A House intelligence committee investigation took a dramatic shift this week after newly disclosed intelligence reports suggested the Obama administration improperly gathered and disseminated secret electronic communications from President Trump and his transition team prior to inauguration.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, indicated that the administration used its foreign intelligence gathering authority to spy on the discussions of Trump and his transition team by improperly unmasking the identity of Americans who were swept up in foreign electronic spying.
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"What I've read seems to be some level of surveillance activity, perhaps legal, but I don't know that it's right and I don't know if the American people would be comfortable with what I've read," said Nunes, who uncovered the reports.
Nunes announced the committee would seek to determine who knew about the classified reports, why they were not disclosed to Congress, and who requested and authorized the disclosure of the Americans' identities in the reports.
The panel also will try to find out whether the intelligence community was ordered to spy on Trump associates and if laws or regulations were violated.
Nunes said he was alarmed by what he saw in several dozen intelligence reports that include transcripts of communications, including communications directly from Trump. The reports were based on a foreign electronic spying operation between November and January. They were revealed by an intelligence community insider who alerted Nunes.
Nunes said on CNN that after reading the reports he was confident the Obama White House and numerous agencies "had a pretty good idea of what President-elect Trump was up to and what his transition team was up to and who they were meeting with."
The full extent of the improper spying—including the improper unmasking of Americans whose identities were to be hidden in reports of foreign communications intercepts—is expected to be disclosed Friday, Nunes said.
The National Security Agency has agreed to provide additional reports, although Nunes said the FBI has not yet agreed to his request to turn over additional sensitive intelligence reports on the Trump transition team.
"This is information that was brought to me that I thought the president needed to know about incidental collection, where the president himself and others in the Trump transition team were clearly put into intelligence reports that ended up at this White House and across a whole bunch of other agencies," Nunes said after meeting Trump on Wednesday.
The intelligence reports, which number in the dozens, suggest that the names of Trump and his advisers were not properly "minimized" in the foreign intelligence reports, as required under intelligence rules protecting the privacy rights of Americans.
"We don't have the full scope of all the intelligence reports that were produced, or who ordered the unmasking of additional names, and we're hoping to get that," Nunes said.
The transcripts appeared to be the result of legal intelligence collection against a foreign target. The problem, Nunes said, was that someone in government ordered the names of the Americans to be unmasked and the reports to be distributed to government agencies.
Normal intelligence procedures limit the unmasking of Americans caught up in foreign electronic surveillance.
The committee is already investigating how the name of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was improperly unmasked in a foreign intelligence report of Flynn's phone conversation with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
The intelligence report was disclosed to the press and led to Flynn's resignation as national security adviser after he misled the vice president about the contents of his conversation with the ambassador.
Nunes said the new information he has seen "has nothing to do with Russia or the Russia investigation."
Democrats on the House intelligence oversight panel have argued the Trump campaign cooperated with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign, although no evidence has surfaced of any ties between the two.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), ranking member of the intelligence committee, stated during a hearing Monday that several Trump aides colluded with the Russians during the campaign. His statement was based on a dossier by a former British intelligence officer that has been widely discredited as inaccurate.
The explosive reports uncovered by Nunes contradict public testimony Monday by FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers.
Comey and Rogers stated during an intelligence committee hearing that they had no information to support Trump's claims in a series of tweets that he had been placed under electronic surveillance by President Obama.
An FBI spokesman said there would be no clarification of Comey's testimony. An NSA spokesperson did not return emails seeking comment.
Nunes said the new information was disclosed to him by intelligence community "sources" he would not identify. During Monday's hearing, he appealed for anyone with information about Russian influence activities and possible improper political surveillance to come forward.
The House chairman said it is possible Obama directed the spying.
"We don't know who sent the taskings, if the taskings were changed into what went into these intelligence reports, but we're going to try to find that out," Nunes said.
Asked if he could rule out that Obama was personally involved in the surveillance, Nunes said "No, I cannot."
The disclosures about the spying appear to vindicate Trump, who was widely criticized for claiming he was spied on by the former president.
Trump and his aides also have come under criticism by critics in Congress and the news media for the spying allegations.
Nunes' disclosures set off a debate about whether the information he had should have been disclosed to the president.
Nunes said his committee's investigation is a congressional probe and has nothing to do with the Justice Department. He said informing the president of the intelligence reports was his duty.
A Nunes spokesman could not be reached for comment.
It is possible that Nunes himself was among those whose communications were improperly monitored. The California Republican was part of the Trump national security transition team.
Democrats and a few Republicans have called for a special committee or special investigation into the matters.
Intelligence committee member Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio) said he shared Nunes' concerns about improper spying.
"An outgoing administration reviewing the communications of an incoming administration is highly inappropriate and raises serious concerns," Turner said in a statement.
"The incidental collection, subsequent dissemination, and unmasking of individuals related to the presidential transition team needs to be carefully investigated as there are real concerns about whether minimization procedures were appropriately followed," he added.
Intelligence agencies are authorized to spy on foreign targets under two different authorities. One authority is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a special federal court, and the second is a presidential directive known as Executive Order 12333.
Electronic surveillance under the executive order does not require court approval.
Nunes said some of the information in the reports was of questionable intelligence value.
"But, look, I think the bottom line here is that President Trump, to some degree, is right that he did end up in some intelligence reports and I don't think he knew about it," Nunes said.
Former White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said Nunes' comments were "nothing more than an attempt to offer a lifeline to a White House caught in its own netting following President Trump's baseless tweets."
"Whether accurate or not, nothing Chairman Nunes said alters what the FBI and even President Trump's own Justice Department have said: there is no evidence whatsoever to back up the President's wiretapping allegations against President Obama."