Politics & Policy

Devin Nunes and Washington’s Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma

Rep. Nunes talks to reporters on Capitol Hill, March 24, 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
The beleaguered Intelligence Committee chairman is the latest target in a partisan smear campaign. He must not step down.

Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) will not step down from the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee. He is the new target in an already long line of those targeted by the media for forced resignations — Stephen Bannon, the purported anti-Semite; Sebastian Gorka, the alleged closet Nazi; Jeff Sessions, the supposed Russian patsy; and now Devin Nunes, the purported partisan naïf.

Nor should he resign — especially given the wider and bewildering landscape of the politicization and corruption of the intelligence community over the last months and the dangerous state in which we all find ourselves vis-à-vis the intelligence agencies and the transition of presidential power.

Some salient points, all of which have been reported in the media, need to be reemphasized with two caveats: First, the central question remains who leaked what classified information for what reasons; second, since when is it improper or even unwise for an apprehensive intelligence official to bring information of some importance to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee for external review — in a climate of endemic distrust of all intelligence agencies?



An unidentified intelligence official, possibly, it is now reported, attached in some role to the White House, apparently contacted Nunes. We have no idea whether the source did so because he did not completely trust high-ranking intelligence officials, or because he did not yet have confidence in the experience of the new Trump administration to digest such information, or because he was caught up in internal politics or wished himself to adjudicate the veracity of a prior Trump tweet. We do know that he did not in this case leak classified information to the press (as have higher-up officials). In any case, the source sought to have Nunes confirm the authenticity of his information — which purportedly suggested improperly handled intelligence-agency intercepts of the Trump transition team. Reporters several times have asked Nunes whether the information he’d read had anything to do with the investigation into possible connection between the Trump associates and Russia. Nunes several times said no, as he did most recently:

The information that I have seen has nothing to do with Russia or the Russian investigations. So bluntly put, everything that I was able to view did not involve Russia or any discussions with Russians or any Trump people or other Russians talking, or, so none of it has to do with Russia — that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means we don’t have it.

Nunes also said that the surveillance shown to him “was essentially a lot of information on the President-elect and his transition team and what they were doing.” Further, he suggested that the surveillance may have involved high-level Obama officials. When a reporter at Nunes’s second March 22 press conference asked, “Can you rule out the possibility that senior Obama-administration officials were involved in this?” Nunes replied, “No, we cannot.”

Ipso facto these are startling disclosures of historical proportions — if true, of an anti-constitutional magnitude comparable to Watergate. Given the stakes, we should expect hysteria to follow, and it has followed.


No Transparency Goes Unpunished

Amid the current shouting, we nonetheless know that Nunes did not hide the fact that he had sought to adjudicate the validity of those explosive documents (with the original sources in the secure possession of the executive branch). And he did not hide the fact that he was going to notify the president of the United States of the extraordinary information about which he had knowledge. At his morning press conference, he said, “I will be going to the White House this afternoon to share what I know with the president and his team.”

Nunes quite transparently informed the press and the nation about exactly what he had done and also what he would do.

Such a bombshell disclosure redirected the dominant narrative away from one solely about Russian collusion (itself the theme of daily and unsubstantiated leaks) to the possibly illegal means of seeking to substantiate that rumor. But it also is not the sort of thing that a conservative politician wishes to do in the current media and political climate in Washington.

In other words, it would have been far easier — and probably politically safer — for Nunes to have adopted the usual D.C. modus operandi.

In cynical terms, as we have learned the last year, this mode goes something like the following:

Secretly meet with the official in question; do not check the authenticity of the documents; secretly meet with Trump about such new information; then leak the document (or, better yet, partially leak preferred excerpts of it) to the appropriately sympathetic media under the usual rubric of “an unidentified source with knowledge of sensitive intelligence matters,” and then, of course, deny, if asked, that he was the source of the leaks. (See the admissions of former Obama official Evelyn Farkas below for an abbreviated version of how this is done.) All that is the new normal.

