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Unmasking the Unmaskers
What Susan Rice did used to be unusual, but it was encouraged by years of expanding access to signals intelligence.
When then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice asked for the names of Donald Trump aides who were communicating with foreign officials and being monitored by the National Security Agency, she probably didn’t anticipate igniting a firestorm.
The saga kicked off in February, when the Washington Post reported that key Trump advisor Michael Flynn had been chatting with the Russian ambassador, an article that led to his early resignation from the president’s team.
By March, Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, declared that the Trump team had been seriously wronged. After Nunes’ alleged mysterious midnight run on the White House grounds came to light, his committee’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election was thrown into political turmoil, prompting his departure from the investigation.
The next month, Rice was identified as at least one official who asked that the names of Americans who spoke with Russian officials be “unmasked,” though it’s unclear whether she uncovered Flynn’s name. Critics quickly accused her of being a source of the leaks, an allegation she’s vehemently denied.
Trump, citing no evidence, told the New York Times in April that Rice might have committed a “crime.”
The reality, based on interviews conducted by Foreign Policy with former national security advisors and senior intelligence officials, appears more complex. Although there is some agreement that what Rice did could be considered controversial for a national security advisor, former officials point to the expanding number of people who have access to signals intelligence as the reason the situation arose.
“I was in the White House for almost six years,” former National Security Advisor John Poindexter, who served in the Reagan administration, told Foreign Policy. “I don’t recall any request to unmask the information from the NSA intercepts. I did not make any such requests.”
Poindexter, who left the White House in 1986 during the Iran-Contra scandal, returned to prominence after 9/11 when he became involved in a now-defunct counterterrorism program. He helped create Total Information Awareness, a program that sifted through data to find patterns that could be used to prevent terrorist attacks
The program, which drew congressional scrutiny and was accused of being an Orwellian surveillance program, was shut down in 2003.
Poindexter said that unmasking those engaged in political campaigns would have been “very unusual” when he was in the White House. “We deliberately did not want to do that because of the political implications. … I can’t find any justification for it,” he said.
Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who preceded Poindexter as national security advisor, agreed. “I’m sure I never asked for anybody to be unmasked,” he said.
McFarlane said he tended to defer to the FBI to pursue intelligence that included American names. “I would have assumed that if the bureau had initiated a counterintelligence investigation and they had identified an American and concluded there was probable cause of criminal activity, then they would have initiated that on their own,” he said.
McFarlane, who also worked for two other national security advisors, Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, said he remembered “not more than two or three cases” where Americans’ calls were caught up in an investigation. That information was physically delivered to the White House by the director of central intelligence for a handful of people who needed to know, McFarlane said. Neither Kissinger nor Scowcroft could be reached for comment.
However, times have changed, particularly when it comes to signals intelligence. The volume of communications swept up in the dragnet has increased significantly, as well as the number of Americans who are “incidentally” collected with foreign targets.
“The flow of raw intelligence to senior customers at the White House — and the level of detail going into finished intelligence — expanded dramatically after Sept. 11, 2001,” said David Priess, author of The President’s Book of Secrets and a former daily intelligence briefer at the CIA, in an interview with FP. “Top officials during the last 15 years have seen foreign intelligence and homeland security overlap much more than their counterparts in the 1980s saw, naturally presenting many more opportunities for U.S. persons to appear, but be masked, in foreign intelligence reports.”
Poindexter thinks that expanding access to NSA intercepts is to blame. “A much larger audience of reviewers have the information,” he said, “which makes it easier to leak and for the White House to deny it.”
It is now more common for senior U.S. officials, including the national security advisor and the assistant to the president for homeland security and terrorism or their senior staff directors, to request more information when handed an intelligence report on an unnamed American.
These types of requests happened “in a whole range of contexts … long before the Russia stuff,” a former senior White House intelligence official told FP.
That request could be connected to a meeting with a foreign minister the next day in an attempt to find out who that official had been in touch with in the United States. The national security advisor might want to know “whether it was a lobbyist, a congressperson, the secretary of state, or the National Security Council staff itself.”
The FBI wouldn’t be particularly concerned with that type of information.
Gen. Colin Powell, who served as national security advisor to former President Ronald Reagan and secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, told FP that unmasking requests depended entirely on the circumstances.
“Any requests if made depend on the situation and the context of the request, not who the [national security advisor] was,” Powell wrote in an email. “Unless you know the context, level of importance and urgency,” trying to estimate how often Americans were unmasked is “meaningless … because you don’t have the whys.”
“And it was all done legally and approved by agencies outside of the [national security advisor],” he wrote in the email.
Several former national security advisors, including Tom Donilon, Jim Jones, Tony Lake, Condoleezza Rice, and Zbigniew Brzezinksi either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
By the latter years of the George W. Bush administration, a steady stream of signals intelligence information turned into a flood, said two more recently retired senior White House officials, who asked not to be identified.
The requests for unmasking are often driven by the need to make sense of intelligence. “If the U.S. persons are current government officials … or people doing their regular lobbying jobs … it’s really hard to understand things without getting information,” said a former official who worked for the National Security Council. “You often couldn’t understand what was going on unless you asked for the identity of the U.S. persons.”
Agencies involved in intelligence, including the CIA, FBI, and State Department, make their own unmasking requests for “operational” purposes, the official said. However, those agencies would not include that information in intelligence reports even if the information seemed important, because those reports are published for dozens, if not hundreds, of people.
Requests to unmask names, coming from the national security advisor or his or her senior staff, are directed to specific offices at the FBI and NSA, reviewed by lawyers, and ultimately approved or denied. However, it is unclear how many people have the authority to request that names be unmasked.
FBI Director James Comey, during a March hearing, was unable to provide the exact number of people at the bureau who are allowed to “unmask” the names of Americans in electronic surveillance reports. However, he confirmed that other agencies can approach the FBI to make requests if the bureau generated the report.
Former Deputy FBI Director John Pistole, now president of Anderson University, told FP that he was “not aware” of a national security advisor making such a request during his tenure between 2004 and 2010, but “it may have gone directly to the Director or [General Counsel],” he wrote in an email.
While Rice’s request was legal, it might not have been the best idea, the former National Security Council official told FP.
“It didn’t really surprise me that the national security advisor might ask” about Americans communicating with foreign officials under surveillance, the official said. “But it might have been more prudent for Susan Rice to have not asked just to avoid the appearance that the White House was getting involved in politics.”
The real issue may be one of optics.
“There are things that you can ask for,” the official said, “but it might be better not to.”
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images