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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif, speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, following a meeting with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

If proven true, Nunes' surveillance revelations raise concerns about civil liberties


The chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence claimed in a Wednesday press conference that personal communications of President Trump and his associates were "incidentally collected" in a legal surveillance scoop, but then improperly distributed throughout the intelligence community. 

After analyzing what he said was a "few dozen reports," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-CA, said the intercepted communications do not appear to be Russia-related. It remains unclear who ordered the surveillance.

"What I've read bothers me, and I think it should bother the president himself and his team," Nunes said at the White House.

If proven true, Nunes' surveillance revelations raise concerns about civil liberties

WATCH | Nunes talks to reporters about the Trump Tower investigation.

In the afternoon presser, the California lawmaker said he believes the intelligence collections, which were likely gathered in the months spanning from November to January, were conducted legally, but that the identities of those involved were distastefully "unmasked," which refers to the disclosure of those individuals who were involved in the intercepted surveillance. 

He also acknowledged the National Security Agency's cooperation in providing more reports related to the alleged surveillance of Trump Tower.

As reported by the Associated Press, it is routine for U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor the communications of foreign officials, which may also include the names of Americans that the foreigner is speaking to or about. When this occurs, however, intelligence officials are obliged to "minimize" the name of the American, unless the identity of that person is necessary to the understanding the foreign intelligence outlined in the report.

How does Executive Order (EO) 12333 come into play?

According to the ACLU, EO 12333 is the primary authority under which the NSA gathers foreign intelligence. Unlike a FISA warrant, it provides the government with the latitude to conduct sweeping surveillance on U.S. and non-U.S. persons without judicial review as long as the monitoring is necessary to protect U.S. interests from "foreign security threats," an umbrella term that likely permits the surveillance of any foreign person.

Besides its broad jurisdiction, EO 12333 "permits the retention and dissemination of both U.S. and non-U.S. person information" for up to five years, though it's also allowed to retain data permanently in numerous circumstances, such as if it relates to a crime (even retroactively), national security, or threatens the safety of a person or an entity.

EO 12333 has been a point of contention among lawmakers. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-CA, once said that Congress has been unable to “sufficiently” oversee the executive order. 

External non-partisan entities challenge EO 12333

Citing civil liberties concerns,  external, non-partisan organizations have frequently highlighted the "flaws" of the law. In 2014, members of Congress and watchdog organizations sent a letter to the Obama administration expressing concerns about the government's surveillance activities conducted under EO 12333.

In the letter, they called on the government to declassify information to help the public understand the reach of the legislation, to ensure that there is no "unnecessary" collection of communications or information, as well as to make all current and future legal opinions public.

"Secret law is a threat to democracy," the letter read.

Questioning the integrity of the Trump Tower investigation 

Following Wednesday's press conference, Congressional members blasted Nunes for briefing President Trump on the interception of personal communications before notifying the House Intelligence Committee, including the top Democratic member, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA.

In a separate press conference, Schiff said he had "grave concerns" over Nunes' handling of the Trump Tower wiretapping investigation.

If accurate, this information should have been shared with members of the committee, but it has not been
Rep. Adam Schiff

Others agree, too

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public research center dedicated to news about the First Amendment, also expressed concerns over Nunes' handling of the Trump Tower investigation.

Marc Rotenberg, the president of EPIC, said, “It is clear now that Congress must establish an independent commission to investigate the ties between the Trump Administration and the Russian government. The House Intelligence Committee has been compromised.”

The White House applauds Nunes' revelations 

In an interview with Circa's affiliate, WTVC, Vice President Mike Pence praised Nunes' work relating to the investigation.

"The American people certainly have a right to know, and given the fact that there were numerous media accounts of surveillance involving our campaign, we appreciate Chairman Nunes’ diligence in following those facts."

If proven true, Nunes' surveillance revelations raise concerns about civil liberties

WATCH | Vice President Pence reacts to Nunes' surveillance discoveries

President Trump, whose allegations that President Obama had ordered Trump Tower to be wiretapped spurred this investigation, said he feels "somewhat" vindicated by Nunes' discoveries. 

The president's reaction comes after the White House continues to face backlash after refusing to retract Trump's claim, despite a consensus among the intelligence community that Obama hadn't surveilled the sitting president.

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