Intel Chair Devin Nunes unsure if Trump associates were directly surveilled

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes has raised more questions than answers.

ByABC News
March 23, 2017, 5:24 PM

— -- The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, R-Calif., does not know "for sure" whether President Donald Trump or members of his transition team were even on the phone calls or other communications now being cited as partial vindication for the president’s wiretapping claims against the Obama administration, according to a spokesperson.

"He said he'll have to get all the documents he requested from the [intelligence community] about this before he knows for sure," a spokesperson for Nunes said Thursday. Nunes was a member of the Trump transition team executive committee.

At a press conference yesterday, Nunes announced he obtained "dozens of reports" showing the U.S. intelligence community -- through its "normal foreign surveillance" -- "incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition."

But Nunes never said Trump or any of the president's associates personally participated in the communications that were intercepted.

Nevertheless, Nunes called it a "significant" development, and President Trump later said it "somewhat" vindicated his controversial Tweets two weeks ago alleging that President Obama wiretapped him and his campaign.

Based on the limited amount of information provided by Nunes so far, it's possible that foreign officials were overheard talking about Trump transition team members, one intelligence official speculated, as opposed to transition members participating directly in the communications.

It's also possible the information now cited by Nunes came from emails –- not phone calls –- intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies.

"We don't know exactly how it was picked up," Nunes acknowledged yesterday.

U.S. officials who spoke with ABC News said they assume the reports obtained by Nunes are summaries or other accounts of communications collected under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

That section allows the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the phone calls and emails of foreigners located overseas.

While foreigners are targeted by such surveillance, "it's actually unavoidable" that Americans will be caught up in it too, board member Rachel Brand, now nominated to be the number-three at the Justice Department under President Trump, said at a 2014 hearing of the government's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

In fact, "Congress knew full well when it passed Section 702 that incidental collection of communications of U.S. persons would occur when they're in communication with valid foreign targets," Robert Litt, then the Director of National Intelligence's top lawyer, told the board.

"And it's important to note," Litt continued, "that this kind of incidental collection occurs all the time in other contexts. ... When we seize someone's computer, we may find communications with persons who are not targets."

At his press conference yesterday, Nunes expressed concern that details about the Trump transition members "with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting," and at least some of those people were specifically identified –- or "unmasked" – in intelligence community documents.

But some of the government’s top intelligence officials, speaking at that March 2014 hearing, insisted such information about Americans is closely held and only distributed more widely when necessary.

"You can only disseminate information about a U.S. person if it is foreign intelligence, or necessary to understand foreign intelligence, or is evidence of a crime" that should be turned over to the FBI, according to Brad Wiegmann, who’s still a top attorney in the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

If it’s "key" for a foreign government to understand that 'Joe Smith' is a threat – that he's a "malicious cyber hacker" for example – "and it was key to know the information, then you might pass Joe Smith's name," Wiegmann said. "If it was incidentally in the communication but was not pertinent to the information you're trying to convey, then that would be deleted. It would just say ‘U.S. person.’ It would be blocked out."

So was the U.S. intelligence community spying on the Trump transition team?

"It all depends on one's definition of spying," Nunes said yesterday.

ABC News' John Parkinson contributed to this report.

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