The Surveillance Twist

Terry H. Schwadron

OK, the weirdness of the investigation of President Trump’s baseless tweet about having been “wiretapped” now has a new name to kick around — Susan Rice, national security adviser to former President Obama.

A Bloomberg article last weekend pinned the tail of who-unmasked-names from legally obtained general surveillance on Rice, who told PBS recently that she did not know anything about these activities when asked about the furtive strangeness of House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes in seeking documents and his nighttime crawl through the White House grounds. Yesterday, she told NBC, “The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That’s absolutely false.”

Those around Rice said that kind of activity was part of her job, that there was a process involved of asking the surveilling agency for permission, and noted that she did not leak the unmasked names to anyone. In other words, without more information, it seems legal and within the scope of her job.

Nevertheless, the emergence of an Obama administration name worked like kerosene on an otherwise dying, if endless fire. Rice happens to be a favorite Republican target from Benghazi days. The White House gleefully tried to turn all Russia and surveillance questions towards the Rice connection, claiming validation of the original tweet.

CBS quoted unnamed national security official as saying that Rice did at times ask that certain names in intelligence reports be “unmasked” in order to understand the context in which they were mentioned in intelligence reports. Rice asked for the identities of those Americans picked up during surveillance of foreign nationals when it was deemed important context for national security, and she did not ask that the information be disseminated broadly, according to this former official.

Meanwhile, conservative news outlets broadly painted specific, partisan politics as the reason for the unmaskings, and asserting that reporters from mainstream outlets had sat on the information for political reasons. CNN was among those airing comments that this is all another distraction based on right-wing connections rather than evidence. Still, people like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) were calling for Rice to testify before the Congress.

There are, of course, different issues here: 1) a normal practice of surveilling foreign conversations which may pick up American voices, 2) unmasking the identities of American voices picked up in the conversations, which is in question here, and 3) leaking those names publicly, which is not in question here. However, someone leaked Michael T. Flynn’s name.

Bottom line to all concerned: Never make a mistake, even if it is only a mistake in retrospect. But if you do make a mistake or something that might be seen as a misstep, how about owning up to it? At the minimum, you might educate and persuade someone about your point of view.

Meanwhile, the weirdest investigation in memory continues to spin on:

· Back-channel: The Washington Post reported The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting around Jan. 11 between Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who said he wan unofficially representing Team Trump, and an uidentified Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump. In part, the agenda was whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Iran, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.

· Actual contact: Buzzfeed reported that Carter Page, a former campaign adviser for Donald Trump, met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy in New York City in 2013. Podobnyy was later charged with two others by the U.S, for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government. The 2015 charges followed federal investigators foling a Russian spy ring that was seeking information on U.S. sanctions and efforts to develop alternative energy. Page is an energy consultant.

· Investigators: Democrats are still calling for Nunes to withdraw as head of the Intelligence Committee, and Nunes is still resisting such calls.

· More. Meanwhile, the House and Senate committees are continuing with public and private hearings. But then the FBI continues its investigation of Russia links. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), head of the House Government Oversight Committee wants to investigate “leaks” along the way, and Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who head the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism want to investigate Russia links too.

Is all that clear? Anyone remember what the original question was? Stay tuned.

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