President Obama and Susan Rice make a secure call in a SCIF. CREDIT: Wikipedia commons.

Bloomberg National security columnist Eli Lake reported on Monday that former National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama Susan Rice requested that names of Trump associates mentioned in intercepted communications between foreigners, and in some cases communications between Russian officials and members of the Trump team, be “unmasked” in classified intelligence reports. Such requests aren’t improper, but it’s not routine.

Normally, a U.S. person’s name would be obscured from intelligence reports derived from foreign surveillance. For example, an American might be referred to as “U.S. Person A.” In some cases, when the identity of the U.S. person is critical for understanding of the foreign intelligence, an official will request that it be “unmasked.” Unmasking does not authorize the leaking of information. It also does not mean that Trump officials were targeted for surveillance as the President claimed in a tweet last month.

But, it does raise questions about whether the “unmasking” broke rules intended to protect the privacy of Americans incidentally picked up in the process of spying on foreigners. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the names of U.S. persons are supposed to be obscured “unless such person’s identity is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance.” Such U.S. person information can also be revealed for law enforcement purposes if it involves evidence that a crime has been committed or will be in the future.

A counter-intelligence investigation of Russia’s election interference would obviously create a situation in which knowing the names of U.S. persons involved was important. Nothing would make much sense if you didn’t know whether it was about at least one U.S. person, Donald Trump. Most of the intercepted communications were reportedly between foreigners. To the extent they discussed Trump campaign officials, assessing the conversation requires knowing who they are talking about. If there turned out to be an intercepted conversation between a Russian intelligence officer and a Trump associate about Moscow’s efforts to sway the election in Trump’s favor, a name would obviously be relevant there too. Some “unmasking” is to be expected.

But, Lake’s column says that at least some of the unmasked names appeared in reports that do not pertain to Russia. Some also reportedly contain politically useful information about the Trump campaign and transition.

“One U.S. official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.”

One reason you cannot unmask a person is to gain useful information for political reasons. We don’t know what the information actually was and whether it was important in some other way for foreign intelligence purposes. But, if names of Trump associates were unmasked for political reasons that are not pertinent to understanding foreign intelligence information, then we’ve got two scandals on our hands.

“If names of Trump associates were included for political reasons that are not pertinent to understanding foreign intelligence information, then we’ve got two scandals on our hands.”

Abuse of foreign surveillance for political purposes seems far-fetched. But, Rice is already a lightning rod. Her claim that the 2012 Benghazi attacks were protests, rather than the work of terrorists, put her at the center of a heated controversy. Last month, Rice said in a PBS interview that she was unaware of any such incidental surveillance on Trump associates. If Lake’s report is accurate, Rice apparently was not telling the truth. Whatever the case, Congress needs to get to the bottom of it.

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