Earlier this month, President Trump accused his predecessor of ordering the “wiretapping” of Trump Tower in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. Last week, Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and Mark Warner (D., Va.), respectively the leading Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, together announced that there were “no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.” That conclusion was echoed this week by FBI director James Comey during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, and by committee chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.).
This comes as little surprise. Rather than looking into the reports that exercised him, Donald Trump chose to air his outrage on Twitter, and throw his administration into chaos. The damage to the White House’s credibility that has resulted is entirely self-inflicted.
But a further twist in the saga came Wednesday. At a press conference, Nunes provided an update that suggests that further serious investigation is in order:
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.
Trump and his allies in the media have interpreted Nunes’s comments as confirmation of his accusation. They obviously aren’t. It appears that the communications of Trump associates, and possibly Trump himself, were swept up as part of legitimate intelligence efforts.
However, Nunes’s other points, if true, are deeply troubling. The intelligence community has a responsibility to “minimize” the identifying information of U.S. citizens whose communications are incidentally collected. Likewise, “unmasking” is only sometimes appropriate, and the power to do so is generally restricted to a small number of officials. Nunes seems to be suggesting that Obama-administration officials flouted those protocols. His fourth point — that none of this surveillance was related to Russia — raises the question of how the intelligence in question was collected, and whether the results were classified. Leaking classified information is, of course, a crime.
This information would likely be getting a fairer hearing had Nunes not chosen to disclose it to the White House before he informed the other members of the House Intelligence Committee — a lapse in judgment he has since acknowledged. Of course, the committee’s ranking member, California Democrat Adam Schiff, has shown interest primarily in making political hay of the whole inquiry; over the weekend, he declared that Russia “hacked the election” — a claim for which there is precisely no evidence.
We have repeatedly encouraged the Senate and House intelligence committees to conduct a thorough and, to the extent possible, transparent investigation of the various allegations tying the Trump campaign to Russia, and into the leaks that have fueled those allegations. At this point, it seems that the Senate’s committee may be better suited to conducting this probe than the House’s. If it is not up to the task, Congress ought to form a Select Committee.
Late on Thursday, Fox News’s James Rosen reported that investigators have recently become aware of “smoking gun” evidence that “is said to leave no doubt the Obama administration, in its closing days, was using the cover of legitimate surveillance on foreign targets to spy on President-elect Trump.” The president’s reckless accusation may have been discredited, but important questions clearly remain. There’s no excuse for not getting to the bottom of them.