless wrongdoing with Russia. When it turned out that former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice herself had been involved in the unmasking, influential members of the press rushed to clear her of the charge in a manner one might expect from a defense attorney, but unbecoming for a media organization.
Rice actually denied any knowledge of what Nunes was talking about—which was, again, that he’d seen dozens of unmaskings of Trump affiliates that arose out of incidental collection during Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act surveillance, had nothing to do with Russia, contained little to no intelligence value, and had been disseminated throughout intelligence agencies.
“I know nothing about this,” Rice emphatically stated to Judy Woodruff in a March 22 PBS Newshour interview. “I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”
Well, it turned out that she testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that she knew everything about this. She admitted that she unmasked information on Trump affiliates that arose out of incidental FISA surveillance connections, and that these collections were unrelated to Russia.
But rather than cover this as, “Susan Rice completely contradicted herself when she said she knew nothing about unmasking,” wrote CNN’s Manu Raju—a favorite and reliable leak recipient for the Democrats on the committee (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example)—to spin the news as totally ordinary and justified. Amazingly, Raju never mentioned Rice’s comments to Woodruff that she knew nothing about any Obama people unmasking Trump people.
In Zengerle’s telling, Nunes was motivated to share this unmasking news because Comey had publicly announced he had launched a counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump team. Zengerle writes that “Nunes knew Comey’s announcement was coming.” Nunes, however, says this simply isn’t true: “We were not notified in advance.” He says Comey should have notified Republicans and Democrats on the committee, but he hadn’t done so. “Bottom line, totally false and fiction,” Nunes says. “I never knew that.”
Zengerle writes that the announcement seemed to be “lending credence to Trump’s preposterous accusation on Twitter” that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. In point of fact, Nunes had begun his statement by saying, among other things, “there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower,” a point he’d made before. Zengerle repeats the false claim about Ellis chasing after an imaginary drone pilot in Germany.
Zengerle writes, inaccurately, “A few days later, after reporters exposed the ruse (including the fact that the Obama-era eavesdropping had been legal, incidental and inconsequential), Nunes recused himself from the committee’s Russia investigation, although he still refused to cede subpoena power to his replacement, Mike Conaway.”
Zengerle is apparently unfamiliar with the fact that Nunes always said the behavior might be legal, and he specifically noted that it came from incidental collections. And it was Nunes’ argument, not his opponents’, that the collection was unnecessary. As noted above, Rice admitted to doing what Nunes announced! As for Nunes’ supposed recusal, it never happened, although many media reports falsely claimed it did. He instead stepped away from chairing that portion of the investigation.
Zengerle then falsely describes Nunes’ trip to the White House as a “midnight run” that happened late at night. It was not a “midnight run,” however, but a visit to a national security staffer in the middle of the day, while the sun was out. Nunes corrected the false reporting on the record — on air with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, in fact — on March 27, 2017. It’s around at the 4:00-minute mark of an interview full of process questions.
Preposterously, Zengerle attempts to say that Nunes has singlehandedly crippled the committee with partisan fighting. Zengerle has not one critical word for Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member who frequently appears on television — a Republican National Committee press release from December tallied he’d spent nearly 21 hours on screen since Trump took office — with never-ending claims of conclusive evidence of treasonous collusion with Russia.
Neither does Zengerle criticize Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. (See, e.g., “Adam Schiff’s Versions Of Events Are Frequently False Or Missing Key Details” and “How The Media Enable Rep. Adam Schiff’s Russian Bot Conspiracy Theories“). Further, Schiff or his Democratic intel committee staffers appear to be the source behind some very dubious and outright false reporting, such as Raju’s story that Donald Trump Jr. received hacked Democratic Party emails from WikiLeaks before they were publicly released. The story turned out to be entirely false, and was based on the misreading of the date on the email.
It is ludicrous to pretend that Democrats hadn’t politicized an investigation into Russian meddling by focusing instead on a theory of collusion with Trump. Here Schiff and Castro question Comey in the March 20, 2017, hearing by focusing exclusively on the unverified Steele dossier claims, for example.
Russia, and The Conspiracy That Wasn’t
The entire reason for The New York Times hit piece, of course, is that Nunes hasn’t allowed his committee to be used to push a conspiracy theory of treasonous collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 election. The Russia conspiracy is part of a major Democratic political operation.
Friday’s report from HPSCI revealed, for instance, that a former staffer for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had put together $50 million from Democratic donors to continue promoting the Trump-Russia narrative. That’s the same one Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee secretly funded during the 2016 campaign. The $50 million is for Fusion GPS, the same organization that commissioned the infamous dossier and secretly got it into the FBI, to continue to place articles in the media, and otherwise push stories on the Russia collusion theory and related issues that help their Democratic clients.
Nunes has angered Democratic interests by exposing what has all the hallmarks of a well-funded coup attempt against the president. Fusion has been described by affiliated sources as “a shadow media organization helping the government.”
Zengerle writes that the committee released a memo on FISA abuse “over the objections of committee Democrats as well as the Justice Department and the F.B.I.” That memo detailed abuses at the DOJ and FBI regarding surveillance of a Trump campaign associate. It showed that federal investigators had failed to inform the FISA court that the research used to secure the surveillance was secretly bought and paid for by Clinton and the DNC.
Naturally, Zengerle neglects to inform readers that, again, this was not some conspiratorial view unique to Nunes. Leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee came to the exact same conclusion. Further, we now have reams of damning information about how the FBI handled the Clinton email investigation and its surveillance and investigation of the Trump campaign. With former director James Comey leaking to the press, an IG report that led to the recommendation of criminal charges for FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe’s repeated lies under oath about leaking, and the known political animus and unprofessional conduct of reassigned FBI counterespionage chief Peter Strzok, among dozens of other problems, is Zengerle really suggesting that Nunes is out-of-bounds for questioning the DOJ and FBI’s conduct?
Zengerle further claims that the committee “abruptly wrapped up the investigation into Russian meddling,” despite the fact they spent a full year on it, finding nothing. Zengerle attempts to portray these actions as being done only to help Trump. Additionally, Zengerle claims that Trump discussed with Nunes the possibility of Nunes becoming director of national intelligence. “Totally false. Never happened,” says Nunes.
The New York Times article is riddled with factual errors that are denied on the record by multiple sources. It fails to include information that was easily found and in the public record. And all for the goal of derailing rigorous oversight of intelligence agencies.
Nunes’ spokesman Jack Langer seemed unsurprised by The New York Times‘ partisan ax-grinding and lack of fact-checking, something he’s grown accustomed to in an era when many journalists no longer bother even pretending to aim toward objectivity or accuracy: “If people assume every sentence they read in The New York Times is either outright false or hopelessly biased, they’ll still be granting the Times too much credit.”