A Monday Bloomberg report alleging that a former top Obama administration official requested the unmasking of U.S. persons tied to the Trump campaign who were swept up in foreign surveillance is not the “smoking gun” that the President’s backers are making it out to be.
According to surveillance and national security experts, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice would be within her rights to make such requests if she was trying to determine the extent of Russia’s interference in the presidential election.
“Part of her job as national security adviser is to pay attention to what foreign governments are doing,” Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor who handled foreign surveillance cases, told TPM. “If she’s asking for specific names to be unmasked in order to understand what Russia may be doing to influence the U.S. political system and influence our elections, presumably in a way they thought would benefit them, she’s doing her job.”
Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, noted on Twitter that it was not “odd or wrong” for the national security adviser to read “a report of foreign officials discussing US persons coming into” the White House. And Susan Hennessey, a fellow in national security governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote of the Bloomberg article that “nothing in this story indicates anything improper whatsoever.”
She was the National Security Advisor reading a report of foreign officials discussing US persons coming into WH, this isn't odd or wrong https://t.co/oD25uKkukM
— Nada Bakos (@nadabakos) April 3, 2017
Nothing in this story indicates anything improper whatsoever nor does it explain or justify Nunes's bizarre conduct. https://t.co/tlMh2TduMR
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) April 3, 2017
Eli Lake, the Bloomberg View columnist who wrote the report, noted in his piece that “some intelligence value” is required for senior officials to request that U.S. persons’ names be unmasked, and that as a result, Rice’s alleged requests were “likely within the law.”
The intelligence reports in question were primarily summaries of conversations between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, as well as communications between Trump staffers and foreign officials being monitored by the U.S. government, according to Lake’s reporting.
Lonergan said that given the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, which Director James Comey recently confirmed has been ongoing since July 2016, the discovery of such conversations would “naturally and appropriately” prompt top-level national security officials to ask that U.S. persons’ names be unmasked “to see if any inappropriate action is taking place.”
That was not how Trump’s allies viewed the Bloomberg report and other reports alleging Rice asked to have Trump staffers’ identities unmasked, however.
“Smoking gun found!” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) charged on Twitter. “Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign.”
Smoking gun found! Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) April 3, 2017
“Unmasker Unmasked: Susan Rice Named As Intel Boss Who Exposed Team Trump Surveillance,” read the headline on Fox News’ homepage.
That reaction was familiar: A similar chorus erupted when House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) first went public last month with claims that Trump staffers’ names were unmasked in intercepts unrelated to the FBI’s Russia probe. Conservative pundits and politicians seized on the purported unmasking as proof of Trump’s oft-repeated and baseless claim that he was surveilled by the Obama administration.
That interpretation is a fundamental misreading of who the target of the surveillance was and why U.S. persons swept up in that surveillance would be unmasked, according to Lonergan. The Trump team was not being “spied on” by the Obama administration, she explained, but individuals associated with his campaign were being discussed by or in communication with foreign nationals who were being surveilled. She said the staffers’ names would only be unmasked to help U.S. national security officials understand the national security threat posed by Russia’s involvement in the election.
“If we just heard Susan Rice as national security adviser is trying to keep track of Russia’s interference in the election, we’d all cheer,” Lonergan said. “But then we hear the word surveillance and people start talking about it in very inexact ways that make it seem like something wrong was done.”
The opaque nature in which U.S. intelligence is classified makes it easy for politicians and pundits to spin that intelligence in ways that read differently to the press, said Jack Lerner, an expert on technology law at the University of California Irvine School of Law.
“There are lots of minimization procedures, some of which are classified, that the NSA follows. There are various levels of intelligence information in terms of sensitivity, in terms of classification that various people in Congress and the White House are given exposure to,” Lerner told TPM. “And it’s difficult for someone who doesn’t work for that agency to figure it out.”
Lonergan charged that Nunes was himself “leaking classified information” when he went to the press with his initial claims that Trump staffers’ identities had been unmasked and widely circulated within the intelligence community. She said intelligence and national security officials who are required to remain mum about the information they receive are now “clashing” with politicians accustomed to speaking to the public about what they know.
“A lot of people who know what’s actually going on don’t talk about it because they’re not supposed to talk about it,” she said. “And then you get the politicians out talking about it in very broad, accusatory terms so it gets very distorted in the media.”