So there’s a lot going on with investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and possible collusion between Russians and officials on Trump’s election team. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) has done a lot to bungle that work in recent weeks by leaking info that he later backed down from and cancelling follow-up public hearings with FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. The Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing that revealed an extensive disinformation campaign conducted via Twitter with Russian bots. Former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who resigned after lying to Vice President Mike Pence about meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, is asking for immunity in exchange for testimony.
And now, former Obama-administration National Security Adviser Susan Rice is alleged (via Bloomberg) to have asked for the names of Trump transition members that might’ve been caught up in incidental surveillance of foreign officials.
That’s obviously a lot to unpack, so to help with some of the heavy lifting, here’s a breakdown of who Susan Rice is, what exactly she was asking for and what it means for these investigations.
As mentioned up above, Susan Rice was the last National Security Adviser in the Obama administration and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. At one point, she was in contention to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, but Rice withdrew her name after bungling statements about the nature of the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. That particular incident is something that has stuck in the craw of Republican members of Congress ever since.
Effectively, what Bloomberg’s reporting from Eli Lake shows is that Rice might have been asking for the names of Trump transition members who might have been caught up in incidental surveillance, in order to unmask them. These requests were allegedly uncovered by Trump National Security Council staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom the New York Times previously reported was a source for the information Chairman Nunes shared.
Cohen-Watnick found out about Rice’s multiple requests to unmask individuals in the Trump orbit, which showed up in incidental intelligence reports, and then took this information to White House General Counsel’s office. Lake’s reporting shows that once the info made it there, Cohen-Watnick was told to end his “research” into Rice’s unmasking efforts.
Broadly, a lot. Specifically, there were entire summaries of monitored conversations between foreign officials who were talking about the Trump transition, and direct discussions between members of the Trump team and foreign officials being monitored by U.S. surveillance (such as Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak). According to a source in Lake’s piece, the reports contained “valuable information” about the Trump transition team such as: “whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.”
If this was some of the information that Chairman Nunes was withholding from fellow House Intelligence Committee members, Lake’s reporting says he likely would’ve gotten it from the National Security Council despite the fact that he said he needed to go to the White House to view info that was only on executive branch databases.
Based on the current reporting we have from Lake, no. Such requests, as reported, are likely within the law. In fact, as NBC News points out, officials in the Obama administration aren’t flatly denying that Rice asked for the unmasking of Americans whose names show up in intelligence reports gathered from surveillance of foreign individuals.
And none of the Rice news, in any way, confirms President Trump’s tweet from March 4 that he was illegally wiretapped by the Obama administration.
Moreover, retired four-star general and former NSA Director Keith Alexander told NBC News that he “would routinely turn down requests for unmasking” by officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations. So just because Rice requested such info doesn’t mean she actually got the info.
That’s the million dollar question and by far the toughest and murkiest to definitively answer. As The Atlantic points out, Lake’s reporting gives quasi-vindication to those in the Trump administration who continue to argue that the president was spied on. But the reporting doesn’t confirm political intent for allegedly asking to unmask these names, nor does it put names to allegations. So the entire matter of Rice asking for the names to be unmasked might be any number of degrees of false.
Rice herself might now be called to testify before an intelligence committee.
Finally, as mentioned way up above, the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation has struggled to retain credibility as Chairman Nunes cancels public hearings and gives awkward press conferences without giving up the goods.
At this point, a lot of the investigation into what exactly happened with alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election—and whether there was true collusion—rests in the hands of the Senate Intelligence Committee. For now, that group has shown more bipartisanship than its lower-house counterpart, but that mettle could be tested by allegations past, present and future.