Yesterday evening I pointed out that a little discussed sentence in Eli Lake’s ‘un-masking’ story was key to understanding what actually happened in this ‘un-masking’ mystery. With a bit of informed speculation I suggested that what likely happened is that Mike Flynn protege Ezra Cohen-Watnick was freelancing and started his own ‘review’ of surveillance intercepts of the Trump transition, took his findings to the White House Counsel’s office only to get told to stop since lawyers would have seen the dangerous (to the White House) business he was up to. Shut down by the Counsel’s office, he decided to do an end-run around his bosses and go to Devin Nunes.
This story out from the AP seems to confirm this is pretty much exactly what happened.
From the AP (emphasis added)…
The unmasking review was led by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC’s senior director of intelligence. Cohen-Watnick has clashed with the CIA and was on the verge of being moved out of his job until Trump political advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner stepped in to keep him in the role.
Cohen-Watnick raised his findings about Rice with the White House counsel’s office, according to the official. The counsel’s office ordered him to stand down because the lawyers did not want the White House to be running an independent investigation into the prior administration.
Still, the White House has appeared to find other ways to promote the idea that Obama officials were conducting improper surveillance of Trump’s team.
In mid-March, House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes abruptly announced he had seen “troubling” information about spy agencies widely spreading the identities of Trump associates. The president’s advisers quickly embraced Nunes’ revelations, but did not acknowledge at the time that the congressman had viewed the information at the White House with the help of White House officials.
I’ll also note that the administration’s explanation of how this ‘review’ got started doesn’t really pass the laugh test.
The U.S. official said Rice’s Trump-related requests were discovered as part of a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” — the intelligence community’s term for revealing Americans’ identities that would otherwise be hidden in classified reports. The review was prompted by a belief that there were inefficiencies in the current procedures and concerns over a policy change made in the closing days of the Obama administration, according to the official, who insisted on anonymity in order to disclose the sensitive information.
Please. Inefficiencies? Please.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick is a Flynn protege and loyalist. Flynn’s replacement, H.R. McMaster tried to fire him as close to his first order of business but was prevented from doing so by President Trump, after the intervention of Bannon and Kushner on Cohen-Watnick’s behalf.
The ‘review’ appears to have begun while Flynn was still in place. Which is more likely: Flynn ordered his lieutenant to find out how his calls with the Russian Ambassador had ended up in press reports? or Flynn or his deputy hit the ground running with a review of possible inefficiencies in the ‘un-masking’ process?
You don’t have to answer.