It’s 105 degrees as I stand with Rep. Devin Nunes on his family’s dairy farm. Mr. Nunes has been feeling even more heat in Washington, where as chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence he has labored to unearth the truth about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s activities during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. Thanks in large part to his work, we now know that the FBI used informants against Donald Trump’s campaign, that it obtained surveillance warrants based on opposition research conducted for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and that after the election Obama administration officials “unmasked” and monitored the incoming team.
Mr. Nunes’s efforts have provoked extraordinary partisan and institutional fury in Washington—across the aisle, in the FBI and other law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, in the media. “On any given day there are dozens of attacks, each one wilder in its claims,” he says. Why does he keep at it? “First of all, because it’s my job. This is a basic congressional investigation, and we follow the facts,” he says. The “bigger picture,” he adds, is that in “a lot of the bad and problematic countries” that Intelligence Committee members investigate, “this is what they do there. There is a political party that controls the intelligence agencies, controls the media, all to ensure that party stays in power. If we get to that here, we no longer have a functioning republic. We can’t let that happen.”
Mr. Nunes, 44, was elected to Congress in 2002 from Central California. He joined the Intelligence Committee in 2011 and delved into the statutes, standards and norms that underpin U.S. spying. That taught him to look for “red flags,” information or events that don’t feel right and indicate a deeper problem. He noticed some soon after the 2016 election.
Devin Nunes, Washington’s Public Enemy No. 1
The first: Immediately after joining the Trump transition team, Mr. Nunes faced an onslaught of left-wing claims that he might be in cahoots with Vladimir Putin. It started on social media, though within months outlets such as MSNBC were openly asking if he was a “Russian agent.” “I’ve been a Russia hawk going way back,” he says. “I was the one who only six months earlier had called the Obama administration’s failure to understand Putin’s plans and intentions the largest intelligence failure since 9/11. So these attacks, surreal—big red flag.”
Mr. Nunes would later come to believe the accusations marked the beginning of a deliberate campaign by Obama officials and the intelligence community to discredit him and sideline him from any oversight effort. “This was November. We, Republicans, still didn’t know about the FBI’s Trump investigation. But they did,” he says. “There was concern I’d figure it out, so they had to get rid of me.”
A second red flag: the sudden rush by a small group of Obama officials to produce a new intelligence assessment two weeks before President Trump’s inauguration, claiming the Russians had acted in 2016 specifically to elect Mr. Trump. “Nobody disagrees the Russians were trying to muddy up Hillary Clinton. Because everyone on the planet believed—including the Russians—she was going to win,” Mr. Nunes says. So it “made no sense” that the Obama administration was “working so hard to make the flip argument—to say ‘Oh, no, no: This was all about electing Trump.’ ” The effort began to make more sense once that rushed intelligence assessment grew into a central premise behind the theory that Mr. Trump’s campaign had colluded with the Russians.
January 2017 also brought then-FBI Director James Comey’s acknowledgment to Congress—the public found out later—that the bureau had been conducting a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign since the previous summer, and that Mr. Comey had actively concealed the probe from Congress. Months earlier, when Mr. Nunes had seen media stories alluding to a Trump investigation, he’d dismissed them. “We’re supposed to get briefed,” he says. “Plus, I was thinking: ‘Comey, FBI, they’re good people and would never do this in an election. Nah.’ ”
When the facts came out, Mr. Nunes was stunned by the form the investigation took. For years he had been central in updating the laws governing surveillance, metadata collection and so forth. “I would never have conceived of FBI using our counterintelligence capabilities to target a political campaign. If it had crossed any of our minds, I can guarantee we’d have specifically written, ‘Don’t do that,’ ” when crafting legislation, he says. “Counterintelligence is looking at people trying to steal our nation’s secrets or working with terrorists. This if anything would be a criminal matter.”
Then there was the Christopher Steele dossier, prepared for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign by the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS. Top congressional Republicans got a January 2017 briefing about the document, which Mr. Comey later described as “salacious and unverified.” Mr. Nunes remembers Mr. Comey making one other claim. “He said Republicans paid for it. Not true.” Mr. Nunes recalls. “If they had informed us Hillary Clinton and Democrats paid for that dossier, I can guarantee you that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan would have laughed and walked out of that meeting.” The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website funded by hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, had earlier hired Fusion GPS to do research on Mr. Trump, but the Beacon’s editors have said that assignment did not overlap with the dossier.
All these red flags were more than enough to justify a congressional investigation, yet Mr. Nunes says his sleuthing triggered a new effort to prevent one. He had been troubled in January 2017 when newspapers published leaked conversations between Mike Flynn, Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, and the Russian ambassador. The leak, Mr. Nunes says, involved “very technical collection, nearly the exact readouts.” It violated strict statutory rules against “unmasking”—revealing the identities of Americans who are picked up talking to foreigners who are under U.S. intelligence surveillance.
