Members of the Donald Trump transition team, possibly including Trump himself, were under U.S. government surveillance following November’s presidential election, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told reporters Wednesday.
Nunes said the monitoring appeared to be done legally as a result of what’s called “incidental collection,” but said he was concerned because it was not related to the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and was widely disseminated across the intelligence community.
“I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show that the president-elect and his team were, I guess, at least monitored,” Nunes told reporters. “It looks to me like it was all legally collected, but it was essentially a lot of information on the president-elect and his transition team and what they were doing.”
Nunes said he is heading to the White House later Wednesday to brief Trump on what he has learned, which he said came from “sources who thought that we should know it.” He said he was trying to get more information by Friday from the FBI, CIA and NSA.
Nunes described the surveillance as most likely being “incidental collection.” This can occur when a person inside the United States communicates with a foreign target of U.S. surveillance. In such cases, the identities of U.S. citizens are supposed to be kept secret — but can be “unmasked” by intelligence officials under certain circumstances.
Nunes said his new information appears to show that additional members of the Trump transition team — beyond former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — were unmasked. This means they were identified in U.S. intelligence reports.
He said the information that he had seen and was disseminated across the intelligence community appeared to him to have “little or no apparent intelligence value.”
He also said he did not know yet whether the Trump transition team members who were unmasked were communicating from Trump Tower. Earlier this month, Trump claimed in a series of Tweets that former President Barack Obama ordered a wiretap of the phones at Trump Tower — something Nunes reiterated on Wednesday he had no evidence of.
Democratic Rep. David Cicilline knocked Nunes on Twitter for his decision to brief the White House on his findings — noting that Nunes is leading a congressional investigation into possible collusion between the Trump team and Russia.
“Investigators are not supposed to ‘brief’ the folks being investigated,” the Rhode Island congressman said.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, Nunes’ Democratic counterpart on the intelligence panel, was not informed of the news ahead of Nunes’ press conference on Wednesday, according to a Schiff spokesman.
Nunes said he briefed House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on the information on Wednesday morning.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer read from Nunes’ statement during his opening remarks at a press briefing Wednesday, showing how eager Trump’s team was to amplify the remarks.
Spicer said he was concerned about Trump transition team members being unmasked.
“An American citizen who’s caught up in a surveillance has, by rule of law, has their name protected,” he told reporters. “The idea that individuals’ names were unmasked and let known suggests — raises serious questions. Why was that name unmasked, what was the intention of doing that?”
The Intelligence panel is set to hold a public hearing next Tuesday with members of the Obama administration, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired by Trump in January after refusing to defend his first travel ban executive order in court.
They are almost certain to face questions on the matter.
FBI Director James Comey appeared before the panel on Monday and confirmed that the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation in July into Russia’s election meddling, including possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
It was previously known that Flynn’s pre-inauguration phone calls with Russia’s ambassador were intercepted by the U.S. government; he resigned last month after it became clear he misled his colleagues about the nature of the calls.
Nunes has said Flynn’s calls were picked up through incidental collection and said his committee is investigating why Flynn’s name was unmasked and leaked to the news media.
By AUSTIN WRIGHT