The two NSC officials who provided intelligence to House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Congressman Devin Nunes are Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council staff, and Michael Ellis, are lawyer and NSC Counsel who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and who formerly worked on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee.
Mr. Cohen-Watnick is a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who was originally brought to the White House NSC staff by Lt. General Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser. Accordingly, shortly after President Trump wrote (tweeted) on Twitter about being “wiretapped” a euphemism for electronic surveillance, suspected to be on the orders of President Obama’s White House, Mr. Cohen-Watnick began reviewing highly classified reports. Those reports detailed the intercepted communications of foreign officials. The reports consisted primarily of communications of ambassadors and other foreign diplomats and officials talking about how they were trying to develop contacts within Mr. Trump’s family and inner circle in advance of his inauguration — a normal diplomatic practice by almost all foreign leaders in an effort to get to know the new administration and establish relationships at all levels. Critical in this investigation is the substance and actions discovered, not the process to determine any illegal activities by the Obama administration or to provide it to the investigating committee. Expectancy was of the essence and priority and protecting and safeguarding the sensitivity and level of classification of the information was second to none. The intelligence information revealed are the facts … period. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the intelligence community as a whole to provide and ensure any and all facts and evidence pertaining to any House or Senate Intelligence Committee that is conducting an ongoing investigation, gets to the committee. Since the two NSC staffers in their review and analysis of the highly classified information became aware of the specifics that were relevant to the current investigation by Chairman Nunes’ intelligence committee, they were in a sense obligated to notify and provide that information to the committee in the most secure and expedient way possible — that is paramount, and they ensured that happened.
Mr. Cohen-Watnick has been reviewing the reports from his fourth-floor office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the National Security Council is located and housed. The description of the highly classified intelligence information he was reviewing was again, in line with Chairman Nunes’s own characterization of the material, which he has said was not related to the Russia investigations when he disclosed its existence during his news conference last week, but in fact dealt with more serious and damaging problem with regard to the unmasking of American’s names that were collected in the intelligence surveillance, and subsequently leaked to the media for political the explicit purpose of politically wounding such Americans, in this case General Flynn. In addition, the House intelligence Committee is investigating the illegal use of electronic surveillance and of the collected intelligence containing the conversations and names of private American citizens, and their use for political purposes.
According to Chairman Nunes, he indicated he received a phone call from the mentioned source the night before, and subsequently went to meet the person on the grounds of the White House. He explained the choice of location by saying he needed access to a secure place where people with security clearances could legally view classified information, though similar facilities can also be found in the Capitol building and at other locations across Washington, the fact that due the level of finished intelligence and classification level cannot be sent to the Capitol computer network. This is not unusual, as members of both the House and Senate’s various committees that deal with national security, specifically the Intelligence Committee, the Armed Services Committees, and the Foreign Affairs Committees, regularly visit the White House and NSC staff to receive high level briefing on the various issues at hand. At the same time, when it is appropriate and depending on the levels of classification, NSC staffers regularly will coordinate with Congressional members offices to visit and provide briefing and updates on respective issues on related national security, threats, policy concerns, and foreign activities.
Accordingly, Chairman Nunes gave a press briefing at the Capitol and then returned to the White House to brief President Trump on the information. While Chairman Nunes has acknowledged that the incidental intelligence gathering on Trump associates last year was not necessarily unlawful, but the illegal use of such collected information for political purposes and the seriousness of actions and activities is extremely dangerous and damaging in many, many ways to bother Americans and our intelligence capabilities. American intelligence agencies typically monitor foreign officials of allied and hostile countries, and they routinely sweep up communications linked to Americans who may be taking part in the conversation or are being spoken about. Under the law, their names and identities are required to be masked and protected.
As a result, the real issue as Chairman Nunes has explicitly and emphatically stated, was that he could figure out the identities of the Trump administration staffers from reading reports about intercepted communications that were subsequently shared among Obama administration officials with top security clearances. He said some of Trump team staff members were also identified by name in the reports. Again, by law, it has been the responsibility of our intelligence agencies to mask the identities of American citizens who are incidentally present in intercepted communications. Unfortunately, that changed with the Obama administration.
Ultimately the information brought forward, is what the information is, and in this case it is not only explosive, but exceedingly highlights wrongdoing and a nefarious process set in place that condones political and unethical wrongdoing, and the unfortunate consequence of doing so. Further, it is extremely fortunate, that the NSC mentioned officials who provided the information to Chairman Nunes, had the integrity, gumption, and wherewithal to do so, despite the forthcoming negative criticism you know will be spewing from President Trump’s opponents. If not for them, this information may have never been identified and if so revealed, would it have been in a timely manner from other sources, at all. We are also learning at this time, General Flynn has tentatively offered he would be willing to testify in this investigation in the coming week, or so if the committee agrees.
We must not ever lose sight of what this is all about. A situation and a resulting Congressional investigation totally unique in our history — in that we have never in our history dealt with a former administration deliberately and intentionally using our nations national security system and intelligence capabilities and apparatus against an incoming elected administration. Such acts are egregious and devastating to our nation, our Constitution and all Americans. We will continue to monitor this situation and the corresponding events closely.