House Intel Sends Unmasking Subpoenas As Russia Probe Escalates

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., left, speaks to reporters in the Capitol in Washington, Friday, March 24, 2017.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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As the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election heats up—with a new round of subpoenas sent to associates of President Donald Trump—some committee members reportedly are attempting to push the probe in a different direction.

The panel this week also subpoenaed the National Security Agency, the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency, demanding information on why the names of Trump campaign and transition staffers who communicated with Russian officials appeared un-redacted, or “unmasked,” in intelligence reports that were later leaked to the press.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the committee is specifically seeking records regarding unmasking requests that may have been made by former national security adviser Susan Rice, former CIA Director John Brennan and former ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. The subpoenas went to the agencies and not to those individuals personally, and it’s unclear whether requests for the same information were sent out prior to the subpoenas.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said Thursday on MSNBC that no Democratic members of the committee were involved with or even informed of that move, which he said was spearheaded by the panel’s Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA).

“We weren’t consulted,” he said.

Nunes stepped down from leading the panel’s Russia investigation in April, after the House Ethics Committee launched its own investigation into allegations Nunes mishandled classified documents. But recent reports revealed that despite this quasi-recusal, Nunes has continued to review classified material related to the Russia probe and retains the power to issue subpoenas. Schiff said Thursday that he believes Nunes is violating his recusal from Russia probe by doing so.

A senior House Intelligence Committee aide told TPM that by issuing the subpoenas, Nunes was “acting separately from the Committee’s Russia investigation,” adding: “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 GOP aide emphasized this divide to the Wall Street Journal, saying that “the unmasking investigation was now considered separate from the Russia probe, allowing Mr. Nunes to act on his own.”

As the Russia investigation has consumed Washington, congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump have repeatedly attempted to shift the focus to questions about “unmasking,” charging that Obama administration officials intentionally revealed the names for political reasons. Trump tweeted Thursday that it was “the big story” and deserved more attention than Russian election meddling.

Schiff said on CNN Thursday of Nunes’ new subpoenas: “I have to conclude this is part of the White House effort to direct attention in another direction” as the Russia probe intensifies. He added that he has raised concerns about Nunes’ involvement to House Speaker Paul Ryan.

National security experts have repeatedly emphasized that the alleged unmasking in question is neither rare nor necessarily nefarious. Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that in 2016 alone, nearly 2,000 names of U.S. citizens were unmasked. He described it as a routine practice that helps agents “fully understand the context of the communication and the potential threat being posed.”

Schiff said Thursday that he did not understand the necessity of issuing the subpoenas other than “publicity.”

“I think the agencies are cooperating with us and have not attempted to withhold any information from us,” he said. “I don’t see the point. They’re working in good faith with us.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.

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