House Intel panel interviews Rice in Russia probe

House Intel panel interviews Rice in Russia probe
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Former national security adviser Susan Rice was interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors for just over four hours on Wednesday morning as part of that panel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Lawmakers emerged tight-lipped from Wednesday’s interview. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who is now leading the investigation, said that Rice answered lawmakers’ questions but would provide no other details. The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTop Intel Dem: Minority 'absolutely' plans to continue Russia witness interviews Overnight Tech: Zuckerberg breaks silence on Cambridge Analytica controversy | Senate passes sex trafficking bill | EU pushes new tax on tech | YouTube toughens rules on gun videos Schiff mocks Trump: Obama, Bush didn't need staff warning 'do not congratulate' Putin MORE (Calif.), similarly declined to comment on the meeting.

Rice has been at the center of the controversy over “unmasking,” a process by which officials can request to know the cloaked identity of an American caught up in U.S. surveillance.

The House panel’s probe has grown to encompass concerns with the practice, which some committee Republicans consider too permissive for senior 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.

Senior officials have the authority to request the unmasking of names if there is a compelling national security reason to do so.

The committee chairman, Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has accused former Obama political aides of making hundreds of unmasking requests during the 2016 presidential race, including allegedly unmasking Trump transition team officials.

Rice, who worked under President Obama, previously rejected allegations that his administration inappropriately spied on President Trump or his transition team, and committee Democrats say they have seen no evidence that she acted inappropriately.

Nunes stepped back from leading the Russia investigation in April due to an Ethics Committee investigation related to his handling of the probe — an investigation that was sparked by the incident that ignited a public furor over unmasking. 

In April, Nunes made a clandestine trip to the White House to view documents he says revealed inappropriate unmasking of transition team officials. He announced his findings in a dramatic press conference on Capitol Hill that brought "unmasking" into the public lexicon and led to the Ethics investigation into whether he exposed classified information during the announcement. 

It's unclear whether Nunes was present for the questioning of Rice. He has said that he did not recuse himself from the investigation totally, and Democrats have criticized him for his continued involvement in Russia-related committee activities. Nunes has not clarified the scope of his involvement in the probe. 

Following his April visit to the White House, Nunes sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsGOP senator blocking Trump's Intel nominee NSA nominee sails through second confirmation hearing New attacks spark concerns about Iranian cyber threat MORE avowing evidence that “current and former government officials had easy access to U.S. person information,” arguing that “it is possible that they used this information to achieve partisan political purposes, including the selective, anonymous leaking of such information.”

That concern seems to have gained some traction among committee Republicans, although it was not immediately obvious that Rice herself is thought to have acted inappropriately. 

Nunes said in his letter that one official “whose position had no apparent intelligence-related function” made hundreds of requests without adequate justification. Sources familiar with the letter identified the official to The Hill as then-United Nations Ambassador Samantha PowerSamantha Jane Power ‘Trump TV pipeline’ is a joke, next to Obama’s media hires Former Obama officials launch advocacy group aimed at Trump's foreign policy Hillary Clinton to speak at Yale graduation MORE, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats have long said that the furor over unmasking is a partisan attempt to shift the focus away from Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.

But concerns over the regulations governing the practice have grown to such a magnitude that it threatens to imperil the renewal of an important surveillance law set to sunset at the end of the year.

“Separate and apart from [Rice’s] conversations, I agree that [Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] is going to be harder,” Conaway said Wednesday.