Ever since Devin Nunes’s mysterious announcement of supposed surveillance of Trump transition team members two weeks ago, the story has operated on two levels. The first is why Nunes behaved the way he did—with mysterious cloak-and-dagger maneuvers—and who he got his information from. It now appears that despite rushing to brief President Trump on his news, the GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee received his information from the White House in the first place.
The second, and more obscure, concerns the actual material that Nunes had. He was cagey about it, in part because it is apparently classified. He said that Trump transition team members were subject to “incidental collection,” which refers to U.S. persons being caught up in legal surveillance of foreign targets. There was no indication of illegality, but the names Americans who are incidentally collected are typically meant to be redacted, and Nunes said some names were possibly improperly revealed, or “unmasked,” by the Obama administration.
If that is true, who was behind the unmasking? Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake reports one answer Monday:
White House lawyers last month discovered that the former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
Lake further reports that Rice’s pattern of requesting unmasking was discovered by Trump National Security Council staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom The New York Times reported last week was one of Nunes’s sources. Cohen-Watnick informed the White House Counsel’s office, Lake reports.
Rice has not commented on the report. It would likely be legal for Rice to request the unmasking—“The standard for senior officials to learn the names of U.S. persons incidentally collected is that it must have some foreign intelligence value, a standard that can apply to almost anything,” Lake notes.
As Lake notes, nothing he—or anyone else—has uncovered lends credence to President Trump’s outlandish and unsupported claim that Obama ordered surveillance of him at Trump Tower prior to the election. Nor does the new story suggest any illegal behavior on Rice’s part. As with each step in the story, this one offers only a small sliver of information. Many experts seem to think the Bloomberg View story does not imply anything improper or unusual. Others withheld judgment, saying there’s simply not enough information to judge.
“In a situation where there’s incidental collection and it appears that they’re discussing U.S. incoming or current officials, it would not be unusual for a national security adviser to try to understand what it is this foreign government is trying to do to manipulate their position against the U.S.,” said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and national-security commentator. “That’s how the game is played.”
Assuming Lake’s story is accurate, why would Rice have wanted to have names unmasked?
One possibility is that Rice was acting in connection with a joint investigation into Russian meddling in the election. The government had already concluded, based on the assessments of multiple intelligence agencies, that Russia was meddling in the election. There were also ongoing investigations into potentially illegal behavior by Trump staffers. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was reportedly already being examined for his contacts with Russia, as were other Trump aides, current and former.
A second possibility is that it was simply the course of business to try to figure out what foreign governments were thinking. If foreign officials were seeking to shape U.S. policy or get a leg up, intercepts could have been useful to the national security adviser, and Rice might have wanted names unmasked to make those intercepts intelligible. It is still not clear whether Trump transition team officials were directly incidentally collected (i.e., they were in conversation with surveillance targets) or indirectly collected (i.e., they were mentioned during conversations between a third party and surveillance targets, and then masked).
Typically, an administration might be able to glean some of this information from communications with the incoming team. But ties were strained between the Obama administration and Trump transition, and both were effectively conducting foreign policy at the same time. That’s unusual—typically, the new administration keeps its head down until January 20—but Trump and his aides were speaking out on a variety of issues.
Trump team members criticized a U.S. vote in the UN Security Council about Israeli settlements. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak about new sanctions placed on Russia. (These were the conversations about which Flynn lied to Pence, eventually leading to his firing.) The White House might have also been concerned about Flynn lobbying for the Turkish government without disclosing it. Trump himself committed a serious breach of protocol by speaking on the phone with the president of Taiwan. All of this was happening amid apparently minimal conversation between the incoming and outgoing president.
A third possibility is that Rice was conducting political espionage—affirming Trump’s allegations of a Watergate-style operation. It’s hard to guess to what end she would have been doing that, though, and in any case all reported surveillance occurred after the election, contrary to Trump’s allegations.
Yet Rice’s involvement is good news for the Trump administration, whose allies are already using it to try to vindicate the president’s claim of having been spied on—even if it’s not really the claim that Trump made in the first place. (It helps that Rice is reviled and distrusted by Republicans for her role in the Benghazi flap.)
Even if everything was legal, there’s fodder for the administration’s defenders to claim that Trump officials were spied on. While there’s a certain hypocrisy to GOP politicians suddenly being deeply concerned about incidental collection they shrugged off in the past, the political effects are real. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said on Face the Nation on Sunday:
What’s happened this month is that what initially seemed a preposterous argument by Donald Trump, that he had been wiretapped by President Obama illegally, has morphed into an argument about privacy, about proper masking techniques, a very technical, legal issue, and is now accepted, I think, as part of the mainstream set of issues that are going to be debated by the two intelligence committees. And from Trump’s standpoint, that’s, I think you’d have to say, that’s a success. It may be a pyrrhic victory for Nunes, whose credibility, the ability to lead the committee, is radically compromised, but that’s now in the center stage.
Indeed, Nunes still has not explained his strange behavior, nor his apparent prevarication on the source of his information: He claimed the White House was unaware of the information or of his visit to the executive mansion’s grounds the night before he announced, neither of which seems true now. Nunes’s office did not reply to a request for comment on the Rice story. A spokesman for Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Schiff had no immediate comment.
The political winds may be shifting on this story, or at least blowing in a slightly more favorable direction for the White House. But unless firm evidence of any actual wrongdoing emerges, these partial revelations, some favorable to the president and some unfavorable, are probably mostly a distraction, or at least a way to while away time, until the real news emerges from the congressional or FBI investigations.