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House Intelligence chair says Trump campaign officials were ensnared in surveillance operations

Agencies: The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday accused U.S. spy agencies of abusing their surveillance powers by gathering and sharing information about President Trump and his transition team, an unproven charge that was quickly embraced by the White House but threatened to derail the committee’s investigation of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), one of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, said he was alarmed after seeing intelligence reports disseminated after the Nov. 8 election that made references to U.S. citizens affiliated with Trump, and possibly the president-elect himself. He appeared to be referring to relatively routine cases of surveillance on foreign individuals in which they communicated with or mentioned Americans.

“What I’ve read seems to me to be some level of surveillance activity — perhaps legal, but I don’t know that it’s right,” Nunes said to reporters outside the White House. “I don’t know that the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read.”

But Nunes’s refusal to disclose how he had obtained the documents and his unusual handling of the material — which he withheld from other committee members even while rushing to present it to the White House — were interpreted by some as a sign that his discovery was engineered to help the White House.

Trump said he regarded Nunes’s disclosures as validation of his widely discredited claim that he was the illegal target of a wiretapping operation last fall ordered by President Barack Obama. Asked whether he felt vindicated, Trump said during a brief public appearance at the White House: “I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do. I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.”

The timing of Nunes’s disclosures was politically advantageous for Trump, coming just days after FBI Director James B. Comey testified that the president’s wiretapping claims were groundless and falling on a day when Republicans struggled to muster enough votes to pass a health-care overhaul bill.

Nunes’s White House visit was denounced by Democrats as a partisan move that severely damaged the prospects of the committee carrying out an impartial probe.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Nunes’s action “casts quite a profound cloud over our ability to do the work,” and he called for the formation of an independent commission. “If the chairman is going to continue to go to the White House rather than his own committee, there’s no way we can conduct this investigation.”

Other Democrats suggested that Nunes may have crossed a legal line by publicly talking about secret intelligence work. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the congressman’s statements “appear to reveal classified information, which is a serious concern. With regard to the substance of his claims, I have no idea what he is talking about.’’

Nunes, who served as a member of Trump’s transition team, would not say whether his information came from a source affiliated with the White House — or whether the reports he had seen simply cited cables between foreign entities or direct communications between Trump or his team and a foreign agent.

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