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How Nunes threw the House’s Russia investigation independence into question

March 23, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes apologized after he faced backlash for publicly disclosing intelligence intercepts, which he took directly to President Trump without consulting committee Democrats. But his actions have sparked calls for an independent investigation from both Democrats and Republicans. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Matthew Rosenberg of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to the controversy created by allegations that were made by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee having to do with surveillance of the Trump transition.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And for more on all of this, we turn to Matthew Rosenberg, who has been following this for The New York Times.

Matthew, the Intelligence Committees both on the House and the Senate side have been one of these last bastions of bipartisanship and cooperation. What has been happening in the last 24 hours?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG, The New York Times: Well, first, we had Devin Nunes going public with information that people close to Trump, he had gleaned their names from intercepts that were passed around the previous administration. It was really unclear what exactly he was saying.

Then he went to the public. Then he ran to the White House to brief the president before he even told his own committee members. And for — basically, for all the Democrats on the committee in the House, this prompted them to say, look, this investigation is not going to be independent. Mr. Nunes is either going to be a White House surrogate or he’s going to run an independent investigation.

And it really put into question whether the House could run an independent investigation. It also completely muddied the waters. It wasn’t really clear what he was talking about.

So, when intelligence is gathered, if the U.S., the NSA or CIA are listening to a foreign official, if an American is on that, say, calls them or an American is discussed by that official, that is called incidental collection. The American has been incidentally swept up into the intelligence gathering.

And when that intelligence is then spread to other parts of the government, their name and identity is supposed to be obscured. It is called masked or minimized.

And Nunes sort of suggested they might have been unmasked inappropriately. But it’s not really clear. It is just — it is incredibly confusing. That is part of the problem here.

Today, Nunes went and apologized to his committee members, but the damage was really done here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Most of the work of these committees happens behind closed doors, not in front of cameras and microphones. When a piece of information comes to the committee, how does it usually work its way through, and what happened this time?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Well, what tends to happen is, the first thing they do is, they brief the rest of the committee on it.

And depending on what kind of information it is, it remains private. In this case, this is classified information. The existence of these intercepts is classified. The contents are obviously classified.

So, Nunes did two things here. First, he didn’t even brief his fellow committee members. He just went out to the public and then went to the White House, which is, of course, the subject of this investigation.

And, at the same time, he discussed classified information publicly. And this is a man who has complained about leakers extensively and grilled the FBI director about prosecuting leakers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There are three different types of alternatives that are being proposed. Some people ask for a special prosecutor. I think Senator Jack Reed was calling for that today. And then there are folks that say we need a 9/11-style special commission.

And then there’s also people who say, well, let’s take a select committee approach that may be similar to what happened with Benghazi.

What is the likelihood of any of those three?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: You know, at this point, everything I predict around here doesn’t go right. So, I am hesitant to make — to kind of put the odds on this one.

I think, you know, you are going to have a lot more Democrats pressing for a truly independent investigation, especially because the FBI is pursuing — they’re pursuing their own counterintelligence investigation, but there is a criminal element to that.

And I think there are a lot of people on the Hill who would like to have an investigation that could bring charges if necessary.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What this done to the tension that exists between the two leaders of the committee? They have gone out of their way to make sure as this investigation progressed that this would be somewhat cordial and that they would be respectful of each other trying to get to the same end goal.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: And that is what was sort of amazing about what happened yesterday, is that you are right. Mr. Schiff — Mr. Nunes and his Democratic counterpart, Adam Schiff, had made this real show of working together.

And even at Monday’s hearing, the body language between the two of them was incredibly positive. And then, yesterday, it seemed to just blow up. And it is not really clear exactly what happened there or why. But it does seem that there is a real lasting damage there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There was calls from Senator McCain on the Republican side, and I think Joe Biden even tweeted where he wrote, “Checks and balances? Chair of committee investigating White House can’t share info with White House. McCain is right. Need select committee.”

Is that gaining any momentum?

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: It’s hard to say right now. The House has been deep into the health care bill over the last day-and-a-half. The Senate is obviously dealing with the Gorsuch nomination.

So, I think we’re going to see in the next few days where this goes, as those issues fade and this issue comes back. And there are supposed to be more hearings next week by the House Intelligence Committee.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Matthew Rosenberg of The New York Times, thanks so much.

MATTHEW ROSENBERG: Thank you.

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