Rice at center of intelligence storm over ‘unmasking’ flap

Former national security adviser Susan Rice on Tuesday flatly rejected allegations that the Obama White House inappropriately spied on — and exposed — President Trump or his transition team.

But her point-blank denial answered few questions raised by conservative media reports that indicated she sought to learn the identities of Trump campaign officials swept up in legal surveillance of foreign targets.


In her first public appearance since the reports, Rice told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that such requests were “not uncommon” and “absolutely not for any political purpose, to spy, expose, anything.”

“The allegation is that somehow, Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” she said. “That’s absolutely false.”

Although the debate over healthcare continues to dominate discussion on Capitol Hill, some Republicans have argued that the revelations hint at a bigger scandal.

“The facts will come out with Susan Rice, but I think she ought to be under subpoena, and she needs to be asked, ‘Did you talk to the president about it? Did President Obama know about this?’” Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPaul clashes with Booker, Harris over anti-lynching bill Rand Paul holding up quick passage of anti-lynching bill Democratic senator to offer amendment halting 'military weaponry' given to police MORE (R-Ky.) said, calling the reports a “smoking gun.”

President Trump has claimed that he was the victim of a “crooked scheme” by the Obama White House.

Democrats say that the furor over so-called “unmasking” is a partisan attempt to shift the focus away from President Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.

“I think this is just, you know, version 6.0 of deflect,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in the presidential election.

“This is just an attempt to use the Republicans’ favorite whipping boy — or whipping girl, in this case — to try to provide some backup to the ridiculous tweet that Obama was surveilling the Trump campaign.”

Trump in March tweeted that President Obama had “wiretapped” Trump Tower during the campaign, a claim that former and current officials have categorically denied.

For weeks, Republicans have been on the back foot in the fight over the House Intelligence panel’s investigation. They have struggled to explain Chairman Devin Nunes’s (R-Calif.) clandestine trip to the White House to view documents he says revealed inappropriate “unmasking” of transition team officials — reportedly by Rice.

Several moderate Republicans have criticized the handling of the probe, with at least one GOP representative — Walter Jones (N.C.) — calling for Nunes’s recusal.

But in Rice, Republicans have a familiar target. The former United Nations ambassador has long been a lightening rod for conservative outrage, stemming from her incorrect claims that the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, were spontaneous rather than premeditated.

“When it comes to Susan Rice, you need to verify, not trust,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamBill aims to help farmers sell carbon credits Graham postpones Russia probe subpoena vote as tensions boil over Graham pushes back on Mattis criticism of Trump: 'You're missing something here, my friend' MORE (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. “It wouldn’t surprise me if somebody in the Obama administration like Susan Rice would do this.”

Republicans have for weeks signaled that they saw unmasking as the key to investigating the source of media leaks damaging to the Trump administration — such as the exposure of former Trump 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.

“It would be nice to know the universe of people who have the power to unmask a U.S. citizen’s name,” Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyMore than two dozen former prosecutors, judges, active trial lawyers support DOJ decision to dismiss Michael Flynn case Sunday shows preview: As states loosen social distancing restrictions, lawmakers address dwindling state budgets John Ratcliffe is the right choice for director of national intelligence — and for America MORE (R-S.C.) pressed FBI Director James Comey in a public Intelligence Committee hearing earlier this month. “Because that might provide something of a roadmap to investigate who might’ve actually disseminated a masked U.S. citizen’s name.”

He went on to press Comey on whether specific Obama officials, including Rice, would have had the authority to request that a name be unmasked.

“Yes, in general, and any other national security adviser would, I think, as a matter of their ordinary course of their business,” Comey answered.

Shortly thereafter, Nunes made his shocking announcement that he — and he alone — had viewed documents that showed inappropriate unmasking by Obama-era officials. House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSchiff uses Tiananmen anniversary to condemn Trump's response to protests Flynn urged Russian diplomat to have 'reciprocal' response to Obama sanctions, new transcripts show The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation MORE (D-Calif.) has since reviewed the intelligence himself and said that it did not “warrant a departure from the normal review procedures.”

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 of names if there is a compelling national security reason to do so.

Several intelligence experts said it’s impossible to tell whether Rice’s requests were inappropriate — or perfectly within the scope of her job.

So far, neither Nunes nor Schiff has provided any evidence of wrongdoing.

“Unmasking decisions are so fact-specific,” said April Doss, former head of intelligence law at the National Security Agency. “Depending on the nature of the intelligence report, it might be something that would be perfectly ordinary for the national security adviser to see and perfectly appropriate for them to ask about unmasking. It also could be questionable.

“Without knowing the details, it’s very hard for any of us to judge that.”

Others say that while it’s routine for intelligence officials conducting counterespionage or counterterrorism investigations to request that a name be unmasked, there’s little reason why Rice — as a White House adviser — would need to know that kind of information about an incoming administration.

“For the life of me, I can’t understand why Susan Rice — why any national security adviser — would need to know about U.S. person [communications],” said Patrick Eddington, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute who formerly worked for ex-Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and at the CIA as an analyst, “unless we’re talking about comms that had been intercepted between an American diplomatic official and some other foreign diplomatic official.”

Mike Lillis contributed.