Around the time of the Flynn leak, Mr. Nunes received tips that far more unmasking had taken place. His sources gave him specific document numbers to prove it. Viewing them required Mr. Nunes to travel in March to a secure reading room on White House grounds, a visit his critics would then spin into a false claim that he was secretly working with Mr. Trump’s inner circle. They also asserted that his unmasking revelations amounted to an unlawful disclosure of classified information.
That prompted a House Ethics Committee investigation. In April 2017, Mr. Nunes stepped aside temporarily from the Russia-collusion piece of his inquiry, conveniently for those who wished to forestall its progress. Not until December did the Ethics Committee clear Mr. Nunes. “We found out later,” he says, “that four of the five Democrats on that committee had called for me to be removed before this even got rolling.”
Meantime, the Intelligence Committee continued the Russia-collusion probe without Mr. Nunes. In October 2017 news finally became public that the Steele dossier had been paid for by the Clinton campaign. This raised the question of how much the FBI had relied on opposition research for its warrant applications, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to spy on onetime Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Throughout the fall, the Justice Department refused to comply with Intel Committee subpoenas for key dossier and FISA documents.
By the end of the year, Mr. Nunes was facing off with the Justice Department, which was given a Jan. 3, 2018, deadline to comply with Congress’s demands for information. The New York Times quoted unnamed government officials who claimed the Russia investigation had hinged not on the dossier but on a conversation with another low-level Trump aide, George Papadopoulos. The next day, the Washington Post ran a story asserting—falsely, Mr. Nunes insists—that even his Republican colleagues had lost confidence in him. “So, a leak about how the dossier doesn’t matter after all, and another saying I’m out there alone,” he says. “And right then DOJ and FBI suddenly demand a private meeting with the speaker, where they try to convince him to make me stand down. All this is not a coincidence.”
But Mr. Ryan backed Mr. Nunes, and the Justice Department produced the documents. The result was the Nunes memo, released to the public in February, which reported that the Steele dossier had in fact “formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application”—and that the FBI had failed to inform the FISA court of the document’s partisan provenance. “We kept the memo to four pages,” Mr. Nunes says. “We wanted it clean. And we thought: That’s it, it’s over. The American public now knows that they were using dirt to investigate a political campaign, a U.S. citizen, and everyone will acknowledge the scandal.” That isn’t what happened. Instead, “Democrats put out their own memo, the media attacked us more, and the FBI and DOJ continue to obfuscate.”
It got worse. This spring Mr. Nunes obtained information showing the FBI had used informants to gather intelligence on the Trump camp. The Justice Department is still playing hide-and-seek with documents. “We still don’t know how many informants were run before July 31, 2016”—the official open of the counterintelligence investigation—“and how much they were paid. That’s the big outstanding question,” he says. Mr. Nunes adds that the department and the FBI haven’t done anything about the unmaskings or taken action against the Flynn leakers—because, in his view, “they are too busy working with Democrats to cover all this up.”
He and his committee colleagues in June sent a letter asking Mr. Trump to declassify at least 20 pages of the FISA application. Mr. Nunes says they are critical: “If people think using the Clinton dirt to get a FISA is bad, what else that’s in that application is even worse.”
Mr. Nunes has harsh words for his adversaries. How, he asks, can his committee’s Democrats, who spent years “worrying about privacy and civil liberties,” be so blasé about unmaskings, surveillance of U.S. citizens, and intelligence leaks? On the FBI: “I’m not the one that used an unverified dossier to get a FISA warrant,” Mr. Nunes says. “I’m not the one who obstructed a congressional investigation. I’m not the one who lied and said Republicans paid for the dossier. I’m just one of a few people in a position to get to the bottom of it.” And on the press: “Today’s media is corrupt. It’s chosen a side. But it’s also making itself irrelevant. The sooner Republicans understand that, the better.”
His big worry is that Republicans are running out of time before the midterm elections, yet there are dozens of witnesses still to interview. “But this was always the DOJ/FBI plan,” he says. “They are slow-rolling, because they are wishing and betting the Republicans lose the House.”
Still, he believes the probe has yielded enough information to chart a path for reform: “We need more restrictions on what you can use FISAs for, and more restrictions on unmaskings. And we need real penalties for those who violate the rules.” He says his investigation has also illuminated “the flaws in the powers of oversight, which Congress need to reinstate for itself.”
Mostly, Mr. Nunes feels it has been important to tell the story. “There are going to be two histories written here. The fiction version will come from an entire party, and former and even current intelligence heads, and the media, who will continue trying to cover up what they did,” he says. “It’s our job, unfortunately, to write the nonfiction.”
Monday, July 30, 2018
Devin Nunes, The Swamp’s Public Enemy No. 1
from the WSJ