WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A political feud erupted on Wednesday over the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s probe of suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, with charges that the panel’s Republican chairman subpoenaed the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency without telling Democratic members.
Committee aides complained that the chairman, Representative Devin Nunes, who publicly recused himself from leading the Russia probe in April following a secret visit he paid to White House officials, failed to consult Democrats on the subpoenas.
The subpoenas asked the agencies to provide details of any requests made by two top Obama administration aides and the former CIA director to “unmask” names of Trump campaign advisers inadvertently picked up in top-secret foreign communications intercepts, congressional sources said.
The former officials named in the subpoenas were Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and former CIA Director John Brennan.
“Subpoenas related to the ‘unmasking’ issue would have been sent by Chairman Nunes acting separately from the committee’s Russia investigation. This action would have been taken without the minority’s (Democrats’) agreement,” said a senior committee aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another congressional source, who also requested anonymity, said Democrats were “informed and consulted” before the subpoenas were issued.
The CIA declined to comment on the subpoenas and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NSA did not immediate respond to requests for comment.
U.S. privacy laws and intelligence regulations require that Americans’ names picked up in foreign communications intercepts be concealed unless senior officials request them to be disclosed for intelligence or law enforcement purposes. Any such requests undergo rigorous legal reviews.
Several U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that all such requests by Obama administration officials were properly scrutinized and appropriate.
The spy agency subpoenas were not mentioned in a bipartisan announcement on Wednesday that the panel approved subpoenas for President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in connection with the Russia probe.
The committee also approved subpoenas to the two men’s firms, Flynn Intel Llc, and Michael D. Cohen and Associates PC, the committee statement said.
“As part of our ongoing investigation into Russian active measures during the 2016 campaign, today we approved subpoenas for several individuals for testimony, personal documents and business records,” Republican Representative Mike Conaway and Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who are leading the committee probe, said in a joint statement.
Conaway assumed Republican leadership of the probe after Nunes recused himself. Nunes retained his power to issue subpoenas.
U.S. intelligence agencies reported in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin oversaw a campaign of computer hacking, fake news and propaganda intended to swing the election to Republican Trump over his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Putin has denied conducting such a campaign. Trump denies any collusion between Russia and his campaign and has questioned the veracity of the U.S. intelligence finding.
Trump fired Flynn in February for failing to disclose the content of his talks with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, and misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
The retired Army general is the subject of congressional, Justice Department and Defense Department investigations into his apparent failure to disclose payments he received from Russian and Turkish entities.
Cohen is one of several Trump associates under scrutiny in an FBI examination of possible contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia, according to the New York Times. It reported that Cohen was involved in a back-channel plan, which never came to fruition, that would have involved a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine, and the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Moscow.
CNN reported on Wednesday night that congressional investigators were looking into whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions had an undisclosed private meeting with Kislyak during the campaign, citing Republican and Democratic sources in Congress and intelligence officials briefed on the probe.
The focus of the probe is on whether such a meeting took place on April 27, 2016, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where Trump delivered his first major foreign policy address, CNN reported.
During his confirmation hearing in January, Sessions testified that he “did not have any communications with the Russians” during the campaign and said in a written statement given to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was not in contact with anyone linked to the Russian government during the campaign.
It was reported in March that he met with Kislyak twice during the campaign, once at the Republican National Convention in July and once in his Senate office in September.
Sessions later admitted having the meetings but said they were part of his Senate duties and were unrelated to the campaign. He later recused himself from the Russia probe.
Reporting by Mark Hosenball, Jonathan Landay and Eric Walsh; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney