National Security

NSA granted nearly 2K ‘unmasking’ requests in 2016

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The National Security Agency (NSA) in 2016 agreed to almost 2,000 requests from officials within the government to reveal the identities of U.S. persons caught up in foreign surveillance, according to an annual transparency report released on Tuesday.

In 1,934 instances, the NSA complied with requests from authorized officials to “unmask” names that had been originally blacked out to protect privacy. The report did not reveal the number of requests that were denied.

That figure is a dramatic increase from 2015, when only 654 were granted. The data was not provided in either the 2015 or 2014 publication — the first year the report was made public. 

The report comes amidst intense scrutiny of the protocols that govern unmasking. Republicans have suggested that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice may have inappropriately sought to learn the identities of Trump campaign officials who were incidentally surveilled in the lead-up to the 2016 election — a charge she has flatly denied.


House Intelligence Committee Republicans are expected to press NSA head Adm. Michael Rogers on the issue during a closed-door hearing on Thursday.

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.

According to the report — published by the Director of National Intelligence — the NSA may disseminate a U.S. person’s identity only if doing so meets one of a set of specified reasons under the agency’s guidelines.

Among those reasons is if the identity was necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or if the communication contained evidence of a crime and was being disseminated to law enforcement authorities.

The NSA provides the true identity of a masked person only if the official making the request has a legitimate “need to know,” according to the report, and has the appropriate security clearances — and if “the dissemination of the U.S. person’s identity would be consistent with NSA’s minimization procedures.”

“NSA is allowed to unmask the identity for the specific requesting recipient only where specific additional controls are in place to preclude its further dissemination and additional approval has been provided by a designated NSA official,” the report reads.

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

The GOP seized on a Bloomberg View report in April that Rice had requested that at least one Trump transition team member be “unmasked,” leading to claims that the Obama White House had intended to use that intelligence to damage Trump’s transition.

“I’d like to ask questions of her,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN Tuesday. “I have seen press reports, I don’t know how accurate they are, that she was involved in the unmasking of an American citizen who was incidentally surveilled. “

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

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