Worth noting because it contradicts Nunes’s bombshell claim about improper “unmasking” of Trump staffers by the Obama administration, but frustrating because it relies on — ta da — nothing but anonymous sources. Maybe that was unavoidable in this case, though. Nunes’s decision to go public about the intelligence reports he saw earned him an investigation by the House Ethics Committee. Any House or Senate staffer who went on record to refute him might earn an ethics reprimand of their own. So they decided to whisper to CNN instead.
It is noteworthy, though, that CNN claims even Republicans who have seen the reports don’t see what the fuss is about.
After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN…
One congressional intelligence source described the requests made by Rice as “normal and appropriate” for officials who serve in that role to the president.
And another source said there’s “absolutely” no smoking gun in the reports, urging the White House to declassify them to make clear there was nothing alarming in the documents.
Will Susan Rice end up being let off the hook? Well, remember, we’re not totally sure she’s even on the hook. Nunes himself has never mentioned Rice in connection with any of this. That came from U.S. officials who spoke to Eli Lake, although Trump himself seems sufficiently convinced that she was involved somehow to have suggested publicly that she might be guilty of a crime. (Then again, he also claimed Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower.) How can we get to the bottom of this?
Michael Hayden, Bush’s former CIA chief (and an anti-Trumper), has a suggestion. Why not let a team of intel pros review the reports Nunes has seen and issue their own verdict on whether “unmasking” was appropriate under the circumstances or not? From what he can make of Nunes’s accusations, Hayden is skeptical that Rice or anyone else in the Obama White House was guilty of wrongdoing in wanting to know the identities of Americans mentioned in intelligence reports about the election. Why wouldn’t they want to know? This is foreign intelligence, Hayden emphasizes, and the White House has an interest in knowing whether and why foreign powers are shifting their policies towards the United States based on a presidential election and the personnel associated with it:
Barely reading between the lines of Chairman Nunes’ comments, it’s clear to this former NSA Director (who was there for the 2001 and 2005 transitions) that the Chairman was referring to what must have been overwhelming foreign speculation as to the future course of the United States following Trump’s victory. After all, foreign capitals were as surprised as most of us were at the outcome.
In the normal course of its intelligence work, the NSA would collect, process, translate, analyze and report on these communications when they revealed significant foreign intelligence like what country X thought about or how it planned to respond to policy Y or rumored appointee Z. Or where country X saw weakness or leverage it could exploit.
Taken in its entirety, this is called intelligence. It’s why we do all of this in the first place.
It’s possible that this process was abused for political reasons, Hayden allows, but he makes a fair point in noting that the man in custody of the juiciest intel, NSA chief Mike Rogers, was already out of favor within the Obama administration around the time of the election. Why would he further jeopardize his own career by conspiring with Susan Rice or anyone else in the White House to improperly unmask members of the Trump transition team when the Obama White House was already treating him as an enemy? If anything, Rogers could have ingratiated himself to Trump and secured his job (which he still holds) by refusing any such requests and then leaking to the media about them.
Anyway. “A group of trusted agents — perhaps a bipartisan group of respected former security and intelligence officials — could make quick work of the task” of reviewing the reports Nunes has seen, writes Hayden, and then issue a report on the propriety of any unmasking requests. If CNN’s report is accurate, Democrats should be pushing for that right now. I’d add, though, that I think it would help the public form a judgment on whether Team Trump was targeted or not if we also had a sense of how often Clinton campaign members turned up in intelligence reports and how often they were unmasked. Was there a numerical disparity between the two sides in how often they were caught up incidentally in surveillance? Was there a numerical disparity in how many on each side were unmasked? There, er, may be valid reasons why the Obama White House saw more Trump-related names than Clinton-related ones, but if there wasn’t a disparity, that would go a long way towards suggesting that maybe nothing inappropriate happened after all.