National Security

Graham gets frustrated in public ‘unmasking’ debate

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has yet to receive a response to his formal request that the intelligence community tell him whether his communications were swept up in U.S. spying on foreign targets, he said Tuesday.

In a tense exchange with a top intelligence community lawyer during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Graham repeatedly demanded to know whether he is legally entitled to know if his communications are collected and “unmasked” within the administration.

“It’s like months ago [that the request was made], so am I ever going to get it in my lifetime — and if you’re not going to give it to me, tell me why,” Graham said.

{mosads}The South Carolina lawmaker has said in the past that he has reason to believe that a conversation he had with a foreign leader was picked up by U.S. spies and that an official requested that his identity be revealed internally.

Bradley Brooker, acting general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), confirmed that the administration had received Graham’s request, but that it was so broad that staff are still negotiating the parameters.

Brooker said he had “no legal reason” for not answering Graham. Typically if a member of Congress is unmasked, he said, the intelligence community informs the so-called Gang of Eight — Senate and House leadership and the top members of both Intelligence Committees — in a so-called “Gates notification.”

According to Brooker, Graham requested details on any and all information collected related to him — something that would include “every news clip” on the senator. Brooker said ODNI had asked Graham’s staff to narrow the request to Gates requests only, but Graham’s staff refused.

The exchange quickly became adversarial, as Graham repeatedly cut in to press Brooker on the legal ramifications of his request. Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) weighed in, insisting that Graham be given the time to complete the line of questioning.

“In other words, I want you to proceed until you get an answer,” Grassley shouted, repeatedly banging his gavel. “I mean, if there’s anything in this country this people are entitled to, it’s an answer to their question!”

“I’m violently agreeing with you,” Graham said, then turning to the witness said with a chuckle, “If I were you, I’d answer my question, because he’s mad.”

Graham also received backing from some committee Democrats seeking the number of Americans who are incidentally caught up in U.S. surveillance.

“Sen. Graham couldn’t get basic information about himself,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), pointing out the “emotion” in Graham’s voice. “We’ve given you more and more authority. All we’re asking is, how carefully are you using it?”

The exchange hinted at the complicated politics surrounding the broader collection authority, known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). A swath of amendments to FISA, including 702, are set to expire at the end of the year, and the flap over unmasking has put a clean reauthorization in some danger.

The authority is seen as a critical tool in preventing terror attacks, and the intelligence community — with backing from Senate Intelligence Committee Republicans — is pushing for a permanent reauthorization of the authority, without a sunset provision.

But Republicans for months have also 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 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.

Normally, when government officials receive intelligence reports, the names of American citizens whose communications are incidentally collected 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.

Some Republicans have suggested that Obama administration officials abused that authority in order to leak politically damaging information to the press.

“I don’t mind if you’re listening, I do mind if someone can take that information and use it politically,” Graham said Tuesday.

Democrats have largely treated as spurious the insinuation that the Obama White House tried to leverage intelligence for political gain — and senior officials from that administration have fiercely denied it.

But many are deeply concerned about the scope of federal surveillance authority under 702 — particularly given the fact that the government has declined to provide an estimate of the number of Americans who are caught up incidentally.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told witnesses that he intended to ask them about the circumstances that led to the Flynn leak during a closed-door session scheduled for Wednesday.

“It’s important to us to get the facts right,” he said. “Did the name come in masked or unmasked? Was it masked or unmasked as a result of the request from the White House?”

Section 702 specifically allows the collection of communications of foreign targets who are overseas — but if those targets are speaking to an American, that person’s communications are said to be collected “incidentally.”

Tuesday’s hearing on the authority, during which officials from the ODNI, Justice Department, FBI and National Security Agency all testified to the value of the program, suggested a few other areas of contention that may arise in December.

Several lawmakers pressed officials on the number of Americans swept up in the dragnet — a number the ODNI says is infeasible to produce because it would divert critical resources and endanger privacy by asking trained analysts to sift through U.S. people’s data.

Meanwhile, ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told the witnesses that the statutory future of collection of communications that only mention a foreign target — a practice known as “about” collection that was recently suspended by the NSA — will “be a big issue.”

Tags Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Lindsey Graham nsa Sheldon Whitehouse
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