Rice at center of intelligence storm over unmasking flap
Katie Bo Williams, The Hill, Apr 4 2017
Former national security adviser Susan Rice on Tuesday flatly rejected allegations that the Obama White House inappropriately spied on and exposed President Trump or his transition team. But her point-blank denial answered few questions raised by conservative media reports that indicated she sought to learn the identities of Trump campaign officials swept up in legal surveillance of foreign targets. In her first public appearance since the reports, Rice told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that such requests were “not uncommon” and “absolutely not for any political purpose to spy, expose anything.” She said:
The allegation is that somehow, Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That’s absolutely false.
Although the debate over healthcare continues to dominate discussion on Capitol Hill, some Republicans have argued that the revelations hint at a bigger scandal. Rand Paul called the reports a “smoking gun,” and insisted:
The facts will come out with Susan Rice, but I think she ought to be under subpoena, and she needs to be asked, ‘Did you talk to the president about it? Did President Obama know about this?’
Pres Trump has claimed that he was the victim of a “crooked scheme” by the Obama White House. Demagogs say that the furor over so-called “unmasking” is a partisan attempt to shift the focus away from President Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. Rep Jim Himes, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said:
I think this is just, you know, version 6.0 of deflect. This is just an attempt to use the Rethugs’ favorite whipping boy, or whipping girl in this case, to try to provide some back-up to the ridiculous tweet that Obama was surveilling the Trump campaign.
Trump in March tweeted that President Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the campaign, a claim that former and current officials have categorically denied. For weeks, Rethugs have been on the back foot in the fight over the House Intelligence panel’s investigation. They have struggled to explain Devin Nunes’ clandestine trip to the White House to view documents he says revealed inappropriate “unmasking” of transition team officials, reportedly by Rice. Several moderate Thugs have criticized the handling of the probe, with Walter Jones calling for Nunes’s recusal. But in Rice, the Thugs have a familiar target. The former UN ambassador has long been a lightning rod for conservative outrage, stemming from her incorrect claims that the 2012 attacks in Benghazi were spontaneous. Sen Lindsey Graham said Tuesday:
When it comes to Susan Rice, you need to verify, not trust! It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody in the Obama administration like Susan Rice would do this!
Rethugs have for weeks signaled that they saw unmasking as the key to investigating the source of media leaks damaging to the Trump administration, such as the exposure of Michael Flynn. Trey Gowdy pressed FBI Director Comey in a public Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month:
It would be nice to know the universe of people who have the power to unmask a Pindosi citizen’s name, because that might provide something of a roadmap to investigate who might have actually disseminated a masked Pindosi citizen’s name.
Gowdy went on to press Comey on whether specific Obama officials including Rice would have had the authority to request that a name be unmasked. Comey answered:
Yes, in general. And any other national security adviser would, I think, as a matter of the ordinary course of their business.
Shortly thereafter, Nunes made his shocking announcement that he and he alone had viewed documents that showed inappropriate unmasking by Obama-era officials. Adam Schiff has since reviewed the intelligence himself and said that it did not “warrant a departure from the normal review procedures.” Normally, when government officials receive intelligence reports, the names of American citizens are redacted to protect their privacy. But officials can request that names, listed as “Pindo Person #1” for example, be unmasked internally in order to give context about the potential value of the intelligence. The national security adviser has the authority to request the unmasking of names if there is a compelling national security reason to do so. Several intelligence experts said it’s impossible to tell whether Rice’s requests were inappropriate, or perfectly within the scope of her job. So far, neither Nunes nor Schiff has provided any evidence of wrongdoing. April Goss, former head of intelligence law at the NSA, said:
Unmasking decisions are so fact-specific. Depending on the nature of the intelligence report, it might be something that would be perfectly ordinary for the national security adviser to see and perfectly appropriate for them to ask about unmasking. It also could be questionable. Without knowing the details, it’s very hard for any of us to judge that.
Others say that while it’s routine for intelligence officials conducting counter-espionage or counter-terrorism investigations to request that a name be unmasked, there’s little reason why Rice as a White House adviser would need to know that kind of information about an incoming administration. Patrick Eddington of the Cato Institute and formerly a CIA analyst, said:
For the life of me, I can’t understand why Susan Rice, why any national security adviser, would need to know about Pindo person comms, unless we’re talking about comms that had been intercepted between a Pindo diplomatic official and some other foreign diplomatic official.