In the last months of the Obama administration, officials issued a flurry of requests to “unmask” the identities of American citizens caught up in the surveillance of foreigners, prompting an investigation.
So, asks investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program “Full Measure,” what happened?
It was then-U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power who told congressional investigators “hundreds” of such requests were made in her name alone in 2016, and many of the American citizens were Trump campaign operatives.
At the time she was revealing their identities, she kept up a steady flow of emails lashing out at then-President-elect Donald Trump, strategizing how to undermine his agenda and coordinating opposition to him.
The American Center for Law and Justice said in a report: “Let that sink in: the same top-level Obama administration official reported to have made some 260 unmasking requests seeking surveillance information about the incoming president and his campaign team was simultaneously engaged in communications in which she consoled others over the election results, blatantly insulted the president-elect, colluded with the mainstream media, and actively sought out ways to undermine the new administration before it had even begun.”
But now Attkisson is wondering what happened with that investigation.
“Every day brings new stories about Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether Donald Trump played a role, and alleged abuses by our intelligence agencies,” she wrote. “One of the deepest, darkest, most important issues in the whole mess has to do with the massive number of ‘unmaskings’ of U.S. citizens. It potentially opens a can of worms squirmier than many other issues.”
She said Robert Mueller was FBI chief, James Clapper was director of national intelligence and John Brennan was near the top of the CIA management when the administration sought more authority to spy on Americans.
“Wiretaps can include everything on the web — emails, bank accounts, photos, messaging, Facebook posts. And ‘incidental collection’ can include anything picked up when a target is watched directly, through a bug, or by secretly activating his computer’s microphone and camera,” she pointed out.
While U.S. citizens not accused of crimes are entitled to privacy protections, the federal agencies at that time decided the keep the information that was caught up in their dragnets.
“Then, they argued that they needed to store the information on U.S. citizens a little longer, and might occasionally need to ‘unmask’ or reveal their names. Still, ‘unmasking’ was supposed to be extraordinarily rare, requiring a high-ranking official’s approval accompanied by a strong legal argument that the citizen’s name is crucial to addressing some national-security threat,” she wrote.
But Attkisson said her inside sources explain what became of the system: “An official who is a bad actor may want to monitor a U.S. citizen — say, a political enemy or a journalist — but knows he could never get wiretap approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). So he develops a pretext to wiretap a foreigner or a target in contact with that citizen. He then ‘incidentally’ captures the citizen’s information, too. Later, he builds a case for ‘unmasking’ the U.S. citizen’s name, supposedly for national security or other crucial reasons.”
She pointed out that besides Power, acting Attorney General Sally Yates and national security adviser Susan Rice, along with Clapper, were active in such cases.
“What if my sources are correct and at least some of these actions are not on the up and up? After all, our intel agencies have gotten caught in significant abuses, despite FBI Director Christopher Wray incorrectly testifying to the contrary,” she wrote.
She noted the inspector general in 2016 found widespread abuse of the possibilities.
“Could it help explain my own case in which government spy software was found on my work and personal devices?” Attkisson wondered. “Hypothetically, if bad actors abused their authority, might they be so anti-Trump partly because a wildcard Trump administration could be expected to unearth what they’d been doing all these years?”
She has reported her own computers have been monitored and hacked, alleging in a lawsuit several years ago her drive was swapped out by the government.