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Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice reportedly tried to learn the identities of officials on President Donald Trump’s transition team whose conversations with foreign officials were incidentally collected during routine intelligence-gathering operations.
The intelligence reports obtained by Rice, who served under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, “were summaries of monitored conversations – primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials,” Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported on Monday.
National-security experts say Rice’s reported requests to identify who was speaking with the foreign officials before Trump was inaugurated were neither unusual nor against the law – especially if, as Lake reported, the foreign officials being monitored were discussing “valuable political information” that required the identity of the people they were speaking to, or about, to be uncovered.
“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.
“Any senior official who receives the underlying intelligence may request these identities,” Deitz said, noting that while “the bar for obtaining the identity is not particularly high, it must come from a senior official, and the reason cannot simply be raw curiosity.”
Documents showing that Rice made those requests were uncovered by the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, according to Lake’s reporting. 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 about two weeks ago, though it is unclear if they are the same documents mentioned in Lake’s reporting.
- J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Nunes, a California Republican, told reporters last month that he briefed Trump on the documents because he was concerned about the potential “unmasking” of US persons caught up in routine surveillance, though he said he had no evidence that such unmasking had been unwarranted or illegal.
A source of concern to some, however, has been why some of Trump’s associates who had been caught up in the surveillance and later unmasked, such as former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, had their names leaked to the press. Lake, for instance, has argued that the “selective leaking of monitored communications of US persons is a police-state tactic.”
But former NSA Director Michael Hayden, who also served as the principal deputy director of national intelligence and the director of the CIA, cautioned against “automatically assuming that the US person was party to the conversation” that may have prompted an unmasking.
“My life experience suggests that the overwhelming proportion of these cases of incidental collection is not information to or from an American, but information about an American,” Hayden said. “In this case, it is very likely in most instances two foreigners talking about the Trump transition.”
Lake’s article follows a Fox News report citing “a source” who said the official who sought to identify the people who were speaking with monitored foreign agents was “very well known, very high up, very senior in the intelligence world.”
Trump on Monday praised Fox’s “amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us,” which he said showed that “there was electronic surveillance” of his inner circle during the transition.
‘A carefully documented process’
As Nunes has told reporters and as Lake has reported, there is no evidence that Trump and his team were directly surveilled.
The move by Rice, if she had probable cause, could likely be viewed as routine and expected of high-level intelligence officials, said Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and former executive assistant to the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence.
- Thomson Reuters
“There is an unavoidable tension between, on one hand, restricting information to protect the privacy of US persons and, on the other hand, sharing enough information with the consumers of intelligence so that the intelligence report in question is comprehensible and useful,” Pillar said in an email. “And if the report is not that, why bother collecting and disseminating the information in the first place?
“The producer of the report, usually the NSA, tends to err on the side of restricting the information, while a senior consumer’s natural tendency is to want more information.”
Steve Slick, a former CIA operations officer and NSC official who now heads the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed that the consumer of the report would often require more information to understand the significance of the intelligence.
“By definition, any report that the NSA elects to disseminate is relevant to a foreign or national-security issue,” Slick said. But it is “often not possible for a consumer or reader to fully understand the significance of a report without knowing precisely which US person may have been communicating with the foreign official,” he added.
“The national security adviser, or a member of his/her staff, or perhaps a morning intelligence briefer, would convey that request to the originating agency with an explanation of who wishes to know the identity and why,” Slick said. “In my experience, legitimate requests are promptly granted, and less defensible requests (or requesters) are challenged.”
Hayden largely echoed that assessment.
“The NSA is notoriously conservative in revealing US identities in its reporting,” Hayden said. “Obviously, a request from the national security adviser to unmask an identity would be given great weight. That said, it is not automatic and goes through a carefully documented process at the NSA before an identity is unmasked.”
- REUTERS/Cem Oksuz/Pool
An ‘effort to divert attention’ from the Trump-Russia probe
Pillar, who is now a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, said Rice may have even been motivated to request identities in order to constrain her own communications.
“If Ms. Rice was communicating with members of Trump’s team regarding transition matters and she learns from intelligence that some such members also are communicating with the Russians, she would want to know exactly who is doing that so she can be extra careful in her own talks, lest something she says gets relayed to Moscow,” Pillar said.
At least one member of Trump’s transition team had his conversations picked up incidentally during routine surveillance of Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, last year: Flynn, the former national security adviser. He was forced to resign in February after reports surfaced that said he spoke with Kislyak about US sanctions on Russia despite telling Vice President Mike Pence that he hadn’t.
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The FBI has been examining whether Trump associates colluded with Russian officials to undermine Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election. The probe into Trump’s ties to Russia is part of the bureau’s broader investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, FBI Director James Comey said during a House Intelligence Committee hearing last month.
“This whole story strikes me as just more of the effort to divert attention from the issue of the relations that Trump and his associates have had with Russia, and as part of the diversion to try to suggest impropriety of some sort on the part of the Obama administration,” Pillar said. “In other words, it’s a continuation of an effort to salvage something from Trump’s baseless charges about Obama wiretapping him.”
The White House has tried repeatedly, with varying degrees of evidence, to validate Trump’s explosive claim made last month that Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower during the election.
A former Obama administration official responsible for the Defense Department’s Russia policy, for instance, came into the White House’s crosshairs last week for what it has characterized as her admission that Obama-era officials were collecting intelligence on Trump and his transition team.
Pillar said that “an important thing to remember is that we are dealing with foreign intelligence – intelligence on Russian activities – and indeed, Russian activities that strike close to the heart of our democratic processes.
“We should be disturbed if whoever was in office was not keeping close tabs on that sort of thing,” he said.