The former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence says it would be highly unusual for any raw intelligence transcripts to reach the White House, and he says if any “incidental” surveillance that did go to political operatives, then lawmakers should actively encourage and protect whistleblowers who may come forward.
This week, the current chairman of the committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., told President Trump and the media that he has seen evidence suggesting Trump associates and possibly even Trump himself were picked up by U.S. surveillance.
But former Chairman Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., says the idea of transcripts from incidental surveillance ending up at the White House is stunning.
“My sources and what I gleaned from what Chairman Nunes said on Wednesday, it appears there was raw intelligence, actual transcripts of this incidental collection at the White House,” said Hoekstra, who notes that more corroboration needs to come forward to back up the claims from Nunes.
“It’s not that I was generally refused access to raw intelligence. I never saw it. I can’t remember one instance. I checked with my legal counsel this morning just to make sure I hadn’t and said, ‘Is it true I never saw raw intelligence?’ He said, ‘ That’s right. We never did,’” said Hoekstra.
Under normal circumstances, intelligence on American citizens uncovered by the intelligence community must meet very high standards to move anywhere along the government food chain.
“Number one, for it to see the light of day in any other agency, it has to reach a pretty high hurdle that says we’re going to share this information with other agencies but we’re going to mask the American presence,” said Hoekstra, referring to the practice of obscuring the identity of Americans involved with any foreign surveillance.
“The second thing then is to get those names unmasked. That’s another high hurdle, because while it’s not illegally collected intelligence, it’s inappropriately collected intelligence because it’s outside of their charter,” said Hoekstra.
Government agencies like the CIA and NSA are forbidden by law from directly ordering surveillance on American citizens.
Hoekstra also hopes to see the intelligence committee put more heat on the key officials who addressed them this week.
“I would bring (NSA Director) Mike Rogers and I would bring (FBI Director) James Comey back. I’m glad they’re coming back and I would nail them for what I believe is incomplete testimony last week,” said Hoekstra.
“For that (raw intelligence) information to have found its way to the White House. I believe that James Comey and Mike Rogers of the NSA would both have known of that information being at the White House. They should have shared that with the committee. If anything, they led the committee in different directions,” said Hoekstra.
He points specifically to Comey denying evidence exists to support Trump’s tweet that Obama ordered him to be wiretapped. Hoekstra says that allowed Comey to dodge the broader issue.
“In the larger context, it is people working on behalf of the president under the authority of the former president may have directly or indirectly surveilled his transition team. Mr. Comey maybe should have been more open about that,” said Hoekstra.
With Nunes discussing evidence he has seen but does not have and the top Democrat on the committee focusing on alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, Hoekstra says getting people with direct knowledge of the issue to come forward and testify is essential.
But there’s a problem.
“The intelligence community has some of the weakest whistleblower protections anywhere in the federal government,” he said.
Nonetheless, Hoekstra says Nunes needs to make it safe for intelligence professionals to tell what they know.
“I would open the doors and get on TV and in the hearings and all of that, saying ‘If there are people in the intelligence community who believe that there were things that were done wrong, please come to the committee, bypass the whistleblower steps in the intelligence committee, and bring materials immediately to this committee. We will protect you,’” said Hoekstra.