Did Republican intelligence chair break US espionage law by disclosing secret data?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 12:49pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 9:16pm

The chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence apologised Thursday for going public with information that a day earlier he’d described as coming from classified “intercepts.”

But the apology only served to heighten the irony of the disclosure. Only three days earlier, the chairman, Republican Representative Devin Nunes of California, had insisted that revealing such information from secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants was worthy of criminal charges under the Espionage Act.

“Did he violate the Espionage Act? I don’t know enough to make that determination right now,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and a former prosecutor. “But even without knowing all the facts, it’s pretty obvious that he was perilously close.”

Jack Langer, a spokesman for Nunes on the intelligence committee, said Nunes had not violated the law, which could carry a penalty of 10 years in prison.

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“The chairman did not identify the targets of the surveillance and only spoke in general terms about the content,” Langer said. “In response to a specific question, he said it appeared to be FISA information, but he repeatedly said he won’t know until he receives all the information he’s requested about these collections.”

Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is the ranking member of the committee, said he too couldn’t say definitively if Nunes had violated the law — “I haven’t seen the materials.” But he acknowledged that the concern was there.

It was an odd ending to what was a big week for Nunes. On Monday, he had chaired a rare open hearing of his usually secretive intelligence committee where the topic was Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. In that hearing, FBI Director James Comey made the bombshell announcement that the ongoing investigation into the meddling includes looking at whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in undermining the election. Comey said criminal charges were a possibility.