Nunes, sidelined from Russia probe, launches one into ‘unmasking’ of Americans

President Donald Trump at the White House on May 31, 2017.
President Donald Trump at the White House on May 31, 2017. AP

The embattled head of the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday appeared to have launched an investigation of his own, this one into allegations that senior Obama administration officials improperly “unmasked” the identities of Trump associates captured communicating with foreign officials.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the committee, created a stir in March when he told reporters he’d seen secret documents that backed President Donald Trump’s claims that President Barack Obama had “wiretapped” his offices.

Nunes, who had been a member of Trump’s transition team, made the allegations just two days after then FBI director James Comey shocked Washington by revealing in a public hearing that his agency had been probing possible collusion of Trump associates with Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

In the end, the source of the documents turned out to be the White House, and Nunes stepped away from the Russia probe when the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating Nunes himself for revealing classified information.

On Wednesday, various news outlets reported that the intelligence committee had subpoenaed three former Obama administration officials to address Nunes’ allegations. The reports identified the three as former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former CIA Director John Brennan.

Speaker Paul Ryan called the ethics charges a “distraction” and said he supported House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’ decision to step aside from leading the investigation into Russia's election interference.

But House Intelligence committee staff members would not confirm the reports, and one said whatever subpoenas might have been issued were not part of the committee’s Russia probe and had not been approved by the Democrats on the committee.

“If the reports are accurate, subpoenas related to the ‘unmasking’ issue would have been sent by Chairman Nunes acting separately from the committee’s Russia investigation,” the senior aide wrote in an email. “This action would have been taken without the minority’s agreement. Any prior requests for information would have been undertaken without the minority’s knowledge.”

Another aide disputed that account, saying that “the minority was fully informed and consulted in accordance with committee rules.”

Both aides declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.

This action would have been taken without the Minority's agreement. Any prior requests for information would have been undertaken without the Minority's knowledge

A senior committee aide

That Nunes has launched a new investigation into a process called “unmasking” at this time is somewhat surprising. While Nunes remains the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he has removed himself from the committee’s highest profile effort, investigating the Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the possible collusion of the Trump campaign.

Nunes took that step in April on the same day that the House Ethics Committee announced an inquiry into whether he had improperly disclosed secrets when he held a news conference in March to discuss the documents that underpin the investigation he appears now to be opening. The ethics panel said in a statement that it was trying to determine if Nunes had violated “House rules, law, regulations or other standards of conduct.”

Nunes’ problems began after Trump had tweeted the wiretapping allegations. Those claims were widely dismissed, on both sides of the aisle. But as part of the effort to investigate the president’s claims, Nunes had gone to the White House to view intelligence documents that he said appeared to unmask Americans, including the president and possibly members of his administration and campaign team. He said at the time that he had concerns about the way some people were dealt with in the intelligence reports.

Unmasking refers to an internal process within the classified world by which names the names of Americans that are collected while another target is being spied upon are uncovered at the request of intelligence agencies. The names of unmasked individuals remain hidden from the public as the material remains classified.

Nunes had then returned to Congress, and held a news conference saying that he would need to brief the president on materials, which, it was later revealed, had orginated with the president’s inner circle. That soon led to calls from Democrats, and eventually Republicans, that Nunes should consider stepping aside in the Russian investigation.

Nunes has been largely unseen in Washington since he recused himself from the probe, and the issuance of subpoenas is his highest profile action since stepping aside.

House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Nunes (R-Calif.) blindsided ranking member Rep. Schiff (D-Calif.) with the announcement that he was canceling open hearings with FBI director James Comey over the inquiry into Russian involvement with the

Matthew Schofield: 202-383-6066, @mattschodcnews