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Nunes, Flynn and the Swirling Russia Story

The investigation into Trump’s Moscow connections continues.

Watergate. Deep Throat. Those were just a couple of the loaded words thrown around in the media last week during the coverage of both Representative Devin Nunes, who is the chairman of the House intelligence committee investigating President Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, and Lieutenant General (Ret.) Mike Flynn, whose attorney asked the FBI and congressional investigators to provide criminal immunity to his client in exchange for testimony. However, in their rush to make a judgment on individual motives, much of the fourth estate missed the fact that the American government has a problem with safeguarding intelligence, as well as a perceived inability to avoid incidental collection on its citizens.

Before diving into the federal challenges with protecting classified information, it’s important to acknowledge up front that both Nunes’ and Flynn’s activities over the last few weeks have been at best, aleatory, and at worst, duplicitous. Nunes’ statements have not been forthright and he hasn’t been upfront with his colleagues on the committee that he chairs. His tendency to obfuscate when asked probing questions has not only hurt his individual reputation but the institution in which he currently serves. He’s supposed to be leading the congressional investigation of Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, but is acting almost as a Trump surrogate.

Flynn, unlike Nunes, has been off the public radar since he was fired from the National Security Advisor position by President Trump when it was leaked that Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about contacts that he had with the Russian ambassador during the transition period. Flynn’s trustworthiness has continued to be questioned since his removal, most recently when it was discovered he failed to disclose payments from Russian related entities in 2015.

While both men’s objectionable behavior leaves much to be desired, the media are missing the more important story. Rather than focusing on Nunes’ and Flynn’s transgressions, they should be devoting resources to why the federal government’s intelligence reports are being leaked and how information from foreign collection is being distributed through the White House.

The House Intelligence investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election and whether there was inappropriate monitoring of the Trump campaign by Barack Obama’s administration marks an important inflection point in our nation’s history. It marks the first time in the 21st century that the federal legislative branch is devoting significant amounts of time and resources to determining whether a foreign adversary tried to influence a national election. But, more importantly, this could determine whether a sitting president’s administration leveraged information collected on U.S. citizens through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to adversely affect an incoming administration.

The FISA program has been around since 1978 and it has been amended over the years, most substantively in 2008. A significant section of FISA, Section 702, is set to expire by the end of the 2017 unless Congress takes action. A debate is starting to brew between staunch advocates of the program and those who feel it cuts at civil liberties. Backers in both the intelligence community and federal government laud FISA as an indispensable tool against those who would do harm to the United States. Proponents argue that this program has made the homeland more secure from attack, but at what cost?

Abuses have occurred, most recently in 2015, when members of Congress were caught up in the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Israeli government officials during the U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. Last week, syndicated columnist Eli Lake noted that this experience enabled the Obama administration to “learn about the strategy of its domestic political opposition through legal wiretaps of a foreign head of state and his aides.”

Hence the reason why Nunes has tried to determine if the same thing happened to Trump and his associates during the transition period. Additionally, Nunes wants to ascertain who leaked Flynn’s name and the contents of his phone call to the Russian ambassador.

While Nunes insists he has seen evidence that the Obama administration surveilled Trump’s incoming administration, he hasn’t been able to back up his claims. Only time will tell what facts will be uncovered. That’s why it is imperative that Nunes and his colleagues be given the opportunity to explore all avenues to ascertain whether any criminal activity took place in the last days of Barack Obama’s presidency.

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