A pair of White House officials helped provide Representative Devin Nunes of California, a Republican and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with the intelligence reports that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies.
The revelation on Thursday that White House officials disclosed the reports, which Mr. Nunes then discussed with Mr. Trump, is likely to fuel criticism that the intelligence chairman has been too eager to do the bidding of the Trump administration while his committee is supposed to be conducting an independent investigation of Russia’s meddling in the presidential election.
It is the latest twist of a bizarre Washington drama that began after dark on March 21, when Mr. Nunes got a call from a person he has described only as a source. The call came as he was riding across town in an Uber car, and he quickly diverted to the White House. The next day, Mr. Nunes gave a hastily arranged news conference before going to brief Mr. Trump on what he had learned the night before from — as it turns out — White House officials.
The chain of events — and who helped provide the intelligence to Mr. Nunes — was detailed to The New York Times by four American officials.
Since disclosing the existence of the intelligence reports, Mr. Nunes has refused to identify his sources, saying he needed to protect them so others would feel safe going to the committee with sensitive information. In his public comments, he has described his sources as whistle-blowers trying to expose wrongdoing at great risk to themselves.
That does not appear to be the case. Several current American officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and was previously counsel to Mr. Nunes’s committee. Though neither has been accused of breaking any laws, they do appear to have sought to use intelligence to advance the political goals of the Trump administration.
Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, refused to confirm or deny at his daily briefing that Mr. Ellis and Mr. Cohen-Watnick were Mr. Nunes’s sources. The administration’s concern was the substance of the intelligence reports, not how they ended up in Mr. Nunes’s hands, Mr. Spicer said.
The “obsession with who talked to whom, and when, is not the answer,” Mr. Spicer said. “It should be the substance.”
Jack Langer, a spokesman for Mr. Nunes, said in a statement, “As he’s stated many times, Chairman Nunes will not confirm or deny speculation about his source’s identity, and he will not respond to speculation from anonymous sources.”
Mr. Cohen-Watnick, 30, is a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who served on the Trump transition team and was originally brought to the White House by Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser.
He was nearly pushed out of his job this month by Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who replaced Mr. Flynn as national security adviser, but survived after the intervention of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist.
The officials who detailed the newly disclosed White House role said that this month, shortly after Mr. Trump claimed on Twitter that he was wiretapped during the campaign on the orders of President Barack Obama, Mr. Cohen-Watnick began reviewing highly classified reports detailing the intercepted communications of foreign officials.
There were conflicting accounts of what prompted Mr. Cohen-Watnick to dig into the intelligence. One official with direct knowledge of the events said Mr. Cohen-Watnick began combing through intelligence reports this month in an effort to find evidence that would justify Mr. Trump’s Twitter posts about wiretapping.
But another person who was briefed on the events said Mr. Cohen-Watnick came upon the information as he was reviewing how widely intelligence reports on intercepts were shared within the American spy agencies. He then alerted the N.S.C. general counsel, but the official said Mr. Cohen-Watnick was not the person who showed the reports to Mr. Nunes.
That person and a third official said it was then Mr. Ellis who allowed Mr. Nunes to view the material. [...]