The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. 
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If the White House spied on the FBI, there’s a problem

The latest available information sheds quite a bit of light on who leaked sensitive information to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as part of his effort to bolster one of Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories. Yesterday we learned the names of three of the Republican congressman’s sources, each of whom are senior White House officials, including the National Security Council’s top lawyer.

One of the questions hanging over this is why, exactly, these White House officials were reviewing these intelligence materials in the first place.

Keep in mind, according to Nunes’ vague descriptions of the information leaked to him, he was presented with intercepted surveillance that related in some way to Trump transition officials. (According to the New York Times’ reporting, the communications “consisted primarily of ambassadors and other foreign officials talking about how they were trying to develop contacts within Mr. Trump’s family and inner circle in advance of his inauguration.”)

The Rachel Maddow Show, 3/30/17, 9:19 PM ET

White House role in leaks raises suspicion

Rachel Maddow looks at new reporting that the source of intelligence given to Rep. Devin Nunes was the was the White House, leading to the question, why was the White House looking at that intelligence in the first place?
Rachel Maddow looks at new reporting that the source of intelligence given to Rep. Devin Nunes was the was the White House, leading to the question, why was the White House looking at that intelligence in the first place?
But why were the White House officials reviewing the surveillance in the first place? Rachel noted on the show last night that Barton Gellman, a longtime investigative reporter covering national security, wrote a piece for the Century Foundation raising the possibility that the Trump White House was effectively spying on the FBI during the bureau’s counter-intelligence investigation.
[W]hy would a White House lawyer and the top White House intelligence adviser be requesting copies of these surveillance reports in the first place? Why would they go on to ask that the names be unmasked? There is no chance that the FBI would brief them about the substance or progress of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government. Were the president’s men using the surveillance assets of the U.S. government to track the FBI investigation from the outside?
Those are very good questions. I’d initially assumed the White House officials went looking for something to substantiate Trump’s wiretap conspiracy theory, but consider this detail from the Washington Post’s report:
[Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council,] gathered the cases of incidental collection on Trump campaign operatives after arriving at the NSC. One official said Cohen did so as part of research unrelated to Trump’s wiretapping tweet. Instead, the official said, Cohen was assembling materials out of concern that intelligence information on U.S. persons was being shared too widely and that unmasking rules were being abused.
The New York Times’ report said something similar: Cohen-Watnick “came upon the information as he was reviewing how widely intelligence reports on intercepts were shared within the American spy agencies.”

In other words, this wasn’t about Trump’s odd conspiracy theory; it looks like White House officials snooping into snooping – during an ongoing FBI investigation.

As Rachel recommended on the show last night, “Do keep an eye on this question about the National Security Council staffers and White House counsel staffers. If they really were reviewing raw FBI intercepts of foreign surveillance involving members of the Trump transition, why were they reading that stuff? And is it possible that the White House has been tracking the FBI probe into the Trump-Russia scandal? Using the intelligence community’s capacities, using the surveillance capacities of the U.S. government in order to track the investigation into themselves? If so, I really don’t know what the fixes for that.”

One last thing. White House Counsel Don McGahn wrote a letter to the House Intelligence Committee’s leaders yesterday, referring to materials uncovered “in the ordinary course of business.” It’s not entirely clear if he was talking about the same intelligence shared with Nunes, but if so, I’ll look forward to hearing McGahn explain his definition of “ordinary course of business.”