Devin Nunes Has Disqualified Himself
"It's a bizarre situation," said Senator John McCain, and that's perhaps the only thing that can be said with certainty about Representative Devin Nunes's stunning disclosures on Wednesday.
Nunes is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which is ostensibly investigating Russia's meddling in the 2016 election to aid President Donald Trump. In two press conferences, Nunes said he had seen communications intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies that appeared to come from Trump's associates. He was, he said, "alarmed."
Yet what was most alarming here was the disclosure itself. Nunes's comments were loaded with insinuation but provided almost no evidence. He conceded that the intercepts in question were almost certainly legal. And he acknowledged that he had shared the material with the president, a putative target of his investigation, but not with the rest of the intelligence committee.
So what did he hope to achieve? Nunes implied that the "incidental collection" of the intercepts was something nefarious. But it isn't: Intelligence agencies often sweep up communications from Americans who have been in contact with foreign agents, then "minimize" the material to protect the identities of the innocent. This procedure is among the most heavily regulated in all of government.
If the identity of any of Trump's associates was "unmasked" and widely shared, as Nunes reported, then most likely either the conversations in question had foreign intelligence value, or American agents and their supervisors violated the rules. Either possibility is unsettling. Neither should be adjudicated in a press conference.
In disclosing all this publicly, Nunes has also undermined his party's credibility in criticizing the near-constant leaks that have afflicted this investigation from the start. If the information he divulged was classified, he may have committed a crime in the process.
It's likely that Nunes hoped to help the president politically, and to validate Trump's discredited assertion that his predecessor had unlawfully wiretapped him. If so, he failed on both counts. His grudging apology today notwithstanding, Nunes has made clear that he is no longer qualified to lead this investigation.
The best way to get to the bottom of Russia's interference in the election, and the question of whether any of Trump's associates colluded in that effort, is through an independent commission modeled on the panel that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks -- a bipartisan group, outside Congress, that could conduct public hearings, access classified material and produce a definitive report.
That would drain some of the political acrimony from the process, and ensure that the facts are aired publicly. It would allow Congress to get back to the people's business on other matters. And maybe -- just maybe -- it could prevent the Russia investigation from overwhelming the entire federal government. That last possibility, alas, gets less likely by the day.
--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Mary Duenwald
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