WASHINGTON — Two White House officials helped provide Representative Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, with the intelligence reports that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by US spy agencies.
The revelation on Thursday that White House officials disclosed the reports, which Nunes then discussed with Trump, is likely to fuel criticism that the intelligence chairman has been too eager to do the bidding of the Trump administration while his committee is supposed to be conducting an independent investigation of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.
In a separate development Thursday, several news outlets reported that Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, offered to cooperate with investigators for the House and Senate intelligence committees in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Intelligence committee lawyers responded to Flynn’s offer with skepticism.
The Nunes development is the latest twist of a bizarre Washington drama that began after dark on March 21, when Nunes got a call from a person he has described only as a source. The call came as he was riding across town in an Uber car, and he quickly diverted to the White House. The next day, Nunes gave a hastily arranged news conference before running off to brief Trump on what he had learned the night before from — as it turns out — White House officials.
The chain of events — and who helped provide the intelligence to Nunes — was detailed to The New York Times by four US officials.
Since disclosing the existence of the intelligence reports, Nunes has refused to identify his sources, saying he needed to protect them so others would feel safe coming to the committee with sensitive information. In his public comments, he has described his sources as whistleblowers trying to expose wrongdoing at great risk to themselves.
That does not appear to be the case. Several current US officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and was previously counsel to Nunes’s committee. Though neither has been accused of breaking any laws, they do appear to have sought to use intelligence to advance the political goals of the Trump administration.
Jack Langer, a spokesman for Nunes, said in a statement, “As he’s stated many times, chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source’s identity, and he will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources.”
Cohen-Watnick, 30, is a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who served on the Trump transition team and was originally brought to the White House by Flynn, the former national security adviser. He was nearly pushed out of his job this month by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, who replaced Flynn as national security adviser, but survived after the intervention of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist.
The officials who detailed the newly disclosed White House role said that this month, shortly after Trump claimed on Twitter that he was wiretapped during the campaign on the orders of President Barack Obama, Cohen-Watnick began reviewing highly classified reports detailing intercepted communications of foreign officials.
There were conflicting accounts of what prompted Cohen-Watnick to dig into the intelligence. One official with direct knowledge of the events said Cohen-Watnick began combing through intelligence reports this month in an effort to find evidence that would justify Trump’s Twitter posts about wiretapping.
But another person who was briefed on the events said Cohen-Watnick came upon the information as he was conducting a review of how widely intelligence reports on intercepts were shared within the US spy agencies. He then alerted the NSC general counsel, but the official said Cohen-Watnick was not the person who showed the reports to Nunes.
The intelligence reports consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about how they were trying to develop contacts within Trump’s inner circle before his inauguration, officials said.
The officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the intelligence and to avoid angering Cohen-Watnick and Ellis. Officials say Cohen-Watnick has been reviewing the reports from his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the National Security Council is based.
Since disclosing the existence of the intelligence reports, Devin Nunes has refused to identify his sources.
The officials’ description of the intelligence is in line with Nunes’s characterization of the material, which he said was not related to the Russia investigations when he first disclosed its existence.
According to Nunes, who served on the Trump transition team, he met his source on the grounds of the White House. He said he needed a secure location where people with security clearances could legally view classified information, though such facilities could also be found in the Capitol building and at other locations across Washington.
The next day, Nunes gave a news briefing at the Capitol and then returned to the White House to brief Trump on the information before telling other committee members about what he had reviewed. His actions have fueled criticism that the committee, under his leadership, is unable to conduct a serious, independent investigation.
On Thursday, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he needed clarification on whether White House officials had pursued “a circuitous route” to feed Nunes the materials so he could then hand them to Trump.
“If that was designed to hide the origin of the materials, that raises profound questions about just what the White House is doing that need to be answered,” he said.
He later said he accepted an invitation on Thursday to review the same materials that Nunes had seen.
Yet even before Thursday, the view among Democrats and even some Republicans was that Nunes was given access to the intelligence reports to divert attention from the investigations into Russian meddling, and to bolster Trump’s debunked claims of having been wiretapped.
On both counts, Nunes appears to have succeeded: The House inquiry into Russian meddling that he is leading has descended into a sideshow since he disclosed the information, and the administration has portrayed his information as vindicating the president’s wiretapping claims.