Three White House officials helped provide intelligence documents to the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Devin Nunes, according to media reports on Thursday.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a former House Intelligence Committee staffer who now works as a lawyer on national-security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office, “assisted in the disclosure of the intelligence reports,” The New York Times reported.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday night that John Eisenberg, a top National Security Council lawyer, was also tied to the intelligence documents Nunes obtained last week.
H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, tried to fire Cohen-Watnick earlier this month, but Cohen-Watnick appealed the decision to White House advisers Jared Kushner and Stephen Bannon, according to Politico. President Donald Trump then decided that Cohen-Watnick could stay on, Politico reported.
Nunes last week bypassed his committee to travel to the White House to brief Trump on classified executive-branch reports he said showed that members of Trump’s transition team had been swept up in government surveillance.
The rest of the intelligence committee learned of those documents’ existence on March 22 when Nunes, who was on the transition team, gave an impromptu press conference to announce he would brief Trump on what he had found.
Nunes’ unusual decision to circumvent his committee and go straight to the president fueled speculation that the White House orchestrated the stunt to distract the press from the revelation that the FBI was investigating whether Trump’s associates colluded with Russia to interfere with the outcome of the 2016 election.
Nunes said the reports he had seen had nothing to do with Russia and that was why he felt comfortable briefing Trump on the matter without first informing the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff.
According to The Times, it’s true the reports did not have anything to do with Russia, instead detailing the routine surveillance of ambassadors and foreign officials who had discussed Trump and his family during the transition.
Nunes’ office said in an earlier statement that the California congressman had been investigating “the possible improper unmasking of names of US citizens” before Trump made his unfounded claim on Twitter in early March that Trump Tower had been wiretapped by President Barack Obama. Nunes has said there is no evidence that supports the president’s claim.
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Nunes told Bloomberg earlier this week, however, that his source for the documents was “not a White House staffer and was an intelligence official.” He said he had been reaching out to his “network of whistleblowers” over the past month to try to determine what kind of surveillance, if any, Trump’s transition team had been under.
It is unclear whether the White House officials gave Nunes the documents directly or whether they facilitated his entry into a secured compartmented information facility on White House grounds.
Many have cast doubt, however, on the idea that a whistleblower would meet with Nunes on White House grounds to give him classified executive-branch documents. It is also unclear why Cohen-Watnick and Ellis, if they knew the documents existed, would not have brought them to the White House directly.
Nunes’ office said in a statement that he would not “confirm or deny speculation about his source’s identity” or “respond to speculation from anonymous sources.”
Nunes told Fox on Tuesday afternoon that he would “never reveal” the source of the classified documents he obtained, not even to other members of the committee.
‘We’re not as obsessed with the process’
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during a press briefing on Thursday that questions about the issue “assume the reporting is correct,” but he would neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the Times report.
“We’re not as obsessed with the process as with the substance,” Spicer said.
He added, however, that the White House had invited both Nunes and Schiff to view “material that has come to light” in a “classified setting.”
It is unclear if that is the same material that Nunes obtained last week at the White House. Spicer would only say that the material was collected by national security staffers “in the ordinary course of business,” and had to do with whether the intelligence community properly handled the names of US citizens who had been caught up in the routine surveillance of foreign officials.
“There’s a desire to make sure that both sides of the aisle as well as both chambers have that information,” Spicer continued. “We invited them up to view it in a classified setting, in an appropriate setting…we want to make sure that the people who are conducting the review have that information.”
Spicer previously said he would not “get into who [Nunes] met with or why he met with them” on the White House grounds, but that any conversations the congressman had with the sources – assuming they had security clearance – were “100% legal” and “completely appropriate.”
Rep. Schiff, the committee’s ranking Democrat, told reporters on Thursday that the White House counsel has asked him to come review the documents on incidental collection and see how the names were unmasked by the intelligence community. He said he would be “happy” to view the documents, but that “it will ultimately be necessary to share these documents with the full committee.”
Schiff noted that “to me, this looks nothing like a whistleblower case,” and that the White House “still needs to answer the question” of whether it was “trying to launder information through our committee.”