When The New York Times reported Thursday that two White House officials had shown House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) the classified reports he cited when publicly alleging that President Trump’s transition team communications had been incidentally collected during foreign surveillance, Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake took special note. Earlier in the week, Lake said, Nunes had "told me that his source for that information was an intelligence official, not a White House staffer. It turns out, he misled me."
Nunes was reportedly fed the classified intelligence by two Trump political appointees: National Security Council senior intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom Trump stopped National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster from firing, and White House national security lawyer Michael Ellis, who used to work for Nunes in the House. This revelation "is a body blow for Nunes, who presented his findings last week as if they were surprising to the White House," Lake writes. "It strains credulity to think that Trump would need Nunes to tell him about intelligence reports discovered by people who work in the White House."
But the real "tragedy" here, Lake says, is that "incidental collection" of U.S. citizens’ communications is a real concern and has been since Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA documents were revealed. Congress shouldn’t vote to reauthorize the surveillance laws in the fall, he argues, but "sadly, the merits of this case are undermined by how the White House and Nunes have made it."
Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who helped reveal the Snowden leaks, disagrees with Lake about the real story. "This is far more than a story of intelligence manipulation for political gain," he writes at The Century Foundation. Cohen-Watnick and Ellis almost certainly showed Nunes classified information he wasn’t even supposed to see, suggesting all three "engaged in precisely the behavior that the president describes as the true national security threat posed by the Russia debate." And from all available evidence, they — not intelligence agencies — requested that the names in the top secret intelligence be "unmasked," he said.
The biggest, most serious question, Gellman says, is this: "Why would a White House lawyer and the top White House intelligence adviser be requesting copies of these surveillance reports in the first place? Why would they go on to ask that the names be unmasked? … Were the president’s men using the surveillance assets of the U.S. government to track the FBI investigation from the outside?" You can read Gellman’s full argument at The Century Foundation. Peter Weber