Instead, Nunes was transparent, at least as much as an intelligence chairman might be expected to be without revealing the name of the government whistleblower (or his job title) who provided the chairman of the Intelligence Committee with such information. And he was candid to such a degree that he also reiterated multiple times that he had so far found no literal basis in the past or present for Trump’s Twitter allegation: “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” Moreover, Nunes at no point said that de facto such surveillance was illegal, only that the full circumstances of how Trump people were monitored was more complex than and different from what had so far been leaked to the media and reported by them.

We can sense that even Nunes’s opponents were startled about his directness, given the hostile storyline that quickly surfaced, about a rural legislator (a “former dairy farmer”) from the Central Valley of California (one district over from my own) who was “over his head” in Washington. Fox News punditry essentially summarized his disclosures as politically self-destructive rather than opportunistic. Fury ensued over whether Nunes’s source was a staffer, a White House aide, an executive-branch intelligence officer, etc., and whether such a title did or did not contradict his earlier statement that he had not met with the White House — an odd obsession for reporters who jealously guard sources and have no desire to reveal the names or titles of those who for six months have leaked classified information to them.

Yet is it partisanship or leaking to have contradicted the literal allegations of the president of the United States and yet also to have informed the president of surveillance activities that were “used against President Trump and his associates” to collect “details with little apparent foreign intelligence value” that were then “widely disseminated”? All the while, Nunes was apprising the press of just those disclosures.

That all sounds a lot more like a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington figure than a sinister partisan seeking to subvert his own congressional investigation.


Lone Wolf?

Nunes did not act in lone-wolf fashion. At least according to press accounts, he first informed and got consent from members of the House leadership, including Paul Ryan and apparently Republican colleagues, informally, as well. He also told the press that he had informed both the CIA and NSA directors and intended to do the same with the FBI director — both about the nature of the information in his possession and his intent to verify it, disclose it to the president, and all the while inform the press of what he was doing and why. He later apologized to Democratic members of his committee that he had not initially apprised them of what he knew (more on that below). Ostensibly no one he briefed went on record to have him hold off from making public statements.


House of Mirrors

Nunes is currently not operating in a normal climate of trust. In today’s environment, one would have reason to doubt whether intelligence agencies would comply with requests for information or be transparent about what has happened over the past five to six months.

We still do not know why Nunes’s sources, if they worked in some capacity at the White House, felt they could not report directly to the president. Were they fearful that it would seem in-house investigating, or that their own information would or would not fully support Trump’s tweet? But surely it is important that knowledge of such information is now out, that it will be fully investigated by congressional committees, and that it might set the record straight about hearsay, five months of constant leaking, and media collusion in writing stories based on unidentified sources at intelligence agencies. Fear of all that drives the current frenzy.

If anyone were in Nunes’s position, he or she might doubt that the new Trump administration could fully trust Director Comey or others in the intelligence agencies to provide disinterested appraisals of such information, given that a number of intelligence officials may themselves, in theory, have been involved in the intercepts and their dissemination. He might advise that any possible sources connected even remotely to the White House should have disclosed the existence of such information to his boss. Nor would he necessarily believe that Representative Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) would be a reliable partner on the intelligence committee. Would Schiff remain silent about the true significance of such information while it was being distilled and examined by the committee, given his previous public insistence that the committee had new information incriminating the Trump administration — though to date Schiff has not presented such information or even characterized it?

Some notion of such intrigue, or rather the former nexus between Congress, the Obama administration, the intelligence agencies, and the monitoring of incoming Trump officials, was inadvertently disclosed recently by former Obama-administration Department of Defense deputy assistant secretary and current MSNBC commentator Evelyn Farkas. In an interview that originally aired on March 2 and that was reported on this week by Fox, Farkas seemed to brag on air about her own efforts scrambling to release information on the incoming Trump team’s purported talks with the Russians. Farkas’s revelation might put into context the eleventh-hour Obama effort to more widely disseminate intelligence findings among officials, one that followed even earlier attempts to broaden access to Obama-administration surveillance:

I was urging my former colleagues and, frankly speaking, the people on the [Capitol] Hill. It was more actually aimed at telling the Hill people: Get as much information as you can, get as much intelligence as you can before President Obama leaves the administration, because I had a fear that somehow that information would disappear with the senior [Obama] people who left, so it would be hidden away in the bureaucracy — that the Trump folks — if they found out how we knew what we knew about their, about the Trump’s staff dealing with Russians that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence. So I became very worried because not enough was coming out into the open, and I knew that there was more. We have very good intelligence on Russia. So then I had talked to some of my former colleagues, and I knew that they were trying to also help get information to the Hill.

