Did he mean this the way it came out? Because it sounds like he suspects his counterpart on the House Intelligence Committee falsely accused the Obama administration of improperly unmasking Trump associates.
Susan Rice, who served as former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, quietly met behind closed doors Friday with Senate intelligence committee investigators probing Russian meddling in the elections, according to an official familiar with the matter…
[Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard] Burr did not raise concerns about allegations that Rice improperly unmasked any US individuals, an issue first raised by House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes.
“The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes, and I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” Burr said. “But clearly there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”
He’s not drawing any firm conclusions yet about whether the unmasking was proper but the phrase “created by” smells a lot like “manufactured,” which was what Democrats accused Nunes of when he first complained about unmasking earlier this year. The Dem theory was that Nunes was hyping perfectly proper natsec procedures followed by the Obama White House to manufacture a counter-scandal that Republicans could use to try to change the subject from Russiagate, likely at the White House’s behest. Nunes, remember, had been directed by contacts in the White House to raw intelligence reports compiled during the Obama administration that referenced American citizens associated with the Trump campaign. Supposedly Nunes had seen evidence that Obama officials had “unmasked” the identities of those Trump associates; while he didn’t claim that the unmasking had been done unlawfully, he implied that the motives behind it were improper/political and further that the information had been improperly shared with people who shouldn’t have had access to it. Burr backs him up on the latter point — some of the unmasked intelligence leaked — but on the former point, that the unmasking had been improper to begin with, he sounds skeptical.
As far as I know, Nunes himself never publicly named Susan Rice as a culprit in the unmasking. Her name was leaked to reporters by White House sources, and then Trump himself rashly accused her of probably having committed a crime when he was asked about it, but Nunes has always been cautious about pointing his finger at specific Obama personnel. One possible reason why: It may not be Rice who’s the central figure in Obama-era unmasking improprieties. Per this Free Beacon report from a few days ago, the central figure may be Samantha Power:
Power appears to be central to efforts by top Obama administration officials to identify individuals named in classified intelligence community reports related to Trump and his presidential transition team, according to multiple sources…
“Unmasking is not a regular occurrence—absolutely not a weekly habit. It is rare, even at the National Security Council, and ought to be rarer still for a U.N. ambassador,” according to one former senior U.S. official who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon…
“The subpoena for Power suggests just how pervasive the Obama administration’s spying on Americans actually was,” said one veteran GOP political operative who has been briefed on the matter by senior Congressional intelligence officials. “The U.N. ambassador has absolutely no business calling for the quantity and quality of the intelligence that Power seems to have been asking for.”
Those points were all made back in early June when Power was first named as the target of a subpoena by Nunes’s House Intelligence Committee. Why was someone who didn’t work in natsec for Obama of interest to an investigation into improper intelligence unmasking? Was Samantha Power unmasking Trump campaign staffers in intel reports for raw partisan reasons?
The wrinkle in that theory is that unmasking is a discretionary practice by the FBI and NSA. An administration official like Power can request that an American citizen mentioned in an intel report be unmasked but the agency can deny that request if it deems the request to be for an improper (i.e. non-natsec) purpose. Either Obama’s FBI and/or NSA were complicit in improper protocols, in which case it’s hard to see why Burr would accuse Nunes of “creating” this controversy, or Power’s role doesn’t have to do with unmasking. If in fact she’s being looked at for impropriety here, it seems more likely that she’s suspected of leaking unmasked intelligence that was shared with her, either properly or improperly. The “unmasking” scandal is probably really a leak scandal, assuming there’s a scandal at all. Remember, Burr’s comments aren’t the first time that sources in Congress have claimed that Nunes was hyping improprieties where none exist, although I believe it is the first time that someone’s implied that on the record.