WASHINGTON • The Republican chairman of the US House of Representatives intelligence committee set off a political firestorm when he said the communications of members of President Donald Trump's transition team were caught up in incidental surveillance targeting foreigners.
Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, Mr Devin Nunes said it was possible that Mr Trump's own communications were also intercepted and disseminated among US intelligence agencies.
Mr Nunes, who worked on Mr Trump's transition team and is now leading an investigation into possible links between the campaign team and Russia, said Mr Trump's communications may have been intercepted late last year.
But he said there was no evidence that then President Barack Obama ordered the surveillance - as Mr Trump has claimed - or that the Republican billionaire was the target.
Rather, Mr Nunes suggested, Mr Trump's communications were picked up during court-approved targeting of suspected foreign intelligence operatives.
The communications were not linked to Russia, he said, adding that they appeared to have "little or no intelligence value".
"The President himself and others in the Trump transition team were clearly put into intelligence reports," Mr Nunes told reporters in front of the White House after briefing Mr Trump.
The information collected - spanning the November to January period between Mr Trump's election victory and his inauguration - was "widely disseminated" in US intelligence circles, he said.
US intelligence community rules dictate that information on Americans picked up incidentally in surveillance must be scrubbed or masked in intelligence reports. Mr Nunes suggested that those involved in the surveillance had violated those rules.
He said he was "very concerned" about whether US intelligence agencies were spying on Mr Trump.
As for Mr Trump, he indicated that he felt vindicated by the revelation. "I somewhat do. I must tell you I somewhat do," he said during a separate White House meeting. "I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found."
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer also addressed Mr Nunes' comments at his White House news briefing, saying: "I do think it is a startling revelation, and there's a lot of questions that need to get asked."
But Democrats denounced Mr Nunes' statements as highly unusual from the chairman of an intelligence committee, with the top Democrat on the committee, Mr Adam Schiff, saying its members had not been informed and implying that Mr Nunes was giving political cover to the President.
"I have expressed my grave concerns with the chairman that a credible investigation cannot be conducted this way," said Mr Schiff.
The comments from Mr Nunes came days after the heads of the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) repudiated Mr Trump's repeated claims that his Trump Tower in New York had been wiretapped under Mr Obama's orders.
FBI director James Comey on Monday told a hearing of Mr Nunes' committee that his agency was conducting a criminal investigation of potential links between Trump associates and Russia's attempts to influence last year's US election to benefit Mr Trump.
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