The reactions in Washington to the revelation that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice sought to unmask the identities of Americans connected with President Trump’s campaign and transition who were mentioned in foreign surveillance intelligence reports predictably has fallen largely along partisan lines.
But the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, author of The Fix column, while contending there is no evidence Rice used the information for political purposes, acknowledged Rice’s comments on the matter two weeks ago in a PBS interview “do lead to some legitimate questions.”
Rice was asked March 22 by PBS “NewsHour” host Judy Woodruff about the announcement by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., that Trump and his associates had been incidentally swept up in surveillance.
Rice responded: “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”
Blake wrote that if Rice “had indeed unmasked Trump associates’ identities in these foreign surveillance reports, that response wouldn’t quite make sense.”
He noted Rice is “no stranger to making public comments that later prove to be a liability.”
Five days after the September 2012 Benghazi attack, Rice went on five Sunday news shows to assert the attack that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans was a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim video while the administration knew it was a premeditated terrorist attack by a group likely associated with al-Qaida.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was asked Tuesday about Rice’s previous denial in an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Cotton called Rice the “Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy.”
“Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it, whether it was these allegations of improper unmasking and potential improper surveillance, whether it was Benghazi, or many of the other fiascos of the Obama administration,” Cotton said.
Noting he has never asked for an unmasked name, the senator explained unmasking “normally occurs by law enforcement or intelligence analysts who need it to conduct an investigation or to understand the raw intelligence.”
Cotton said there’s “no doubt” that Rice should be the subject of a committee hearing.
“If the reports are right,” Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said Tuesday, “then she will be of interest to us.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he wants Rice to testify under oath.
Rice’s unmasking request was revealed by two unnamed U.S. officials who spoke to Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake, who said the intelligence reports were rundowns of surveilled conversations primarily between foreign officials talking about the Trump transition.
It followed the announcement March 22 by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., that members of the Trump transition team’s identities were potentially improperly unmasked.
President Trump, meanwhile, praised a “Fox & Friends” segment Monday featuring the “bombshell report about the unmasking of the Trump team.”
Trump tweeted: “Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends.”
Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, insisted the Rice story is a diversion, tweeting: “I’m not buying GOP ‘unmasking’ claim. It’s more #RussianHacking deflection. Same guys voted last week to unmask all of our online privacy,” alluding to a Republican vote last week to repeal broadband privacy rules.
But the New York Post editorial board pointed out that while Rice’s unmasking may have been legal, “we also know that the Obama administration later changed the classification of the ‘unmasked’ transcripts, and other similar material, in order to spread the information as widely as possible within the government.”
“The motive for that was (supposedly) to prevent Team Trump from burying it all once it took over. But the result was that it made it relatively safe for someone (or someones) to leak the info to the press,” the paper said.
“Which made it likely somebody would leak. So Team Obama’s ‘spread the info’ initiative certainly broke the spirit of the laws.”
The Daily Caller reported a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee agreed that if anyone unmasked former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, it would have to be Rice.
“Well, I haven’t seen the documents yet, but she was the national security adviser. She had the – if anyone had the opportunity to unmask, it would be the national security adviser, because that person is giving advice to the president on issues around national security,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told the Daily Caller Monday night.
Rice denies ‘any political purposes’
In an interview Tuesday with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Rice asserted the unmasking was not done for political purposes.
“The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That’s absolutely false,” Rice said.
Asked if she sought the names to spy on them or expose them, Rice said, “Absolutely not for any political purposes – to spy, expose, anything.”
Rice also denied being the person who leaked the identity of Michael Flynn.
She explained that there “were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided, just U.S. person.”
“Sometimes, in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request that information as to who that U.S. official was,” she said.
NBC News reporter Ken Dilanian cited former senior officials, including Keith Alexander, who directed the National Security Agency in the Bush and Obama administrations, saying Rice could not have “ordered” the unmasking. She could request it, but the unmasking decision is ultimately made by the agencies that hold the raw surveillance transcripts, usually the NSA or the FBI.
