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Spying claim by Intel chair renews fight over Russia probe

Updated: 2017-03-23 10:45
Spying claim by Intel chair renews fight over Russia probe

Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes (R-CA) questions FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers during a hearing into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, March 20, 2017. [Photo/Agencies]

WASHINGTON  — Private communications of Donald Trump and his presidential transition team may have been scooped up by American intelligence officials monitoring other targets and improperly distributed throughout spy agencies, the chairman of the House intelligence committee said Wednesday — an extraordinary public airing of often-secret information that brought swift protests from Democrats.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes' comments led the committee's ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff, to renew his party's calls for an independent probe of Trump campaign links to Russia in addition to the GOP-led panel's investigation. Schiff also said he had seen "more than circumstantial evidence" that Trump associates colluded with Russia.

In back-to-back news conferences at the Capitol and then the White House — where he had privately briefed the president — Nunes said he was concerned by officials' handling of the communications in the waning days of the Obama administration.

He said the surveillance was conducted legally and did not appear to be related to the current FBI investigation into Trump associates' contacts with Russia or with any criminal warrants. And the revelations, he said, did nothing to change his assessment that Trump's explosive allegations about wiretaps at Trump Tower were false.

Still, the White House immediately seized on his statements in what appeared to be a coordinated public display.

Moments after Nunes spoke on Capitol Hill, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer read his statements from the White House briefing room podium. The California congressman quickly headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to personally brief the president and to address reporters outside the West Wing. Nunes' decision to brief the president was particularly unusual, given Trump almost certainly has access to the information from his intelligence agencies.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said Nunes' disclosure could be a "weapon of mass distraction" in light of allegations of coordination between Russians and the Trump campaign during the 2016 campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

"This could be a lot of theatrics," said Speier, also a member of the House intelligence committee.

"This is a bizarre situation," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in an interview on MSNBC. "I'm calling for a select committee because I think this back-and-forth shows that Congress no longer has the credibility handle this alone."Outside the White House, Nunes said, "What I've read bothers me, and I think it should bother the president himself and his team."Trump said he felt "somewhat" vindicated by the Republican's revelations. "I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found," he said.

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