Here we see a former Defense Department official taking credit for urging the expansion and stepped-up dissemination of classified surveillance of the Trump transition team (“get as much information as you can”), and she is apparently unconcerned about the means used to attain that end. She seems to wish that members of Congress (“Hill people”) and others will have access to intercepts, but she expresses no worry over whether it was legal to do so and seems to wish that its political utility was maximized. She tells us this now, when she is a media pundit, though she remained silent about it when she worked for Hillary Clinton. Farkas finished her interview with co-host Mika Brzezinski with the odd repartee: “That’s why you have the leaking,” which sounds like a confession of the ideological fuel of those disclosures.

Note again that Farkas left the Defense Department in September 2015 and became an adviser to the Hillary Clinton campaign (which accused the Trump campaign of collusion with the Russians). One wonders how a political activist in 2016 was still influential enough to speed up the release of “what we knew.”

To quote what Churchill said of Russia, all this is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The current intelligence world is imploding. It’s also one in which former CIA director John Brennan is on record having misled the nation about the nature of the drone program and collateral damage. He was forced to apologize in his past for his agency’s intercepts of information on U.S. Senate computers. He has not been shy about criticizing the incoming president.

A former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, is on record having lied to the Senate about the nature of NSA surveillance of American citizens. More than 50 intelligence analysts also faulted Clapper for improperly pressuring staffers to “cook” CENTCOM reports so they’d conform to predetermined administration narratives about the supposed positive progress of Obama’s efforts to defeat ISIS. On whose ultimate authority Clapper acted we do not know. He did not meet a Petraeus-like fate for misleading government officials. Clapper too is on record being harshly critical of the incoming president.

There is no need to rehash the strange political career of FBI director James Comey during the 2016 election. As Andrew McCarthy has noted in his recent NRO analyses, news accounts alleged that Comey’s FBI investigations of supposed contacts between General Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador were shared with Obama-administration officials — but why and how we are not sure. Comey himself was quick to note that his agency is investigating supposed collusion between Team Trump and Russia, but he refused to comment on whether or not the FBI is investigating possibly inappropriate or illegal intercepts of Trump officials and the surely illegal dissemination of intercepted info through leaks to favorable media.

Nunes in the past has said on the record that the FBI has not been prompt in complying with requests for information on its investigation of the intercepts concerning Flynn, Trump, and possible other Trump officials — and perhaps how such information was gathered, whether it was leaked, and on whose ultimate orders it was undertaken.

In addition, almost daily leaks and rumors continue, alleging that there is nebulous intelligence tying Trump to the Russians, even though intelligence officials have so far denied a factual basis for these allegations. Schiff, who is the leading Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, has claimed that his committee has new evidence of Russian collusion with Team Trump, as reported on March 23; he says that the evidence warrants a grand-jury inquiry, but he has not substantiated such allegations. No one has suggested that Schiff resign for such preemptory disclosures or apologize for mischaracterizing committee business.

Given this bizarre house of mirrors, Nunes seems to have decided to bypass the usual intelligence channels and go instead directly to the press and the president. In this way, interested parties may examine for themselves the explosive information that was directed his way.


Let the Truth Decide

Now that news of these latest disclosures is in the public domain, their validity eventually will rise or fall on their own merits. I think the very point of Nunes’s public announcement was to warn that what has so far been leaked to news agencies is not necessarily the truth, and to prod reluctant and possibly politicized agencies to cooperate with the committee’s review — and thereby to get to the bottom of a strange and sad chapter in American history. He has likely succeeded, and we should expect lots of investigations about what was heretofore selectively and opportunistically leaked classified material.

— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.



Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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