The White House reportedly discovered last month that Susan Rice, who served as former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser from 2013-17, made dozens of requests for the “unmasking” of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports who were connected to then-President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.
Rice’s frequent requests were discovered during a National Security Council’s review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” U.S. citizens who are caught up in surveillance but are not the target of intelligence eavesdropping, Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake reported Monday.
Typically, those names are redacted, referred to by a generic phrases, such as “U.S. Person One,” in order to protect their privacy.
The review was conducted by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence at the NSC, according to two U.S. officials who spoke to Lake on the condition of anonymity. Here’s what he reportedly found:
The intelligence reports were summaries of monitored conversations — primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials. One U.S. official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.
Rice has not spoken directly on the issue of “unmasking.” However, in a March appearance on PBS’ “NewsHour,” the former Obama adviser claimed to “know nothing about” reports suggesting Trump and his transition aides were swept up in incidental intelligence collection.
She went on to say she was “surprised” to see news reports from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) saying surveillance information was legally and “incidentally” collected on members of Trump’s transition team and perhaps on Trump himself.
While Trump said Nunes’ statement made him feel “somewhat” vindicated over his assertion that the Obama administration spied on his campaign, Rice rejected it altogether.
“Nothing of the sort occurred, and we have heard that confirmed by the director of the FBI, who also pointed out that no president, no White House, can order the surveillance of another American citizen,” she told PBS.
But this latest report from Bloomberg tells a bit of a different story.
As Lake points out in his column, the standard for “unmasking” a U.S. individual is that the information the unmasking would provide “must have some foreign intelligence value,” which is a fairly broad standard, so Rice’s requests are likely safe from a legal challenge.
Nevertheless, the report does shed light on the president’s claims as the House and the Senate conduct dueling investigations into potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The possibility that Rice may have been involved in surveilling Trump associates offers insight into what Lake described as Nunes’ “strange behavior,” a reference to the chairman’s White House visit the day before he revealed Trump might have been subjected to some intelligence activity before taking office in January.
“At the time, said he needed to go to the White House because the reports were only on a database for the executive branch,” Lake wrote. “It now appears that he needed to view computer systems within the National Security Council that would include the logs of Rice’s requests to unmask U.S. persons.”
The report was first leaked to Mike Cernovich, a Trump-friendly blogger who wrote about it Sunday, and then to Lake.
Fox News didn’t go so far as to say Rice was behind it, but did report several days ago that someone “very well known, very high up, very senior, in the intelligence world” ordered the “unmasking” of Trump officials.
Trump took to Twitter over the weekend to say that the incidental intercepts of his staffers were “not associated with Russia.”