I cannot read Susan Rice's heart and, surely, any legitimate government authority is subject to abuse.
But what we have learned to date about the former national security adviser and her requests to unmask U.S. person's information is well short of a smoking gun. In fact, on its face, it appears (certainly so far) to be lawful, appropriate and — dare I say — maybe even routine.
To begin at the beginning, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes told us that under The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants, the National Security Agency (NSA) lawfully collected foreign intelligence in November, December and January related to the Presidential transition. He emphasized that the collection was not about Russia and not related to any investigation. To repeat, he said it was about foreign intelligence.
In several instances, he seemed to go out of his way to say that he was primarily referring to information in the reports about people in the U.S., not communications to or from such people.
Barely reading between the lines of Chairman Nunes' comments, it's clear to this former NSA Director (who was there for the 2001and 2005 transitions) that the Chairman was referring to what must have been overwhelming foreign speculation as to the future course of the United States following Trump's victory. After all, foreign capitals were as surprised as most of us were at the outcome.
In the normal course of its intelligence work, the NSA would collect, process, translate, analyze and report on these communications when they revealed significant foreign intelligence like what country X thought about or how it planned to respond to policy Y or rumored appointee Z. Or where country X saw weakness or leverage it could exploit.
Taken in its entirety, this is called intelligence. It's why we do all of this in the first place.
The NSA report would not be a transcript of an intercepted conversation. It would be an appreciation of the communication (or multiple communications) by an analyst who would point out the intelligence meaning of what had been said.
It's not surprising that the departing national security advisor would be interested in this.
What's surprising is that the incoming president was not. After all, he and his team could have asked for reflections of what foreign capitals were saying about him, his team, his policies. Might have been useful.
Now, since the agency was telling us what foreigners were saying about us and our processes, this NSA reporting would unavoidably implicate information about what the agency calls protected persons — that's you, me, any American anywhere and any legal long-term residents of the United States— including the President elect and his team.
The NSA is notoriously conservative in revealing the identity of protected persons so the agency would have instinctively defaulted in many cases to U.S. person number one when making these references. Once an identity is out there, it's out there. It’s bureaucratically wiser (and safer) to mask and then see who might have cause to ask for more.
So when Ambassador Rice got one of these intelligence reports we know that NSA already had judged that it had intelligence value (otherwise the report would not exist). It also would not have been surprising that she might ask for more detail on masked U.S. persons, at least a clearer descriptor if not an actual name.
The request would then have been adjudicated at the NSA, and the agency would make the judgment whether or not more detail was warranted. Unmasking can be requested by any of the recipients of the original report, even a junior analyst at, say, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Clearly a request from the national security advisor would carry great weight, but in all cases the decision to unmask is the agency's and it is based on whether the requester needs the detail to do his or her job.
The NSA Director, Adm. Mike Rogers, has said that about 20 folks currently can make that decision. And if unmasked, the identity is revealed only to the specific requestor.
If there is more to this line of accusations than unmasking (and potentially leaking) US identities in intelligence reports, I haven't seen evidence of it.
And it's hard to imagine why Adm. Rogers would countenance anything more dramatic or unorthodox for an outgoing administration — especially one that (according to press accounts) had already declared him as persona non-grata.
And it should be a simple matter to judge whether the unmasking requests themselves were within or beyond traditional norms. NSA has an audit trail on this that rivals the way that Catholic parishes husband Baptismal records.
That allowed me in early 2005 to refute Democrat charges that John Bolton, then nominated to be U.N. ambassador, had abused American privacy by asking for the unmasking of U.S. identities in about a dozen intelligence reports.
A group of trusted agents — perhaps a bipartisan group of respected former security and intelligence officials — could make quick work of the task and deliver a verdict in short order and we would put this affair behind us.
Of course, that assumes that all parties want a resolution to this issue, rather than a festering, distracting political fight.
Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.