WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House on Thursday defended the House intelligence committee chairman’s extraordinary decision to openly discuss and brief President Donald Trump on typically secret intelligence intercepts, even as Rep. Devin Nunes privately apologized to his congressional colleagues.
The decision to disclose the information before talking to committee members outraged Democrats and raised questions about the independence of the panel’s probe of Russian interference in the election.
“It was a judgment call on my part,” Nunes told reporters shortly after the closed-door committee meeting. “Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the wrong decision.”
Frustrated Democrats questioned whether Nunes, who served on Trump’s transition team, was working in coordination with the White House, a charge the White House disputed.
Still, White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed, inaccurately, that Nunes was “vindicating” the president’s unproven assertion that President Barack Obama wiretapped his New York skyscraper during the election. Nunes specifically stated that the new information he received did not support the president’s explosive allegations.
Nunes told reporters he had seen new information showing that the communications of Trump transition officials were scooped up through monitoring of other targets and improperly spread through intelligence agencies during the final days of the Obama administration. But he shot down Trump’s claims about a wiretap at Trump Tower specifically ordered by his predecessor.
Still, Republican groups moved quickly to raise money off Nunes’ revelations. The National Republican Campaign Committee blasted out an email with the subject “Confirmed: Obama spied on Trump.” The Republican National Committee made a pitch with the subject line “Vindicated” and went on to say, “President Trump has fought back and been vindicated time and time again.”
On Wednesday, Nunes spoke to reporters and the president without sharing the new information with Rep. Adam Schiff, the panel’s top Democrat. On Thursday morning, Nunes apologized to Schiff and other Democrats during a 20-minute meeting on Capitol Hill.
“It was a somber discussion,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, a committee member.
Speaking to reporters after his apology, Nunes ducked questions about whether he was parroting information given to him by the White House, saying only that he was “not going to ever reveal sources.”
It’s common for Americans to get caught up in U.S. surveillance of foreigners, such as foreign diplomats in the U.S. talking to an American. Typically, the American’s name would not be revealed in a report about the intercepted communications. However, if there is foreign intelligence value to revealing the American’s name, it is “unmasked” and shared with other intelligence analysts who are working on related foreign intelligence surveillance.
The material picked up by intelligence agencies is typically classified. But Nunes’ office disputed that he had released classified information, saying the chairman “did not identify the targets of the surveillance and only spoke in general terms about the content.”
Obama administration officials disputed the suggestion that the outgoing administration had improperly monitored its successors. Former Vice President Joe Biden weighed in on Twitter, saying the chairman of a committee investigating the White House can’t share information with that White House.
“Need select committee!” Biden wrote, echoing calls from other Democrats and a small handful of Republicans for an independent investigation.
Nunes’ disclosure came two days after FBI Director James Comey publicly confirmed the bureau’s own investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia. Comey testified during the intelligence committee’s first public hearing on Russia’s election interference, an investigation being overseen by Nunes.
Nunes said the intercepted communications appeared to be legally obtained and were not related to the FBI’s Russia investigation. He said his concern was that the identities of the Trump officials were improperly revealed and the contents of their communications were “widely disseminated” in intelligence reports.
Schiff disputed Nunes’ suggestions that there was improper “unmasking.” He said that after speaking with Nunes, it appeared that the names of Americans were still guarded in the intercepts though their identities could be gleaned from the materials.
Nunes said the information on the Trump team was collected in November, December and January, the period after the election when Trump was holding calls with foreign leaders, interviewing potential Cabinet secretaries and beginning to sketch out administration policy.
Asked whether he believed the transition team had been spied on, Nunes said, “It all depends on one’s definition of spying.”
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