What Susan Rice ‘Unmasking’ Trump Names Means
Did she do anything wrong?
Bloomberg National security columnist Eli Lake reported on Monday that former National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama Susan Rice requested that names of Trump associates mentioned in intercepted communications between foreigners, and in some cases communications between Russian officials and members of the Trump team, be “unmasked” in classified intelligence reports. This isn’t necessarily improper, but it is unusual.
Normally, a U.S. person’s name would be obscured from intelligence reports derived from foreign surveillance. For example, an American might be referred to as “U.S. Person A.” In rare cases, when the name of the U.S. person is critical for understanding the foreign intelligence, it can be “unmasked” in classified intelligence reports.
- “Unmasking” does not authorize the leaking of information. Intelligence reports with unmasked names of U.S. persons are required to remain highly classified.
- It also does not mean that Trump officials were targeted for surveillance as the President claimed in a tweet last month.
But, it does raise questions about whether the “unmasking” broke rules intended to protect the privacy of Americans incidentally picked up in the process of spying on foreigners. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the names of U.S. persons are supposed to be obscured in intelligence reports “unless such person’s identity is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance.” Such reports can also be disseminated for law enforcement purposes if it involves evidence that a crime has been committed or will be in the future.
When “Unmasking” is Allowed
A counter-intelligence investigation of Russia’s election interference would obviously create a situation in which knowing the names of U.S. persons involved was important. Nothing in such a investigation would make much sense if you didn’t know whether a given intelligence intercept was about at least one U.S. person, Donald J. Trump.
Most of the intercepted communications were reportedly between foreigners. To the extent they discussed Trump campaign officials, assessing the conversation in the context of foreign intelligence about Russia’s effort to influence the election requires knowing if they are talking about people connected to Trump. If there turned out to be an intercepted conversation between a Russian intelligence officer and a Trump associate discussing Moscow’s efforts to sway the election in Trump’s favor, a name would obviously be relevant there too. Some “unmasking” is to be expected in a counter-intelligence investigation of this nature.
When “Unmasking” is Not Allowed
But, Lake’s column says that at least some of the unmasked names appeared in reports that do not pertain to Russia. Some also reportedly contain politically useful information about the Trump campaign and transition.
“One U.S. official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.”
One reason you cannot unmask a U.S. person’s name is to gain useful information for political reasons. We don’t know what the information actually was and whether it was important in some other way for foreign intelligence purposes. But, if names of Trump associates were included in intelligence reports for political reasons that are not pertinent to understanding foreign intelligence information, then we’ve got two scandals on our hands.
“IF NAMES OF TRUMP ASSOCIATES WERE INCLUDED FOR POLITICAL REASONS THAT ARE NOT PERTINENT TO UNDERSTANDING FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE, THEN WE’VE GOT TWO SCANDALS ON OUR HANDS.”
Abuse of foreign surveillance for political purposes seems far-fetched. But, Rice is already a lightning rod. Her initial claim that the 2012 Benghazi attacks were protests, rather than the work of terrorists, put Rice at the center of a heated controversy. Last month, Rice said in a PBS interview that she was unaware of any such incidental surveillance on Trump associates. If Lake’s report is accurate, Rice appears to have not been telling the truth. Whatever the case, Congress needs to get to the bottom of it.