Like most Washington scandals, the frenzy over a senior Obama adviser unmasking identities of Trump officials is larger and smaller than both sides imagine.
President Donald Trump and his supporters say the former national security adviser, Susan Rice, engaged in domestic political spying when she asked for the identities of Trump transition officials caught up in surveillance of foreign targets. (In March, Trump accused his predecessor on Twitter of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower, and he has since said the Rice story confirmed his initial tweet. It didn't.)
Democrats and some Never Trump types say the fixation on Rice is a dangerous distraction from the real story: collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. If Rice unmasked names in intelligence reports (which she did), these Trump critics say she was justified because of the unique threat of Russian influence over the incoming president.
The Rice scandal is larger than either party's party line because it raises the prospect of abuse of the U.S. surveillance apparatus. A senior White House official can learn quite a bit about political opposition by unmasking the redacted names of U.S. citizens caught up in the routine surveillance of foreign targets. As I've written before, in the Obama years it looks like it was routine for senior government officials to request the identities of those Americans.
But the scandal is also smaller than it seems in Washington, because it turns out one instance of Rice's unmasking, reported last week by CNN, has nothing to do with Russia. The report relates to a visit to New York from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates. During the transition he traveled to Four Seasons Hotel for a meeting with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Trump's political strategist Stephen Bannon; and Michael Flynn, the retired general who would go on to serve less than a month as Trump's national security adviser.
Normally, visiting dignitaries like Prince Mohammed inform the U.S. government of their travel. In this case, he didn't and proceeded to take a lengthy meeting with the incoming administration. Participants from both sides tell me the meeting covered a range of topics about the Middle East — Iranian expansion, the war in Yemen, counterterrorism. Neither Emirati nor U.S. participants said they broached the prospect of a channel to Russia.
Unmasking Kushner, Bannon and Flynn in that meeting is not in and of itself evidence of political spying. It does not support Trump's claim that Obama had tapped Trump Tower. It doesn't rise to the level of a scandal. What's more, Republicans like Representative Trey Gowdy have praised Rice for her openness this month in her closed-session testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, and reiterated a point made by that committee's chairman, Devin Nunes, that Rice did not violate the law by requesting that some U.S. persons in intelligence reports be unmasked. Rice, according to sources familiar with her testimony, reiterated that she never leaked the information she unmasked.
Gowdy is still trying to get answers. He told me Monday, "The issues are serious enough to warrant an open-minded, objective review, but we don't have all the information necessary to draw to a conclusion."
That's important. Gowdy says he still has not received exact numbers on how many times Rice or other senior Obama officials made requests to unmask U.S. citizens in intelligence reports. He said he doesn't yet have enough information to determine whether the volume of requests or their dissemination within the intelligence community were unusual. His committee has learned that Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, also made a number of unmasking requests in her final year in office. Was that unusual or part of her job? Why did she need this information?
"I can only judge within the strictures of my interactions," Gowdy said. "I can't extrapolate to broader points until I talk to all the witnesses and see all the documents. The next witness could contradict all of what Rice said."
Gowdy told me that he has come to the view that the unmasking issue has little to do with Russia, and has much more to do with the vast surveillance powers accrued in recent years by the national security state under Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At the end of 2015, Nunes and the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, Representative Adam Schiff, became aware of the White House unmasking members of Congress who met with Israeli leaders during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal. They succeeded in getting the intelligence community to agree to inform congressional leaders in the future when members of Congress are unmasked.
Gowdy himself is not opposed to the surveillance programs authorized under Title VII of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But he acknowledges that the difficult time his committee has had getting more information from the intelligence agencies about the last administration's unmasking requests makes broad surveillance a tough sell to his colleagues this fall as Congress looks to vote again to reauthorize these programs.
"My interest is in going to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and saying this is an important national security tool and this is how it's used," Gowdy said. "A lot of my colleagues right now are very skeptical of reauthorizing this because of how little we know about unmasking."
All of this brings us back to Trump. It's easy to poke fun at how the president is prone to hyperbole in his Twitter account. But when he came into office, Trump faced a spate of highly classified leaks, which forced Flynn to resign and led the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from the Justice Department's investigation into Russian influence of the election. Add to this that CNN reported Tuesday that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was surveilled under FISA authorization both before and after the election. It's easy to see in this context that Trump was genuinely concerned that his predecessor was turning the watchful eye of the U.S. government against him.
We will learn soon enough from Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia's influence of the 2016 election, whether the government's eavesdroppers were warranted in their suspicion of Trump and his associates.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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