Intel panel launches probe of Trump leaks

The House Intelligence Committee has taken the first public step in its investigation into intelligence community leaks involving aides to President Trump, pressing three agencies to provide information on spying involving 2016 campaign associates.

Committee heads Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Adam SchiffAdam SchiffOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Democrat: Trump only loyal to the 'pro-Trump' party Sunday shows preview: Trump officials gear up for UN assembly MORE (D-Calif.) revealed Wednesday that they are pressing the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) on aides who may have been spied on through a loophole in U.S. surveillance law and were then subsequently “unmasked” and exposed to the media.

The demand formalizes Nunes’s promise to investigate media leaks of sensitive information, and his recently expressed concern over backdoor surveillance of Americans.

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Nunes pointed to former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign last month after leaked surveillance of his phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak revealed that he had misled Vice President Pence about a discussion of U.S. sanctions.

“We know for a fact that incidental collection on General Flynn was picked up,” Nunes told reporters.

“I remain concerned that there was additional incidental collection that we are not aware of," Nunes said. "If additional names were unmasked, we’re going to have to understand, were proper procedures followed and did official names get leaked to the media?”

Nunes and Schiff set a Friday deadline for FBI Director James Comey, CIA head Mike Pompeo and NSA head Michael Rogers to provide the information they request in their letter.

The request specifically demands the names of any Americans whose identities were “disseminated in response to requests from [intelligence community] agencies, law enforcement, or senior Executive Branch officials … that relate to Presidential candidates Donald J. Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton and their associates in 2016.”

It also demands the names of any agencies or executive branch officials that requested or authorized the disclosure and dissemination of those names — as well as the recipients of that information.

Nunes said that the committee would “most likely” subpoena for the information if it does not receive a response by Friday.

Both Comey and Rogers are set to testify Monday in the first open hearing in the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the election, lawmakers announced Wednesday.

U.S. surveillance law largely prohibits spying on U.S. citizens, but a commonly used loophole allows intelligence agencies to collect, search and share Americans’ communications — without a warrant — that are caught up “incidentally” in legal surveillance of foreigners.

The only major requirement is that the U.S. person cannot be the “target” of the initial surveillance.

Experts widely believe that this is how the content of Flynn’s Dec. 29 calls to Kislyak came to the attention of Justice Department officials, who informed the White House in February.

The details of those calls were first reported by The Washington Post.

The Intelligence Committee is also demanding that the Justice Department provide evidence for Trump’s claim that former President Obama “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the campaign, under threat of subpoena. Both lawmakers emphasized Wednesday that they have seen no evidence Trump was directly surveilled.

“We don't have any evidence that [wiretapping] took place,” Nunes said. “I don't think it was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”

But while Nunes said that it is “very possible” that the president himself could be one of the names swept up through incidental collection — telling reporters that “we should know that by Friday” — Schiff insisted that the question of inappropriate use of Americans’ information by intelligence agencies was not related to Trump’s claims.

“I want to underscore that this is a separate matter from whether the president’s allegations have any truth,” he said. “While we’re talking about both these issues, the two are not related in the sense that there’s no evidence that there was a wiretap of Trump and his associates in Trump Tower."

The divergence hinted at a delicate bipartisan compromise in the highly charged probe.

The two committee heads stood stiffly next to one another throughout the press conference, each providing answers through two subtly different lenses.

While Democrats have pushed for a major investigation into whether any Trump campaign associates had any contact with Moscow during the election, Republicans have argued that the graver concern is the surveillance of Americans and the leaking of classified information to the media.

The committee has agreed to investigate both, according to a formal document outlining the objectives of the investigation.