Ken Dilanian, intelligence and national security reporter for NBC News, posted Tuesday on the emerging controversy over the “unmasking,” by President Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice, of the identities of Trump associates whose names were originally redacted in intelligence reports. Rice has admitted to asking for the names of Trump associates while at first denying any knowledge.
Even the Observer’s intelligence reporter John Schindler, who has been emotionally bashing Donald Trump on Twitter for months, says regretfully that there may be something worth investigating in the Rice unmasking imbroglio. (Rice also spread the lie that a Youtube video caused an attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.)
But the title to Dilanian’s piece, “What Is Unmasking, and Did Susan Rice Do Anything Wrong?” made it safe to assume that Dilanian’s answer would be “Of course she didn’t!”
It doesn't have the ring of "Benghazi," or "Whitewater," but Republicans are seizing upon what they see as a new scandal: "Improper unmasking."
The issue: Did President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, do something wrong when she requested that the identities of some Trump aides be "unmasked," or revealed to a small group of cleared government officials, after those names turned up in surveillance reports of foreigners in the waning days of the last administration?
"Now we know that someone in the Obama administration was eavesdropping and specifically searching a databank looking for the Trump (people)," Sen. Rand Paul proclaimed Tuesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
In fact, there is no evidence of that.
Senior Obama administration officials don't dispute that Rice requested the "unmasking" of certain Americans whose names appeared in intelligence reports resulting from eavesdropping on foreigners -- meaning the foreigners were discussing the Americans or talking to them. Usually, those names are blacked out. But the blackout can be lifted if doing so is necessary to help understand the intelligence.
Dilanian didn’t mention that Rice herself denied that she had made the requests, back on March 22 on PBS.
Requesting that is a routine thing for national security advisers to do, according to former senior officials, including Keith Alexander, who directed the National Security Agency.
Rice's role was first discussed by Mike Cernovich, who is also known for promoting a false story that a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor was a nest of pedophiles connected to Hillary Clinton. Unmasking was then the subject of a story by Eli Lake, a conservative columnist for Bloomberg View.
After he tossed out those big hits that the accusations against Rice were political, Dilanian waved away concerns about politicization of the intelligence process during the presidential campaign.
It's hard to imagine FBI Director James Comey or NSA Director Mike Rogers participating with Obama officials in "political" surveillance of the Trump transition, which is the allegation some Republicans are making. Rogers, after all, has acknowledged that he met with Trump about a job in his administration. Comey has been criticized for how he handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and for actions that polls show helped Trump.
If Russians under surveillance were talking about or to Trump associates, the names of those people would have been relevant.
That incredibly credulous take on Rice’s position was surprisingly undercut somewhat by the Times’ Peter Baker on Wednesday in “Obama Ex-Adviser Addresses Surveillance Debate,” which under the bland headline actually quoted Rice skeptics at length:
Fellow Republicans seized on reports about Ms. Rice in the conservative news media. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky called the reports a “smoking gun” and said Ms. Rice should be subpoenaed to testify. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Congress should look into the reports.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas pointed to the dispute over Ms. Rice’s role in characterizing the 2012 attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which killed the American ambassador and three other American officials. “Susan Rice is the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy,” Mr. Cotton said on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. “Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it.”
Mr. Trump’s aides dismissed Ms. Rice’s comments. “Lyin’, leakin’ Susan Rice stammered through her soft ball interview with Dem PR person Andrea Mitchell,” Dan Scavino Jr., the White House social media director, wrote on Twitter.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Ms. Rice’s actions seemed to contradict her previous public comments.
After Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced last month that he had seen reports indicating that Mr. Trump or his associates might have been “incidentally” swept up in the monitoring of foreigners, Ms. Rice told PBS: “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”
Mr. Spicer suggested that Ms. Rice had not been forthcoming. “She was the one who went out and said, quote, that she had nothing to do with this on a program a few weeks ago, and now you see more and more reports,” he told reporters.