Colleague Mary Kissel of The Wall Street Journal editorial board and I discussed recently with Chairman Devin Nunes of the House Select Intelligence Committee the thinking behind the committee’s issuing subpoenas seeking details about unmaskings of American citizens that were requested by three senior Obama administration officials, former CIA director John Brennan, former national security adviser Susan Rice, and former UN ambassador Samantha Power.
“The subpoenas,” Nunes explained, “actually went to the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI, requesting specifically, of those three individuals that were named, the unmaskings they have done, that they did, from the time period of 2016, the entire year, leading up to Jan. 20 of this year.”
Quickly Nunes focused on the politics of the unmaskings.
“I can’t get into why we chose those individuals, but clearly this is just further escalation in the concern we have of the unmaskings of Americans by the senior leaders of the Obama administration. Americans that didn’t know about it, and, of course, potentially Trump transition officials.”
Nunes clarified his concerns.
“Every American is masked. The intelligence agencies are bound by law to mask all American citizens that get picked up in foreign collection. What has to happen, if you want to find out who the American is—there’s a process and procedure in place for that. It’s actually very uncommon in most cases, and seldom happens. But the concern I have had, that I expressed publicly, quite publicly, actually, a couple months ago, was that it became excessive. That Obama administration officials were unmasking people in the Trump transition, and it made me quite uncomfortable.”
Nunes explained why the subpoenas were needed: “We’ve been waiting since March 15 for that information. The intelligence agencies have been slow-rolling us, which is what led to these three subpoenas being issued.”
Asked if there are other Obama officials besides Brennan, Rice, and Power, Nunes responded, “So these individuals that we named are the ones we have particular interest in, but I can say that those are not the only ones we have interest in.”
Nunes provided the big picture as well as a suggestion of tension. “But look, we want to work with the intelligence agencies. We didn’t want to have to subpoena, but the process was moving way too slowly. So we picked these three individuals whom we have a particular interest in, and hopefully they [the agencies] are expedient. That they have till next week to give us the unmaskings that these three individuals have done. I think they know now that we are serious.”
Nunes expanded on the possibility of an “abuse of power” in the data. “The big problem here is that the people that run these programs are protecting the United States, protecting U.S. citizens from terrorist attacks, from other adversaries that we have around the globe, and we have to protect American citizens from being picked up in these types of foreign intelligence collections. However, what clearly has happened here—at a minimum—I don’t know if it’s illegal, but it’s clearly an abuse of power, that senior Obama administration officials would unmask someone.”
Nunes focused on the possibility of law-breaking, “But also, what is illegal—and I can’t say it was the Obama administration officials who did this—but we know that names were unmasked in intelligence products. And if you believe The Washington Post and The New York Times and NBC News, you know that names were unmasked, and intelligence was leaked, and Americans that were picked up in intelligence products were leaked out to the media.”
Asked specifically about former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose name was in the media as having been unmasked and leaked during the Obama term, Nunes carefully conveyed the possibility of crimes having been committed.
“We can’t confirm these stories are true, but if the press reports are true, then clearly people were unmasked out of intelligence products, and leaked out to the media. Which is what? A crime. It’s a crime to do that. So we’re trying to get to the bottom of these crimes, if in fact they were committed.”
Asked why the diplomat Power was included in the list with two intelligence officials, Nunes observed: “It would be very unusual for any ambassador under any circumstances, at any level, to unmask names of American citizens, no matter where they are serving, whether it’s the UN, or in the U.K., or in Germany, or in China. I think it would be very unusual for any ambassador to request an unmasking.”
Nunes indicated a troubled landscape ahead. “So I’m not going to get into what I know at this point, but I can tell you we would not be asking this if we didn’t have probable cause that there was an abuse of power.”
Asked if former FBI director James Comey has obstructed the investigation into the unmaskings, Nunes was blunt. “It’s unknown at this point. We will see whether or not the FBI produces the unmaskings that were done by these three individuals. If the FBI continues to not provide the information to Congress—or the NSA or CIA, for that matter—”
Nunes did not finish the thought.
Nunes’s tone deepened as he added that the primary reason the committee must solve the quandary of the unmaskings is that, by the end of 2017, Congress must vote on the extension of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, aka the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008.
“Look, the bottom line is that these programs are really important to the protection of the American people,” he said. “And everybody that works in intelligence agencies, they want to protect the American people. But I will tell you these programs are in jeopardy.
“Right now,” Nunes said, “there is no possible way we’d authorize the foreign intelligence program. We wouldn’t have the votes today.”
Nunes added: “Democrats typically don’t give us the votes, and I can tell you that most of my Republican colleagues wouldn’t give us the votes to extend these programs. So at the end of the day, America will be made less safe. Because people expect the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee—and my colleagues on the Intelligence Committee—to be able to inspect and provide oversight over names that senior administration officials unmasked. If they unmasked American citizens, people expect the Congress to know who they were unmasking.”
Asked if more former Obama officials beyond these three names are suspected of excessive unmaskings, Nunes was frank: “Oh, this is only the beginning. There are many more officials that we have concerns about abusing the intelligence programs.”
The subpoenas call for the information to be delivered by Wednesday, June 7, 2017.