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President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, has reportedly concluded that his predecessor, Susan Rice, did nothing wrong when she tried to learn the identities of officials on Trump’s transition team who were mentioned in US intelligence reports last year.
That is according to Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake, who first broke the story in early April that Rice, who served under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, tried to “unmask” Trump associates mentioned by foreign officials in conversations picked up as part of the US’ intelligence-gathering operations.
Almost one month after Lake broke that story, McMaster appears to have sent a letter to Rice informing her that she could maintain her security clearance, according to the conservative news outlet Circa, which obtained a copy of the letter.
McMaster added that he would “waive the requirement that you must have a ‘need-to-know’ to access any classified information contained in items you ‘originated, reviewed, signed or received while serving,’ as National Security Adviser.”
“Going forward, the NSC will continue to work with you to ensure the appropriate security clearance documentation remains on file to allow you access to classified information,” read the letter, which bears McMaster’s signature.
McMaster said that the decision is based on his determination that “such access is consistent with the national security interests of the United States, and that appropriate steps have been taken to protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure or compromise.”
Spokespeople for Rice and McMaster were not immediately available for comment.
According to Lake, documents showing that Rice made the unmasking requests were uncovered by the NSC’s former senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was fired by McMaster on Wednesday. Cohen-Watnick was involved in providing documents related to the incidental surveillance of members of Trump’s transition team to House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes in March.
Michael Ellis, a former Nunes staffer who now works at the White House, was reportedly involved, too.
It is unclear how Trump, who called the Rice unmasking revelations “the big story” in June, will respond to the news. The White House did not respond to request for comment, but senior West Wing officials told Circa that Trump did not know about the letter. McMaster, meanwhile, is apparently already on thin ice with the more nationalist wing of the White House.
Trump ally and Fox News host Sean Hannity, who dined with the president last week, tweeted: “What is this? Does H.R. McMaster need to go? Susan Rice? Omg.”
One official told the outlet that the letter “undercuts the president’s assertion that Susan Rice’s unmasking activity was inappropriate” and argued that “anybody who committed a violation as she did would not be given access to classified information.”
It is unclear what “violation” the official was referring to. Rice told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in April that allegations she unmasked Trump associates for political reasons were “absolutely false.” And national-security experts broadly agree that Rice’s reported requests to identify who was speaking with the foreign officials before Trump was inaugurated were neither unusual nor against the law.
“The identities of US persons may be released under two circumstances: 1) the identity is needed to make sense of the intercept; 2) if a crime is involved in the conversation,” said Robert Deitz, a former senior counselor to the CIA director and former general counsel at the National Security Agency.
Rice met with the Senate Intelligence Committee late last month to discuss Russia’s election interference, but the Republican chairman of the committee, Richard Burr, said he did not ask Rice about accusations that she improperly unmasked any Trump transition officials.
“The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes, and I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” Burr told CNN at the time. “But clearly there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”