Rice denies Obama administration inappropriately unmasked Trump team

Former national security adviser Susan Rice on Tuesday categorically denied that the Obama administration inappropriately spied on President Trump or members of his transition team.

“The allegation is that somehow, Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” Rice told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “That’s absolutely false.”

Rice had requested that at least one Trump transition team member be “unmasked,” Bloomberg View reported Monday, leading to claims that the Obama White House had intended to use that intelligence to damage Trump’s transition.

While Rice did not deny making any such requests — declining to comment on specific reports — she denied that her actions went outside the scope of her job.

“It was not uncommon, it was necessary at times to make those requests,” she said. “I don’t have a particular recollection of doing that more frequently after the election.”

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“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,” Rice said. “There is no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking.”

Rice also flatly denied exposing Trump’s own former 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.

“I leaked nothing to nobody,” she said.

Two anonymous U.S. officials told Bloomberg's Eli Lake that the former Obama national security adviser was the one who requested unmasking Trump administration officials in raw intelligence files since viewed by Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Adam SchiffAdam SchiffOvernight Tech: Facebook, Twitter to testify before Senate | EU orders Amazon to pay 0M in back taxes | Reddit hires first lobbyists Facebook, Twitter will testify at Senate hearing Schiff: Almost all RT ads on Twitter designed to push negative coverage of Clinton MORE (D-Calif.), the heads of the House Intel Committee. 

Trump immediately exhorted the press to "start talking about the Obama SURVEILLANCE SCANDAL” — but intelligence experts caution that the reports don’t mean that Obama or even Rice surveilled Trump officials. 

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.

The national security adviser has the authority to request the unmasking names if there is a compelling national security reason to do so.

“I don’t solicit reports,” Rice said Tuesday. “They're giving it to me, if I read it, and I think that in order for me to understand, is it significant or not so significant, I need to know who the ‘U.S. Person’ is, I can make that request.”

Nothing in the Bloomberg report, Rice emphasized, backs up President Trump’s claim that the former President Obama “wiretapped” Trump Tower. 

“There was no such collection or surveillance on Trump Tower or Trump individuals, it is important to understand, directed by the White House or targeted at Trump individuals,” Rice said. 

Republicans have treated the revelation that Rice requested names be unmasked as proof that the Obama White House was inappropriately surveilling the Trump transition team.

“Smoking gun found! Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign,” Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Authorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient GOP feuds with outside group over analysis of tax framework MORE (R-Ky.) tweeted, citing the Bloomberg report.

Republicans have called for Rice to testify under oath, a request she sidestepped on Tuesday.

“Let's see what comes,” she told Mitchell, when asked if she would testify on the matter. “I'm not going to sit here and prejudge.

Citing the multiple “very important and very serious" investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. election,  Rice said, "As a formal U.S. official, I would want to be helpful in that process if I could.”

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as well as the FBI, are all conducting probes into Russian interference. While the Senate investigation has continued apace, largely behind closed doors, the House probe has been bogged down in partisan fighting over Nunes’ discovery of the documents he says reveal inappropriate unmasking of transition team names.

Onlookers have suggested that the exposure of Rice’s actions explains Nunes’ mysterious decision to view the documents at the White House, rather than the House Intelligence Committee’s secure location — because they belonged to the National Security Council.

Nunes raced back to the White House the day after viewing the documents there to brief the president on his findings, which were reportedly brought to his attention by White House staffers.

Democrats have accused the White House of “laundering” intelligence through the committee in order to provide justification for the president’s wiretapping claims.

 —Ben Kamisar contributed. Updated at 1:02 p.m.