Unmasking is justified for national security reasons but is governed by strict rules across the U.S. intelligence apparatus that make it illegal to pursue for political reasons
As part of its daily wrap of the Susan Rice newsflow, which focused on her first media appearance since she was “outed” as the persona responsible for “unmasking” members of team Trump, the WSJ provides two new pieces of incremental information: i) in addition to Michael Flynn, at least one more member of the Trump transition team was “unmasked” in intelligence reports due to multiple foreign conversations that weren’t related to Russia; and ii) Rice wasn’t the administration official who instigated Mr. Flynn’s unmasking, confirming there is at least one more high-level official giving “unmasking” orders.
But first, a brief detour.
“Unmasking” is a term used when the identity of a U.S. citizen or lawful resident is revealed in classified intelligence reports. 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 “U.S. Person 1,” for example, be unmasked internally in order to give context about the potential value of the intelligence. Unmasking is justified for national security reasons but is governed by strict rules across the U.S. intelligence apparatus that make it illegal to pursue for political reasons or to leak classified information generated by the process.
It is the accusation that Rice unmasked members for purely political reasons – ostensibly in coordination with president Obama – that has gotten Republican smelling blood in the water. Republicans 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 former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign in February after media reports revealed that he misled Vice President Pence about the contents of his discussions with the Russian ambassador.
To that end, earlier this month, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) pressed FBI Director James Comey in a public Intelligence Committee hearing: “It would be nice to know the universe of people who have the power to unmask a U.S. citizen’s name… because that might provide something of a roadmap to investigate who might’ve actually disseminated a masked U.S. citizen’s name.”
He went on to press Comey on whether specific Obama officials, including Rice, would have had the authority to request that a name be unmasked. “Yes, in general, and any other national security adviser would, I think, as a matter of their ordinary course of their business,” Comey answered.
Shortly thereafter, The Hill notes Nunes made his shocking announcement that he — and he alone — had viewed documents that showed inappropriate unmasking by Obama-era officials.
Today, Susan Rice came out to defend herself and told MSNBC that “the allegation is that somehow, Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” Rice told Mitchell. “That’s absolutely false.”
She added that “The notion, which some people are trying to suggest, that by asking for the identity of the American person is the same is leaking it — that’s completely false. There is no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking.”
And yet, that is precisely what many republicans are suggesting because otherwise there is no explanation for how the WaPo and NYT received, on a virtual silver platter, stories about Mike Flynn’s communications with intel-level detail.
Perhaps Rice is simply lying as she lied on March 22 when in a PBS interview she said “I know nothing” about unmasking Trump officials. Less than two weeks later, we learn that she did.
But perhaps there is more to the story than what we know so far.
* * *
And this is where the WSJ comes in, with the new info that according to a Republican official familiar with deliberations by GOP lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee said that the names of two U.S. citizens who were part of Mr. Trump’s transition team have been unmasked in intelligence reports. One is Mr. Flynn and the other hasn’t been identified. The report involving Mr. Flynn documented phone conversations he had in late December with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
The WSJ then reports that Rice had requested the unmasking of at least one
transition official — not Mr. Flynn — who was part of multiple foreign
conversations that weren’t related to Russia.
And the punchline: “The Republican official and others said Ms. Rice wasn’t the administration official who instigated Mr. Flynn’s unmasking.”
In other words, the story that Susan Rice is the unmasker is incomplete as there is at least one more person exposing the identities of people in Trump’s circle, and that the NSA and other intel agencies have been surveiling, accidentally or otherwise, at least one, so far unnamed individual, from Trump’s circle. It may well be someone that the WaPo and NYT have already published about, or it may be someone who has yet to hit the newswire, delivering the latest twist of the ongoing intelligence-fed news cycle.
For now the answer is unknown, although when Rice testifies under oath before the House Intel Committee, we hope that all outstanding questions will finally get answers.