The process, subject to rules and a review by lawyers, must be justified by an intelligence purpose. Alexander said he routinely turned down requests for unmasking by senior officials in the Bush and Obama administrations.
Dilanian argued that at the end of the Obama administration, “the FBI and the NSA were sifting through intelligence reports on Russian hacking,” and if Russians “under surveillance were talking about or to Trump associates, the names of those people would have been relevant.”
Nothing to see here
Echoing Democratic lawmakers, CNN’s Don Lemon dismissed the Rice reports as a “diversion” during his show Monday night.
He told his audience he “will not insult your intelligence” by focusing too much on the story.
“Let’s be very clear about this: There is no evidence whatsoever that the Trump team … was spied on illegally. There is no evidence that backs up the president’s original claim,” Lemon said.
“We will not insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise, nor will we aid and abet the people who are trying to misinform you, the American people, by creating a diversion.”
Earlier, CNN national security correspondent Jim Sciutto – a former member of the Obama State Department until 2013 – called the Rice story “a distraction.”
“The idea that Ambassador Rice improperly sought the identities of Americans is false. There is nothing unusual about making these requests when serving as a senior national security official, whether Democrat or Republican,” said Sciutto.
“This appears to be a story largely ginned up, partly as a distraction from this larger investigation,” he said.
But Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer said the idea that the Rice story is merely an attempt to divert attention from the Russia-Trump allegations is “simply silly and partisan.”
He asked where Democratic apologists such as former Obama official Ben Rhodes and Sen. Angus King “get the divine authority to decide what is the issue and what is not the issue.”
“There are several issues. The Russian intervention obviously is an issue, and it’s simply cheap, I think, not credible, to say this other story is a smokescreen,” he said.
“Clearly, there were some improprieties in the gathering of information about the Trump people. There probably was felony committed in the leaking of the information about General Flynn.”
‘Thousand times worse than Watergate’
Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, who served on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, called the apparent surveilling of Trump and his associates “a thousand times worse than Watergate.”
Bachmann told USA Radio host Rusty Humphries on Monday that “high officials in the Obama administration” could go to jail.
“I think most Americans haven’t even heard of this story yet, but this makes Watergate pale,” she said. “Remember, we had a president of the United States resign over Watergate.”
She said it’s an example of “how bold, and how lawless the Obama administration was.”
Former CIA operations officer Scott Uehlinger told Breitbart Daily News SiriusXM host Raheem Kassam the Rice issue “deeply concerns people like myself and other people, working-level officers in the intel community.”
“Even though at this point, there seems to be no evidence of breaking the law, this ‘unmasking’ of people was ill-advised at best. I think it really shows that abuse of power and the fact that many people in the Obama administration were willing to violate the spirit of the laws designed to protect Americans, perhaps rather than the law itself.”
He said that as a working-level CIA officer, he was always told by upper management to “avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
“Well, this does not pass that smell test, definitely.”
He said Americans are tired of “seeing two sets of rules followed by the higher-ups and then the working-level people.”
“This is just part of that again. A working-level officer would have gotten into big trouble doing anything remotely like this,” Uehlinger said. “But now, we have a lot of people saying that she should just be given a pass.”
He noted the Obama administration issued an executive order just before leaving office that allowed raw intelligence gathered by the NSA to be shared with 16 agencies.
“First of all, to relax that, there is absolutely no operational justification for doing that. With all of the counter-intelligence problems, with espionage, with Snowden, all these things we’ve had, to raise by an order of magnitude the access to this very sensitive information makes no operational sense at all,” Uehlinger said.
“So for someone to approve that, it’s clear they had another intent, and I believe the intent was to allow for further leakage,” he said. “To give more people access, thus more leaks, which, in fact, would hurt the Trump administration.
“It seems very obvious when you put that together and combine it with the actions of Susan Rice and other people in unmasking people. That is the true purpose behind this.”