Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is scrambling behind the scenes for a legislative answer to one of the Russian election meddling saga’s most festering issues: how names of Trump transition team members swept up in Obama-era intelligence reports were revealed earlier this year.
Mr. Nunes largely stayed out of the spotlight after a House ethics probe into his own handling of classified information, but sources close to the eight-term California Republican say he is quietly engaged in a push to tighten restrictions on the practice of “unmasking” during presidential transitions.
“He needs to get it done by the end of the year,” one of the sources told The Washington Times this week, adding that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has indicated he would support certain limitations on unmasking, especially during presidential transitions.
The source said Mr. Nunes — his hands now untied after being cleared last week in an eight-month ethics investigation — is working to include the provision as part of Congress’ reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is due by the start of next year.
Mr. Nunes, California Republican, and other supporters of President Trump rocked Washington this spring when they accused Obama-era officials of irresponsibly “unmasking” — or learning the redacted identities of — Trump transition team members swept up in classified U.S. surveillance operations against foreign targets.
During a hearing early this month on a markup of the FISA reauthorization, Mr. Nunes argued that updating the legislation is a “constant challenge to strike the right balance between security and privacy.”
“This balance must be regularly re-evaluated in response to technological innovations and the evolution of threats to U.S. forces and Americans at home and abroad,” the congressman said.
He made the comments after Mr. Coats sent a letter to leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees outlining proposed unmasking policy updates, which are due by Jan. 15. According to a report by Reuters, the Trump administration has floated a draft executive order relating to Mr. Coats’ policy changes, on which the White House has declined to comment.
The Coats letter suggested that the changes are driven by a desire to eliminate the possibility of politically motivated unmasking activities by whoever occupies the White House at a given time. The letter specifically discussed the need to “make clear that [intelligence community] elements may not engage in political activity, including dissemination of U.S. person identities to the White House, for the purpose of affecting the political process of the United States.”
The draft executive order, meanwhile, proposes increasing the number of officials who would have to be involved in reviewing any unmasking request — to include the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Any such request made between a presidential election and Inauguration Day also would have to say whether the officials seeking approval for the action believe the unmasking would involve individuals on the transition team of a president-elect.
Congressional sources say the language that Mr. Nunes has proposed for the FISA reauthorization is similar to that in the draft executive order.
‘Wiretapping Trump Tower’
Mr. Nunes‘ initial charges that Obama-era National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice and Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power made inappropriate unmasking requests last year spurred Mr. Trump to accuse President Obama of “wiretapping Trump Tower.”
In a September court filing, the Justice Department argued that it had no evidence to support Mr. Trump’s claim.
Bitterness and suspicion have lingered, with Mr. Nunes overseeing an intelligence committee rife with partisan battles over Russian election meddling narratives — especially over accusations that meetings last year between Russians and Trump campaign officials somehow amounted to collusion between the campaign and the Kremlin.
Committee Democrats have pushed the collusion claims hard. Republicans have countered by saying the drama is a witch hunt concocted by Obama-era officials.
Mr. Nunes‘ own role in the situation prompted the House Ethics Committee to open an investigation this year into the extent to which he may have disclosed classified information in his public handling of intelligence relating to the Obama-era unmasking activities.
As a result of the ethics probe, Mr. Nunes announced that he would step down from his leadership role in the intelligence committee’s Russia investigation.
When the House Ethics Committee announced last week that intelligence community investigators had cleared him of mishandling any classified data, the congressman shot back that the charges against him were “rooted in politically motivated complaints filed against me by left-wing activist groups.”
He also laid into the ethics panel for taking so long to clear his name.
“I respect the ethics process,” he said, “but I remain dismayed that it took an unbelievable eight months for the committee to dismiss this matter.”
Keeping a guiding hand
During Mr. Nunes‘ time away from heading his committee’s Russia investigation, congressional sources say, he kept a guiding hand in the workflow and continually addressed issues that the White House sought to pursue, including scrutiny of the infamous and uncorroborated anti-Trump dossier that claims Mr. Trump had long-standing ties to the Kremlin.
Mr. Nunes has argued that the Justice Department and the FBI improperly used information from the dossier — without independent confirmation — to justify federal surveillance of Trump associates that led to the unmasking issue.
In October, Mr. Nunes upped the ante by announcing a joint investigation with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee into a 2010 deal that allowed a Russian-backed firm to purchase a company called Uranium One when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.
At the time, the intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California — a frequent Nunes critic — questioned the investigation’s direction and accused the panel of trying to “shift focus away from Donald Trump onto Hillary Clinton.”
During an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Rep. James A. Himes of Connecticut, another committee Democrat, echoed Mr. Schiff’s sentiments, dismissing several of the issues that Mr. Nunes has raised as political distractions.
Mr. Himes said the initial unmasking accusations were a “nakedly political thing.”
Partisan infighting has become so bad on the committee that Republican and Democratic members expect to issue two different reports after nearly a year of investigations into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.
Last month, Bloomberg reported that Republicans plan to conclude their Russia probe as early as February, when they will issue a “majority” report concluding that they have found no collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. The Democrats are expected to issue a minority report declaring that substantive evidence points to collusion — but that they didn’t have sufficient time to prove it.
Mr. Nunes, who rarely speaks to the press in the wake of last spring’s unmasking controversy, did discuss his suspicions of leaks and unmasking during a Fox News interview last week after being cleared by the ethics panel.
“I hate to use the word corrupt,” he said, “but [the FBI and the Justice Department have] become at least so dirty that who is watching the watchmen? Who is investigating these people? There is no one.”