In late March 2017, U.S. House Representative, Congressman Devin Nunes, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence made his unannounced trip over to the White House National Security Council to review highly classified intelligence about the unmasking of Trump campaign officials. In his review of this material Chairman Nunes discovered and disclosed to the Committee that the Obama administration had conducted incidental surveillance, collection, and unmasking of Trump campaign and administration transition officials. It was a revelation that ignited widespread criticism and debate from nearly every corner of Washington, from both Democrats and Republicans.
Congressman Nunes noted in his open statements during a press conference that he had seen intelligence reports that clearly showed that president-elect Donald Trump and his team from what he could discern were at least monitored by the Obama administration intelligence community. Nunes further explained that it looks to him that while the information appeared to be legally collected, there appeared to be an extensive amount of information on the president-elect and his transition team that focused on their day-to-day activities and what they were doing. Nevertheless, Nunes went on to claim that the information was spread across a number of agencies and had “little or no apparent intelligence value, they were collecting in hope of finding something.
It should be noted that the pattern of Rice’s requests was discovered in a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” the identities of individuals in the U.S. who are not targets of electronic eavesdropping, but whose communications are collected incidentally. Normally official policy has that those names are redacted from summaries of monitored conversations and appear in reports in a specific manner referenced as; “U.S. Person One,” etc.
Of course we were told for weeks that any unmasking of those in Trump’s circle that may have occurred had two innocent explanations: (1) the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the election and (2) the need to know, for purposes of understanding the communications of foreign intelligence targets, the identities of Americans incidentally intercepted or mentioned. The unmasking, Obama apologists insist, had nothing to do with targeting Trump or his people.
While perhaps Nunes’ reasons were partisan, his efforts focused on suspicious illegal actions by the Obama administration. It is more than obvious that his framing by Democrats and Establishment Republicans, and somewhat forced step-down from the investigation was exaggerated. I believe in the coming weeks, we will certainly see. That said, if CNN’s and other liberal mainstream media reporting is correct, everything Chairman Nunes claimed that day in his press conference was basically true. Which in and of itself, is a lot more than we can say for others who were trying to make the case of Russian collusion.
Further, be reminded that on the same day that former National Security Adviser Susan Rice was interviewed by PBS’s Judy Woodruff and asked to respond to Nunes’ accusation that she had unmasked a number of Trump officials in the waning days of the Obama administration. Woodruff questioned Rice saying that PBS has been following a disclosure by the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, that in essentially stated that during the final days of the Obama administration, during the presidential transition following President-elect Trump’s election that he and close members of his team may have been caught up in foreign surveillance of foreign individuals and that Trump officials identities may have been disclosed. Woodruff asked Rice if she knew anything about this? In her response, Rice stated that she knew nothing about this. She in fact went on to say that she was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on his account of that story.
Of course it is well known that Rice wasn’t surprised at all. On Wednesday, CNN reported that Obama’s former national security adviser told House investigators that she had unmasked those senior Trump officials in an effort to better understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was in New York last December 2016. According to the CNN report, UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan had circumvented some diplomatic courtesy, which, apparently, was enough justification for the Obama White House to justify spying on American citizens.
The meeting reportedly came on the heels of efforts by UAE officials to create a back-channel communication between Russia and the incoming Trump administration. According to CNN, the get-together, which included Trump’s named national security advisor Michael Flynn, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and senior strategist Steve Bannon. The meeting was in fact completely Russia-free. Further, the meeting was actually about ascertaining the Trump team’s view of the Middle East region and sharing the UAE’s view of the region and what the U.S. role should be,’ according to corroborating reporting and several Middle East officials. CNN was totally aware and knowledgeable of that as well. Bottom line, there was no effort by anyone coming to establish or arrange any type of back channel communications between Russia and the incoming Trump administration. Speaking from experience – during any Presidential transition period from the day after the election through the inauguration, every country vies for the opportunity to gain access to the President and “named” senior administration officials. It is in fact ‘an access frenzy’ — everyone attempts and competes for the limited access. Any foreign policy expert or member of the media who covers foreign affairs knows that and is ignorant if they don’t.
In the meantime, with regard to Rice’s statement, while Congressman Representative Trey Gowdy and other House members seemed to be okay with this precedent, presented by Rice. Essentially, alluding to the point that there’s nothing to see here. Similarly, Florida Representative Tom Rooney explained to CNN that, he didn’t hear anything to believe that she did anything illegal. So of course, unless Rice or other Obama officials admits to unauthorized unmasking and leaking of classified information – Rice’s statement and both Gowdy’s and Rooney conclusions are probably true.
On the other hand, however, there has been a constant conflating of illegality and abuse by those covering this investigation and its accompanying story. Unmasking is a legitimate power. Few argue it should be illegal. The critical question that must be asked is; ‘was it abused for political purposes.’ When it was convenient, a number of Senate Democrats, the DNC, the American Civil Liberties Union, and numerous others on the political-Left groups warned that Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance could be legally weaponized for political gain. In turn, there is no genuine oversight and nothing can be further from the truth.
In the wake of Susan Rice’s past reputation, the single most important question of Ms. Rice that must be asked is has she earned that trust? This question is pivotal after all, as this is the woman who went on five Sunday morning national talk shows on behalf of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and repeated a bunch of Ben Rhodes-authored falsehoods regarding the September 11, 2012, Benghazi terror attacks, claiming they were the result of a “spontaneous reaction” to “hateful and offensive to a little known obscure video.” This is the women who went on nation TV in the White House Rose Garden and said outright that; Bowe Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” and that “Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield.” This is the woman who went on PBS to lie about her role in unmasking, although there was apparently nothing wrong with it. Rice didn’t tell Woodruff that she couldn’t disclose that kind of sensitive information, nor did she offer no comment. What she said was that she knew nothing about this. That was a lie. Regardless of the political event or situation, Susan Rice is extraordinarily comfortable and ready, willing and well versed in lying to the American people.
To put this into perspective — at a high level, a number of officials like Susan Rice had names unmasked that would not ordinarily be unmasked. As a result, such information was then being pushed widely throughout the intelligence community in unmasked form. Notably, this is particularly concerning because it came after President Obama, in the final month or so of his presidency, suddenly and seemingly apropos of nothing had his Justice Department changed the directives that govern the dissemination of masked Americans so that all of the intelligence agencies, not just the collecting agencies, could have access to raw intelligence information. What was the justification and reasoning for this?
Over the course of this investigation and coverage of this story, White House lawyers learned 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 campaign and transition team to various foreign entities, all innocently part of the post-election process, as noted previous. There are numerous indications that suggest, imply and in fact indicate that Rice may have crossed numerous boundaries. From my perspective and experience much of this is highly unusual, and while in official functional cases legal, the question that must be asked is; not how the surveillance was collected, but more so how and why it was disseminated. In this case, however the real question goes back to square one: did Obama order the unmasking, and if so, for what political purpose? Another point of order is that perhaps Devin Nunes is owed an apology.
As it stands now, it sure looks like members of an incoming Trump administration were spied on by Obama administration officials and or Deep State political operatives who happened to find select meetings suspicious. Those of us career intelligence professionals tend to view this kind of thing as an abuse of power. It will be interesting to hear from those involved in the investigation explain why it wasn’t or isn’t.