House Intelligence Panel Issues Seven Subpoenas as Russia Probe Ramps Up

by Byron Tau and Shane Harris, Wall St Journal:

WASHINGTON—The House Intelligence Committee issued seven subpoenas on Wednesday, in a sign that its investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election is advancing in scope and intensity, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Republican-led committee issued four subpoenas related to the Russia investigation, targeting President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Mike Flynn, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and their businesses. The committee is also investigating possible ties between Trump associates and Russia.

The other three subpoenas were issued to the National Security Agency, the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency for information about a procedure known as “unmasking.” The subpoenas are related to questions about how and why the names of the president’s associates were unredacted and distributed within classified reports by Obama administration officials during the transition between administrations.

Wednesday’s requests were the first subpoenas issued by the House committee in the Russia probe so far and showcase the continuing divide within the committee over the direction of the probe. Democrats are seeking an aggressive investigation into Mr. Trump and his associates, and Republicans are pushing for a probe into the unmasking.

Mr. Trump tweeted early Thursday: “The big story is the ‘unmasking and surveillance’ of people that took place during the Obama Administration.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee also is examining suspected Russian involvement in last year’s campaign. That panel is expected to hear testimony as early as next week from former FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing the agency’s Russia investigation until Mr. Trump fired him on May 9. Russia has denied interfering with the election and Mr. Trump has denied that his associates colluded with the Russian government.

Mr. Comey is expected to testify Mr. Trump asked him to back off the investigation of Mr. Flynn, according to a person familiar with the matter. The panel’s request for Mr. Comey’s testimony was sparked by his abrupt dismissal by Mr. Trump and allegations that Mr. Trump may have been trying to interfere in the continuing investigation. The president has denied the allegations. Mr. Flynn was forced to resign in February after misleading senior White House officials about his conversations in December with the Russian ambassador.

The probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now headed by former agency director Robert Mueller, who was tapped by the Justice Department to serve as a special counsel.

The House investigation suffered a setback when its Republican chairman Devin Nunes was forced to step aside in April after an ethics complaint was filed over his handling of classified materials. Mr. Nunes remains the chairman of the committee but recused himself from the Russia inquiry.

Mr. Nunes signed all seven subpoenas despite his recusal, according to people familiar with the matter. A GOP congressional aide said that the unmasking investigation was now considered separate from the Russia probe, allowing Mr. Nunes to act on his own authority even while recused.

Democrats on the committee criticized the move, saying they didn’t consent to the unmasking subpoenas. “This action would have been taken without the minority’s agreement. Any prior requests for information would have been undertaken without the minority’s knowledge,” said a senior Democratic committee aide.

Democrats are seeking an aggressive probe of Mr. Trump and his associates, including questions about whether they had any contact with Russian agents.

Republicans on the committee are pushing for an investigation of how the names of Trump campaign officials became exposed in classified intelligence reports based off intelligence community intercepts, as well as questions about how classified information about Mr. Trump’s associates was given to the media.

 

Mr. Nunes first raised the issue of unmasking in March based on information he received from the White House.

Typically, information about Americans intercepted in foreign surveillance is redacted, even in classified reports distributed within the government, unless a compelling need exists to reveal or “unmask” them. Unmasking requests aren’t uncommon by top intelligence community officials but Republicans want to know whether any of the unmaskings of Trump campaign officials during the transition were politically motivated.

The most recent subpoenas to the intelligence agencies seek information on any requests made by former national security adviser Susan Rice, former CIA Director John Brennan and former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power for names to be unmasked in classified material. The three didn’t personally receive subpoenas, the people familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Brennan, Ms. Rice and Ms. Power didn’t respond to requests for comment. Ms. Rice in April told CNN she never did anything “untoward” with intelligence collected on American citizens, including Trump aides working on the transition.

Ms. Power hasn’t previously been reported as a potential witness in the probe so her inclusion in the subpoenas may mean Republicans are broadening their areas of investigation.

Unmasking is typically restricted to high-level officials to safeguard the privacy of Americans caught up in U.S. government spy operations directed at foreign targets. Typically, only top officials within the intelligence agencies and the administration have the ability to ask for unmasking, which is approved by the agency that controls the information.

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