Commentary Magazine

Intelligence Failure

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes recently found himself in an uncomfortable position: on the wrong side of Donald Trump.

“We have to move quickly to hold the attorney general of the United States in contempt, and that’s what I want to press for this week,” Nunes announced on the Fox News Channel last Sunday. This extraordinary comment followed his claim that Sessions had refused to comply with subpoenas related to the alleged abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, specifically regarding the multiple approvals for a warrant to surveil former Trump aid Carter Page.

The escalation of long-simmering hostilities between the Intelligence Committee chairman and the DOJ came as a surprise, but we soon learned what prompted this latest threat.

According to the Washington Post’s reporting, FBI and national intelligence officials appealed to the White House last week to support their efforts to prevent Nunes from taking possession of a cache of classified information he had requested. Why? Because that information exposed the identity of an American citizen who had served as a valuable FBI and CIA informant, and there was reason to believe that providing Nunes with that information could put lives at risk. In other words,  Nunes and his staffers could not be trusted not to leak that information. The Justice Department’s case against Nunes was apparently convincing enough that Trump agreed with it.

Multiple conclusions can be drawn from this episode. Absent a political context, and without anyone whispering in his ear about the perfidious Mueller probe (to which the informant in question had provided information), President Trump was persuaded by the claim that the HPSCI chairman could not be trusted with information that is explicitly within his purview. This intramural feud went public this week and instantly became just another political battlefield. The DOJ did its best to smooth over the brewing feud by inviting Nunes and his HPSCI colleague, outgoing Rep. Trey Gowdy, for a private briefing in a classified setting where everyone’s concerns could be addressed. But as the matter has become politicized, politics has come creeping back into the situation.

On Thursday, outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan sided with Nunes, saying that he sees no reason why the documents that the chairman requested should be withheld. After all, Nunes is the statutory officer representing the constitutional body with authority to oversee the Department of Justice. Whatever you might think of his conduct in office, this fact has not changed.

Yet Nunes’s conduct cannot be dismissed as inconsequential. There is no impartial assessment of his tenure as House Intelligence Committee chair in which he comes off as a competent steward of American national security or capable of the dispassionate oversight of the institutions that safeguard U.S. interests at home and abroad. The allegation that America’s intelligence services were abused and politicized in 2016 is a serious matter that demands sober investigation. Unfortunately for anyone concerned about the potential exploitation of the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Nunes has not served their interests well.

In his eagerness to substantiate Donald Trump’s claim that Barack Obama’s Justice Department had surveilled him personally in the 2016 campaign season, Nunes allowed himself to be a conduit through which the White House disseminated supposedly corroborating evidence and misled the public about the origins of that evidence. His behavior directly led to his reluctant recusal from 2016-related investigations. In the process, Nunes sacrificed his credibility and undermined his effectiveness in his role as HPSCI chairman. Those who supposedly advocate transparency and good governance should have been furious with Nunes. They should have demanded he step down from his position so that pivotal committee could benefit from effective leadership. But they did not.

In the interim and without ceremony, Nunes somehow managed to un-recuse himself from these investigations—sacrificing even more valuable credibility in the process. But, we were told, this was a necessary contravention of norms in service to a righteous cause. A memo detailing the alleged abuses of the FISA warrant process must be released to the public, Nunes and company insisted, even if the FBI and Trump-appointed officials at DOJ strenuously objected to its release. Nunes broke the glass on a previously unused parliamentary maneuver to expose that memo to the public, setting a precedent to which Democrats are sure to one day appeal. FBI Director Christopher Wray preemptively undermined the impact of that memo by condemning its “material omissions of fact” and its core claim: that the FISA court was misled into approving the initial Page warrant. Subsequently released evidence—evidence Nunes confirmed as genuine—later cast undeniable doubt on the validity of that claim, sapping the Intelligence Committee chairman of even more trustworthiness.

The partisan way in which Nunes has managed the HPSCI led to an outbreak of animus that has all but crippled his committee. In February, CBS News revealed that Nunes had floated the idea of constructing a physical partition between Democratic and Republican HPSCI staffers in the committee’s secure spaces. “The level of trust and the level of everything down there is–it’s poison,” said Intelligence Committee member Rep. Tom Rooney. “It’s absolute poison down there.”

Whether or not you think Nunes is primarily responsible for the breakdown of trust in this committee, all should agree that breakdown is intolerable. All clear-eyed Republicans should be able to concede without reservation, however, that Nunes has made a hash of their concerns. Sober-minded and often Trump-skeptical GOP legislators like Senators Lindsay Graham and Charles Grassley, and Rep. Trey Gowdy have claimed that something went terribly wrong in the effort to procure a warrant to monitor the communications of an American citizen. Regardless of how unsavory that American citizen’s behavior was, that allegation is extraordinarily troubling. Devin Nunes’s conduct has made him an obstacle in the way of the truth. That obstacle can and should be removed.

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