The White House is inviting Congressional Intelligence Committee members to view classified reports days after it shared sensitive information with a senior Congressman that apparently shows the Trump transition team was incidentally spied on during American foreign surveillance.
Rep. Devin Nunes, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, was allegedly shown the information by two White House officials.
On Thursday, The New York Times identified the pair as current government officials Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and White House Counsel Office lawyer Michael Ellis.
Nunes viewed classified records on White House grounds late on March 21. He said publicly the following day these showed "incidental" surveillance of "the president-elect and his team." President Donald Trump quickly used the comments to justify his claims that the Obama administration “wiretapped” his election campaign.
In tweets sent on March 4, Trump said Trump Tower in New York was illegally wiretapped by then President Barack Obama before the election in an illegal “Watergate” sized scandal. Both FBI Director James Comey and the Department of Justice have refuted that claim.
Cohen-Watnick was brought on to the White House staff by fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and was almost let go by Flynn’s successor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, in early March. Trump’s top aides, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, blocked the move.
Ellis recently served as a lawyer to the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Nunes. The committee is leading the House investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. American intelligence agencies say Russia used a series of leaks of hacked and stolen U.S. political party emails and a large-scale propaganda campaign waged on the internet. On March 20 the FBI’s Comey said the Trump campaign is being investigated for any contacts it had with Russian officials.
Rep. Nunes’ spokesman did not reply to a request for confirmation from Newsweek about whether the two men played a role in the California Republican’s late night trip to view the classified records at the White House.
After Cohen-Watnick and Ellis were alleged as Nunes’ sources, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Congressional Intelligence Committee members are now being invited to view “material that has been made come to light” at the White House.
“We want to make sure that the people who are conducting the review have that information, have access to it,” Spicer said, declining to comment on whether it was the same information seen by Nunes.
Nunes has refused to share the information that he was shown with his fellow committee members and early this week cancelled a series of hearings with top American intelligence figures who were set to testify for the House’s investigation of Russian election interference.
On Wednesday Spicer said he could not answer reporters’ questions about how Nunes got on White House grounds to review intelligence information and who he met with.
Congress is supposed to act as a check on the executive branch, but that isn’t happening in light of Nunes’ actions, critics said Thursday.
“The image I have in my head of the White House is of a runaway train,” said Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff at both the U.S. Department of Defense and CIA on MSNBC. “The brakes are out, and you pull your last, best hope — the emergency brake, the great Congress of the United States — and the handle literally breaks off in your hand: that is how much trouble we’re in.”
And Republican Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative National Review, said he finds it “almost inconceivable that young Mr. Cohen-Watnick and Mr. Ellis were acting on their own at the White House.”
“Sadly, the House Intelligence Committee Chairman is either unwilling or incapable of conducting a fair investigation,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-NY) on the House floor, urging that an independent Special Counsel investigate Russia’s intervention in the election.
“How can Mr. Nunes run this investigation if he is briefing the president before talking with members of his Committee?” she asked. “How can he secretly be in meetings with so-called ‘sources’ at the White House?”
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