In a sometimes contradictory and confusing press conference held in a Capitol Hill hallway on Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes suggested that at least one US intelligence agency had “incidentally” intercepted a large amount of communications between Donald Trump’s transition team and foreign officials. At one point, Nunes appeared to suggest that then-president-elect Trump’s own communications might have been intercepted.
“I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions the Intelligence Community incidentally collected information about US citizens involved in the Trump transition,” Nunes read from a prepared statement at the beginning of his press conference.
“Details about US persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting. Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. And fourth and finally, I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or the investigation of Russian activities or the Trump team.”
Without explaining exactly how he had acquired the information, Nunes said that he had been given access to “dozens” of intelligence reports compiled between November of last year and January.
He said that the information related to Trump and his team had been obtained by intelligence agencies legally as part of legitimate foreign intelligence operations. Nunes also stressed that the collection was incidental, meaning that Trump and his associates were not the original targets of the surveillance but were communicating with one or more targets.
Nunes said that despite the legality of the collection, he was troubled by the fact that the information was retained, shared among intelligence agencies, and that the names of at least some of the individuals whose communications were picked up were identified in the shared reports.
“The House Intelligence Committee will thoroughly investigate surveillance and its subsequent dissemination to determine...who was aware of it, why it was not disclosed to Congress, who requested and authorized the additional unmasking, whether anyone directed the intelligence community to focus on Trump associates, and whether any laws, regulations or procedures were violated,” he said.
Despite repeating that the information was collected incidentally, though, Nunes repeatedly used language suggesting that the surveillance was somehow directed against Trump. At one point, he said, “I was concerned that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.”
When a reporter asked if he believed that the intelligence agencies were “spying” on the president-elect, Nunes responded coyly, saying the answer depended on one’s definition of “spying.”
In one extended exchange, Nunes said that Trump’s own communications had been intercepted, before backtracking.
Questioner: Was the president also part of that incidental collection? His communications?
Questioner 2: Let me just clarify. The President of the United States’ personal communications were intercepted --
Nunes: Well, I think we have to...when we talk about intelligence products here we have to be very careful. From what I know right now, it looks like incidental collection. We don’t know exactly how that was picked up, but we’re trying to get to the bottom of it.
Questioner 2: The president of the United States personal communications were subject to incidental collection, not in specific targeting.
Nunes: It’s possible. We won’t know until we get the information on Friday, and that’s why, look, I think the NSA is going to comply. I am concerned that we don’t know whether or not the FBI is going to comply. I’ve placed a call I’m waiting to hopefully talk to director Comey later today.
Another reporter quickly returned to the subject for clarification.
Questioner 3: You said the president’s communications were incidentally collected. But then you said it was also “possible.” So was it collected or was it possible it was collected?
Nunes: I just don’t know the answer to that.
Questioner 3: So you don’t know if the president’s communications were --
Nunes: I know there was incidental collection regarding the president-elect and his team. I don’t know if it was physically a phone call.
Questioner 3: And you don’t know if it was the president himself, his communications.
Nunes: I do not.
Questioner 4: Mr. Chairman did the president’s conversations or anything about the president himself appear in the intelligence reports? Is that what you’re saying?
Nunes: I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show that the president-elect and his team were, I guess, at least monitored and disseminated out in intelligence in what appears to be raw -- I shouldn’t say raw -- but intelligence reporting channels. As best as I can say that until I get all the information that we’ve requested.
Whether justified or not, the announcement from Nunes will likely be seized upon by the president’s supporters as the vindication of Trump, who has accused his predecessor, former president Barack Obama, of ordering a wiretap on his offices at Trump Tower. At a hearing before Nunes’ committee on Monday, FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers, both denied that any such order had been -- or could have been -- given.
By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, Nunes had traveled to the White House to brief administration staff.