White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the chairman and ranking minority-party members of the House and Senate committees on intelligence have been invited to the White House to review information related to the potential unauthorized disclosure of classified information about U.S. persons.
“There’s a desire to make sure that both sides of the aisle as well as both chambers have that information,” Spicer told reporters Thursday. “We invited them up to view it in a classified setting, in an appropriate setting.”
“There has been information, material that has come to light, and we want to make sure that the people who are conducting the review have that information,” he added.
Spicer said that the information was discovered by national security staffers “in the ordinary course of business” and that the documents are in response to a March 15 letter from the committee seeking information about whether classified information collected about U.S. persons was leaked or mishandled.
The invitation comes as the White House faces new questions about a report from the New York Times that two national security staffers were involved in delivering classified material to House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) related to President Trump's unsubstantiated claim that former president Barack Obama wiretapped him during the 2016 campaign.
Spicer repeatedly refused to confirm or deny the Times report. But he suggested that questions about “process” were not as important as the substance of the information that Nunes reviewed, which Nunes said raised questions about whether the names of Trump associates were improperly disseminated in national security documents.
“Your obsession with who talked to whom and when is not the answer here,” Spicer said during the briefing.
The information that Spicer said the intelligence committee chairmen would review if they accepted the White House's invitation is in response to a letter on March 15 sent by the House intelligence committee leaders to the National Security Agency, the FBI and the CIA asking for information about the release of the identity of former national security adviser Michael Flynn after he called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29. The agencies were given five specific questions to answer and given the deadline, in bold, of March 17. The letter was not sent to the White House, though the director of national intelligence was copied on the letter.
When the intelligence community intercepts a U.S. citizen while surveilling a foreign target, that person's identity is typically supposed to be masked to protect his or her privacy.
The committee leaders then asked these agencies to respond to five areas of inquiry within the next two days. Included on the list: The process by which a person's identity is unmasked, the number of people whose identities were unmasked between June 2016 and January 2017, the names of any unmasked individuals related to the campaigns of Trump or Hillary Clinton whose identities might have been requested by agencies or executive branch officials, the names of those who might have made such requests and the stated reason for unmasking those identities, if that occurred.
Spicer said the White House would not release a copy of the letter sent to the chairman. He would not say if the letter sent today was in reference to information related just to the five areas of inquiry in the March 15 letter or the broader investigation.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking minority-party member of the House intelligence committee, said he was invited by White House counsel to review documents related to incidental collection and the unmasking of names. Schiff accepted the invitation but said in a reply that it would ultimately be necessary to share the documents with the whole committee. He does not know yet if these are the same documents Nunes saw, or a subset of them, which touched off a week's worth of chaos in the House Intelligence Committee.
But Schiff stressed that “this is not going to distract us” from the Russia investigation.
He said “it is highly concerning to me” that the invitation came on the same day as the Times report.
In his reply to the White House counsel, Schiff said he expressed his “profound concerns” with the way these materials are being made available to the committee.
Schiff added that if things were found in the normal course of business, it raises the question of why they were not directly provided to the White House if they were found in the normal course of business, but were revealed through Nunes instead.
Philip Rucker and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.