Ethics panel opens investigation into Nunes
The House Ethics Committee announced Thursday that it is investigating whether Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) made unauthorized disclosures of classified information while overseeing his panel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
A joint statement from House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Ted Deutch (Fla.), said the investigation will focus on whether Nunes violated federal law and the chamber’s rules during a press conference where he announced that intelligence agencies incidentally collected information about associates of President Trump.
Nunes pointed to the House Ethics Committee investigation earlier Thursday when explaining his decision to temporarily step aside from the Russia investigation.
He noted that multiple “leftwing activist groups” had filed complaints against him to the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Liberal groups including MoveOn.Org, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Democracy 21 asked OCE to investigate whether Nunes disclosed classified information.
“The disclosure of this information by Chairman Nunes was evidently intended to try to lend some credence to President Trump’ claims that former President Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped — claims that have been repeatedly been shown to be absolutely baseless, as confirmed by FBI Director Comey in his testimony before Chairman Nunes’ own committee,” MoveOn.org’s ethics complaint read.
“In his quest to assist President Trump politically, however, it appears that Chairman Nunes has committed serious violations of law and House Rules.”
Nunes rejected the allegations but said he believes it’s “in the best interests of the House Intelligence Committee and the Congress” for him to step aside from the Russia investigation.
“The charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to the learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power,” Nunes said in a statement.
“I will continue to fulfill all my other responsibilities as Committee Chairman, and I am requesting to speak to the Ethics Committee at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims.”
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) will take the lead on the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation in Nunes’s place, with assistance from Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.). Gowdy previously led the select House committee’s investigation of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
OCE typically reviews allegations from outside organizations or individuals to determine whether they have merit before launching an investigation. It then refers its conclusions to the House Ethics Committee for review, which can then decide to establish its own review.
In the case of Nunes, the Ethics Committee began an investigation without waiting for OCE to take up the matter. The Ethics Committee’s rules allow it to “consider any information in its possession” that lawmakers may have violated the law or House rules, even if there isn’t necessarily a filed complaint.
The Ethics Committee statement on Thursday made a reference to the complaints made to OCE, saying it is “aware of public allegations that Representative Devin Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”
In March, Nunes made a surprise announcement that he had uncovered evidence that information on President Trump’s transition team had been incidentally swept up in legal U.S. surveillance.
Nunes provided few details about what, precisely, he had seen, but the startling disclosure immediately raised concerns amongst some lawmakers who said that, by even disclosing the existence of the intercepts, he had inappropriately revealed classified information.
“Rep. Nunes’s statements would appear to be revealing classified information and that obviously would be a very serious concern,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters.
Nunes has said it “appears” that the intercepts were collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
But FISA materials are considered classified until explicitly declassified by the agency that made the original designation. If the National Security Agency (NSA) or the FBI had not declassified whatever records that Nunes referred to, intelligence law experts say, it’s possible that he illegally exposed classified information.
Further, onlookers point out, Nunes likely would have been aware of that fact as chair of the Intelligence Committee.
“All FISA applications reviewed by the court and collection by us pursuant to our FISA authority is classified,” FBI Director James B. Comey told the House Intelligence Committee just days before Nunes’s disclosure.
– This story was updated at 11:38 a.m.