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surveillance

Trump and Nunes Plot to Blow Up the Intelligence Committee

Our earlier suspicion proved true: that Donald Trump's White House orchestrated the plot for Devin Nunes, the House intelligence committee chairman, to discover documents that would prove — although they did nothing of the sort — that former President Obama "wiretapped" Trump Tower during the transition.

The clumsy plot, that had Nunes rush to the White House to warn President Trump that he had been surveilled, fell apart when Nunes revealed he had got the documents from none other than the White House itself the night before, and became comical when Trump got the timing wrong and revealed that he knew about the documents before he was supposed to.

The New York Times then discovered that the documents weren't from "a whistleblower type", as Nunes had reported to House Speaker Paul Ryan, but had come directly from two White House National Security Council staffers (a third was later identified) evidently assigned to find something to validate the President's mendacious tweet accusing Obama.


Nunes had not told his own committee that he had seen secret documents, had gone directly to the media instead, and now that the caper has been exposed, refuses to recuse himself from the committee's investigation into Russia's infiltration into the U.S. election, and has cancelled all further hearings.

here's how it began

A Monday session of the House Intelligence Committee on March 13 had been a bad day for the President. FBI Directory James Comey had confirmed that the Bureau was not only conducting an investigation into Russia's assault on the American democratic process but that they were also looking into possible collusion with the Russians by the Trump campaign. And with NSA (National Security Agency) chief Adm. Mike Rogers at his side and concurring, Comey said:

"With respect to the President's tweets about wiretapping by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI. The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same in all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets."

The Director had confirmed as a lie Trump's series of tweets claiming that President Obama had wire-tapped him, culminating in this one:

Something had to be done. As he had done so successfully in the preceding weeks, Trump had to counter and deflect to draw the attention away from this serious setback.

Two days later, like a deus ex machina deliverance in a Greek tragedy, the California Republican and Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes swooped before cameras and microphones at two locations to tell us of documents he had seen that confirmed that surveillance of foreign nationals by U.S. agencies resulted in the "incidental collection" of members of the Trump transition team. "The President needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there and I have a duty to tell him that".

Congress is an independent branch of the government and the intelligence committees of the House and Senate are to conduct uncompromised oversight of the executive branch's intelligence agencies and their activities. For the chairman of the House committee to serve as a conduit to the President of what the committee learns seemed a stunning breach of the separation of powers.

Nunes didn't believe he had the duty to tell anyone else on his committee, particularly its ranking Democratic member, California's Adam Schiff. Nor was his perceived duty restricted to reporting to the President. He first went to House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had the opportunity to at least sternly advise him that not to make a serious mistake, but evidently did not. Nor was there any urgency to report to the President. Nunes thought the priority was to let the world know. Before going to the White House he spoke at some length to the press at the Capitol and even lingered for questions.

clairvoyance

It had all the markings of a carefully staged pre-planned event. But Trump stepped on the planned timeline and turned to fiction the claim that did not already know what Nunes was about to bring him. Time magazine was conducting an interview with the President while Nunes was still talking to reporters at the Capitol. Overly eager to get what he fancied was Nunes' proof of his Obama accusation into the Time story, the President brought it up to the interviewer, saying "so that means I'm right".

Maybe Nunes gave the President a preview when he called to make the appointment? Except, he didn't make that call. "My staff had talked
Intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes heads for the press microphones at the White House

to the White House earlier that day to request a meeting with the President, and I had not talked to the President before that", he said in response to a reporter's question. He would not have handed off to the staff such a plum to offer up to the President. It was a charade; Trump already knew.

Congresswoman and intelligence committee member Jackie Speier (D-Ca) is one who is of the opinion that the White House engineered the plot. She points to what Trump said in the March 15 interviews with Fox News' Tucker Carlson:

"We will be submitted things before the committee very soon that hasn't been submitted as of yet", and again (grammatically), "I think you are going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks".

Knowing about the public hearing with Comey and Rogers a few days ahead, the plan appears to have been to hold those "items" until afterward so as, once again, to change the subject away from what he feared Director Comey might have to say about FBI probes.

