White House won't say if it fed Nunes info

Ad­min­is­tra­tion in­vites law­mak­ers to ex­am­ine clas­si­fied doc­u­ments.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Pace and Eileen Sul­li­van

The White House WASH­ING­TON — re­fused to say Thurs­day whether it se­cretly fed in­tel­li­gence re­ports to a top Re­pub­li­can in­ves­ti­gat­ing pos­si­ble co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Rus­sia and the 2016 Trump cam­paign.

Fend­ing off grow­ing crit­i­cism, the ad­min­is­tra­tion in­vited law­mak­ers from both par­ties to view clas­si­fied ma­te­rial it said re­lates to sur­veil­lance of the pres­i­dent’s as­so­ciates.

The White House’s in­vi­ta­tion let­ter came amid a quickly ris­ing storm over Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who heads the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. Two White House aides se­cretly helped Nunes ex­am­ine in­tel­li­gence in­for­ma­tion last week, ac­cord­ing to U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

The House panel’s work has been deeply, and per­haps ir­repara­bly, un­der­mined by Nunes’ ap­par­ent co­or­di­na­tion with the White House. He told re­porters last week that he had seen trou­bling in­for­ma­tion about the im­proper distri­bu­tion of Trump as­so­ciates’ in­ter­cepted com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and he briefed the pres­i­dent on the ma­te­rial, all be­fore in­form­ing Rep. Adam Schiff, the

com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat.

Speak­ing on Capi­tol Hill Thurs­day, Schiff, D-Calif., said he was “more than will­ing” to ac­cept the White House of­fer to view new in­for­ma­tion. But he raised con­cerns that Trump of­fi­cials may have used Nunes to “laun­der in­for­ma­tion to our com­mit­tee to avoid the true source.”

“The White House has a lot of ques­tions to an­swer,” he de­clared.

The White House con­tin­ued to side­step queries about its role in show­ing Nunes clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion that ap­pears to have in­cluded tran­scripts of for­eign of­fi­cials dis­cussing Trump’s tran­si­tion to the pres­i­dency, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials. In­tel­li­gence agen­cies rou­tinely mon­i­tor the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of for­eign of­fi­cials liv­ing in the U.S., though the iden­ti­ties of Amer­i­cans swept up in that col­lec­tion is sup­posed to be pro­tected.

Mean­while, the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee held its own hear­ing, a less com­bat­ive af­fair in which Rus­sia ex­perts from uni­ver­si­ties, think tanks and else­where de­scribed a se­ri­ous at­tempt to med­dle in the U.S. elec­tion — and ef­forts in France and Ger­many as well. They also said Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda and fake news tar­geted not only the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, Hil­lary Clin­ton, but Trump’s GOP pri­mary op­po­nents, in­clud­ing Sens. Marco Ru­bio of Florida and Lind­sey Gra­ham of North Carolina and for­mer Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Clint Watts, of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Cy­ber and Home­land Se­cu­rity, said dur­ing a break in the hear­ing that the one con­stant of the Rus­sian cam­paign was “pump­ing up Trump.”

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin de­nied the al­le­ga­tions when ques­tioned at a fo­rum in the north­ern Rus­sian city of Arkhangelsk. In­ject­ing a bit of hu­mor, Putin an­swered the ques­tion of whether Rus­sia had in­ter­fered in the elec­tion by quot­ing a fa­mous 1992 line from Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush.

“Read my lips: No,” he said, pro­nounc­ing the last word in English for em­pha­sis.

In Wash­ing­ton early last week, White House of­fi­cials pri­vately en­cour­aged re­porters to look into whether in­for­ma­tion about Trump as­so­ciates had been im­prop­erly re­vealed in the in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing process. Days later, Nunes an­nounced that he had ev­i­dence, via an un­named source, show­ing that Trump and his aides’ com­mu­ni­ca­tions had been col­lected through le­gal means but then “widely dis­sem­i­nated” through­out gov­ern­ment agen­cies. He said the col­lec­tions were not re­lated to the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Thurs­day the ma­te­rial the White House wants the House and Se­nate in­tel­li­gence lead­ers to view was dis­cov­ered by the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in the course of reg­u­lar busi­ness. He would not say whether it was the same ma­te­rial Nunes had al­ready seen.

A con­gres­sional aide said Schiff did not re­ceive the White House let­ter un­til af­ter Spicer an­nounced it from the White House brief­ing room.

Spicer had pre­vi­ously dis­missed the no­tion that the White House had fun­neled in­for­ma­tion to Nunes, say­ing the idea that the con­gress­man would come and brief Trump on ma­te­rial the pres­i­dent’s team al­ready had “doesn’t pass the smell test.” The White House quickly em­braced Nunes’ rev­e­la­tions, say­ing they vin­di­cated Trump’s ex­plo­sive and un­ver­i­fied claim that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama wire­tapped his New York sky­scraper.

Nunes has said the in­for­ma­tion he re­ceived did not sup­port that al­le­ga­tion, which has also been dis­puted by Obama and top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

The White House of­fi­cials who played roles in help­ing Nunes view the ma­te­ri­als were iden­ti­fied as Ezra Co­hen-Wat­nick, the se­nior direc­tor for in­tel­li­gence at the White House Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, and Michael El­lis, a White House lawyer who pre­vi­ously worked on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

Co­hen-Wat­nick is among about a dozen White House of­fi­cials who would have ac­cess to the types of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion Nunes says he viewed. He has be­come a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in in­tel­li­gence cir­cles, but Trump de­cided to keep him on over the ob­jec­tions of the CIA and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser H.R. McMaster, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cials. They spoke only on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to com­ment pub­licly by name.

Co­hen-Wat­nick and Nunes both served on the Trump tran­si­tion team.

Stephen Slick, a for­mer CIA and NSC of­fi­cial, said it would be “highly un­usual and likely un­prece­dented” for a mem­ber of Con­gress to travel to the White House to view in­tel­li­gence re­ports “with­out prior au­tho­riza­tion.”

Nunes has re­peat­edly sidestepped ques­tions about who pro­vided him the in­tel­li­gence re­ports, though he point­edly has not de­nied that his sources were in the White House. House Speaker Paul Ryan, in an in­ter­view with CBS’ “This Morn­ing” that aired Thurs­day, said Nunes told him a “whistle­blower type per­son” pro­vided the in­for­ma­tion.

A spokesman for Ryan later said the speaker was not aware of Nunes’ source and con­tin­ues to have “full con­fi­dence” in the con­gress­man’s abil­ity to run the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

DOUG MILLS / NEW YORK TIMES

U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chair­man of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, is fac­ing crit­i­cism over his ap­par­ent co­or­di­na­tion with the White House.

SU­SAN WALSH / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Clint Watts (right) of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Cy­ber and Home­land Se­cu­rity tes­ti­fies Thurs­day be­fore the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee along­side Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace. Rus­sia’s elec­tion med­dling was about “pump­ing up Trump,” Watts said.

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