Two weeks ago, she said she knew nothing about Nunes’s accusations of incidental surveillance and unmasking of Trump staffers. Today, she says (at 11:00) that it’s possible Trump personnel were surveilled incidentally and unmasked, but she insists that if it happened it was all above board and legally done for valid intelligence reasons. No one was unmasked for political purposes. (She also flatly denies the report in the Daily Caller this morning about maintaining a spreadsheet of phone calls made by Trump associates.) That defense was predictable. Question, then: Why’d she deny any of this initially on PBS two weeks ago, and what evidence does Nunes have that the unmasking wasn’t done for valid intel reasons? I don’t know how we resolve this standoff unless we get to see some of the reports and try to make a half-assed, decontextualized judgment about whether unmasking was truly necessary or not. And given the sensitivity of the intelligence, that’s unlikely to happen.
John Schindler, a former NSA analyst and harsh Trump critic, thinks there’s probably nothing to the accusations against Rice. Probably — but not certainly:
Although it’s all but impossible to prove, if Rice asked for those identities for political—not national security—reasons, there’s a problem. Then there’s the possibility that she may not have adhered to NSA’s rigid rules about protecting the identities of those unmasked USPs. If she informed White House staffers without a need to know who those Americans were, the FBI may have something to investigate…
In addition, Rice didn’t like to play by the rules, including the top-secret ones. On multiple occasions, she asked the NSA to do things they regarded as unethical and perhaps illegal. When she was turned down—the NSA fears breaking laws for any White House, since they know they will be left holding the bag in the end—Rice kept pushing.
As a longtime NSA official who experienced Rice’s wrath more than once told me, “We tried to tell her to pound sand on some things, but it wasn’t allowed—we were always overruled.” On multiple occasions, Rice got top Agency leadership to approve things which NSA personnel on the front end of the spy business refused. This means there may be something Congress and the FBI need to investigate here.
Rand Paul wants Rice on the Hill, under oath. How about it?
Update: Actually, maybe there is a way to find out whether Rice’s unmasking requests were reasonable or not should of declassifying the reports. We could ask our old friend James Comey.
Rice didn’t and couldn’t “order” the unmasking of any American, current and former officials say. The agencies that hold the raw surveillance transcripts — usually the NSA or the FBI — make that decision. It’s a process subject to rules and reviewed by lawyers, and it has to be justified by an intelligence purpose…
It’s hard to imagine FBI Director James Comey or NSA Director Mike Rogers participating with Obama officials in “political” surveillance of the Trump transition, which is the allegation some Republicans are making. Rogers, after all, has acknowledged that he met with Trump about a job in his administration. Comey has been criticized for how he handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and for actions that polls show helped Trump.
Alexander told NBC News he routinely turned down requests for unmasking by senior officials in the Bush and Obama administrations.
Rice couldn’t have “ordered” any unmasking. She could have requested it, and then it would have been up to Comey and other intel agency chiefs in possession of the raw intel to grant her request or not. That’s her strongest defense, I think — to believe that she successfully “unmasked” Trump personnel en masse for a sustained period of time would have required a conspiracy with non-political Obama intelligence chiefs. Comey presumably could be asked under oath if he received what he regards as an unusual number of unmasking requests from Rice regarding Trump staffers, or if he thought that those requests were made with dubious justifications given the value of the intelligence in any given case. If he says no, what then?
Andy McCarthy counters with this point, though: Given how close Rice was to the president, would Comey and the NSA have really refused an unmasking request from her? Comey should at least be asked.