Asked in the Oval Office, "do you feel somewhat vindicated by Chairman Nunes, Trump replied, "I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do. I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found. I somewhat do".

well wide of the mark

Before moving on to the White House, Nunes he said to the media:

"I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition, details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration…"

It was irresistible for every news account to point out that Nunes, who regularly assails journalists' use of anonymous sources, refused to say who allowed him access to the reports. Two things disturbed Nunes: he somehow knows the reports were "widely disseminated", and names of Trump transition members had been "unmasked" in the reports, although that contradicted what he had earlier said and what he had told to Adam Schiff after his meeting with the President — that the names were masked but he could tell from context who they are.

What was arranged for Nunes to hand to Mr. Trump — misdirection away from his unprecedented accusation levied at Obama — was the epiphany that the U.S. now spies on everyone. Nunes made a great show of running to the President to deliver the startling fact that even he and his transition team were caught up in this dragnet.

In fact, the "incidental collection" decried by Nunes is not Obama's doing but a law passed by none other than Nunes' own Congress. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 was amended in 2008 to allow warrantless mass collection of phone calls of foreign targets. That includes ambassadors and embassy personnel and can incidentally include conversations with Americans at the other end. The notorious Section 702 permits NSA to sweep up phone conversations, instant messages, e-mail, posts to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp — you name it. The names of Americans are then "masked" or "minimized" to conceal identity. But former NSA head Gen. Michael Hayden told Newsmax that even low-level employees can unmask conversants.

NSA is accused of taking maximum advantage of the "back door search loophole" or "reverse targeting" whereby they target particular foreign sources in order to get at the Americans with whom they communicate. Or, according to Rand Paul, a staunch critic of NSA abuse, they can "type Donald Trump into their vast resources of people they are tapping overseas, and they get all of his phone calls". According to Sen. Paul, they eavesdropped on President Obama 1,227 times.

Nunes was himself on the transition team, so closely allied with Trump is he. The irony is that he was head of the national security transition that was porously eavesdropped by U.S. intelligence universal snooping that may have incidentally collected Nunes himself.

There has been no apology forthcoming from Donald Trump for what can only be called a contemptible libel of the former president (after his assisting Trump with a fastidiously conducted transition) nor to redress the breach with our closest ally, Great Britain, whose own intelligence agency, GCHQ, Trump accused of spying on him, and which they called "utterly ridiculous".

high noon for nunes?

The question now is whether the Republicans who control the committee will recognize that Nunes cannot be viewed as impartial in its Russia investigation and cannot continue as chair if the committee hopes its work is to be taken as truthful and objective.

This is not the first incident to cast doubt. When the Trump administration improperly enlisted the intelligence community to contact news organizations in its extraordinary attempt to challenge their reporting on the Trump campaign's connections with Russia, Nunes was a willing participant. To say that for a member, much less its chairman, of an investigative committee to take sides is "inappropriate", to use that overly delicate word, is to dumb down the English language.

In a heated defense of Nunes on Sunday's "Face the Nation", South Carolina Republican Trey Goudy, who had conducted the Benghazi investigation, made the point that…

"The chairman of House intel briefed the commander-in-chief on something that has nothing to do with the Russian investigation, so if the command-in-chief cannot be briefed by the chairperson of the House intel committee on a matter that has nothing to do with the FBI investigation , then I don't know what they can talk about."

Schiff doesn't agree. He had said earlier in the week that Nunes' action “casts quite a profound cloud over our ability to do the work,” and like others, such as John McCain, called for an independent investigation:

"If the chairman is going to continue to go to the White House rather than his own committee, there’s no way we can conduct this investigation…We can't have our chairman acting as a surrogate for the administration. He has to either have the surrogate role or the chairman role but he can't do both…”

Nunes then apparently chose the former roll. At end week, he peremptorily cancelled the following Tuesday's open meeting in which former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates had been scheduled to testify. Shall we hazard a guess where that order came from? Schiff isn't guessing. Also on "Face the Nation" he said, "perhaps this is something the White House did not want to see" calling the cancellation a second "serious blow" to the committee's integrity. The cancellation has infuriated the Democratic members of the committee.

John McCain called for either a select committee or an independent commission to look into the Russia matter. “No longer does the Congress have credibility to handle this alone, and I don’t say that lightly,” McCain said on MSNBC.

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