As everybody and his dog is reporting today, including LU contributor Onan Coca, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice has been fingered as having signed an “unmasking” request for NSA surveillance data on the Trump team. White House logs reportedly show that she did it.
This indeed implicates the White House in at least some of the surveillance of Trump during the Obama administration. That’s a big thing to verify.
But I want to caution you immediately that this will not be all there is to find, nor is it the most important thing to find out. We already have some key clues as to why that is so.
Susan Rice probably made an authorization for unmasking. But she wasn’t the only official who could do it. Others include John Brennan, former CIA director, and Loretta Lynch, former attorney general.
And we know from Adam Housley’s report on Fox News on Friday (video, for your convenience, below) that Devin Nunes has been stonewalled by the intelligence agencies since January. We now have an accounting – such as it is (we can’t be certain it’s comprehensive) – of the White House logs. But according to Housley, we don’t have the same accounting from the CIA or ODNI. We don’t know what John Brennan did (or possibly James Clapper).
As for Loretta Lynch, I’ve been inclined all along to assume that this business didn’t go through the Justice Department. That doesn’t mean she had no knowledge at all that it was happening, but it’s unlikely her unmasking authority was used. (That said, I don’t entirely count DOJ participation out. Whatever unmasking was done would have used some flimsy pretext of national security justification. It presumably wasn’t terrorism, narcotics trafficking, or military defense, but fake pretexts invoking counterintelligence and finance may have been used, and DOJ could have been a player in either.)
Now for the clues. First, Adam Housley cited intelligence sources for his report Friday night. From his description of them, he meant that they are intelligence professionals who were able to observe things that were going on from the deckplate level. And according to those sources, the main person who authorized unmasking the identities of the Trump team (and potentially other individuals as well, perhaps other political candidates) was a “well-known, very high up intelligence official.”
You might make the error of referring to Susan Rice as an intelligence official. But Housley’s sources wouldn’t. It’s very much a community mindset that there’s a dividing line between intelligence professionals and their agencies, and others. Susan Rice was a national security appointee. A decision-maker with a portfolio that intersects with intelligence, but is not about intelligence. She was never an intelligence professional, and has never been in charge of an intelligence agency in the government. No career intelligence professional would refer to her as an “intelligence official.”
Now, maybe Housley got it wrong in translation. There’s always that possibility, although he’s a veteran on the topic, and I doubt it. But it’s not impossible.
Meanwhile, Housley and others are reporting that the back-door surveillance, with unmasked identifying data on Americans, started before Trump got the GOP nomination. That means it started before July 2016, and probably substantially earlier than that. According to informal, unverified sources, it may have started in 2015.
This clue on timing needs to be taken seriously, partly because it coincides with a “great leap forward” in the technical ability of the intelligence community to retrieve unmasked data from the raw NSA database, without necessarily jumping through the hoops of the “unmasking authority” process.
I wrote about that “great leap forward” back in February. When the entire intelligence community became connected via its “intelligence Internet,” equipped with cloud technology provided by Jeff Bezos, the ability of IC personnel outside of NSA to retrieve unmasked data accelerated dramatically. The main thing that fell away was the literal need to put down an audit trail of positive permissions in order to do it.
The vulnerability of the FISA unmasking system has for a long time been the administrative arrangements, which allow for legal justification to be, in effect, checked in a box, or added in a perfunctory way after the fact. Since sometime in 2015, when the cloud-enabled intel Internet was up and running for all 17 agencies, the formal nod to even that perfunctory arrangement became little more than an annoying paperwork drill – for anyone who has the user permissions to retrieve unmasked data. It’s as if you, as a privileged system user, had to fill out a form and certify what you were doing with the results of your next Google search.
Another probably related clue is the quiet, interagency revision to Executive Order 12333 by Clapper and Lynch at the very end of the Obama administration. The effect of it is to align unmasking as a formally more routine procedure, in the way it is now technologically more routine in the IT systems. This problem is far bigger than one person’s one unmasking authorization.
The bottom line is that Susan Rice isn’t the droid you’re looking for. I suspect her involvement will be focused on, at least for a time, in part because focusing on what she did will blind people to what else was going on. It can be made to seem that she’s the big prize, but that is a mistaken impression.
It appears that Devin Nunes understands that, and that’s a positive factor. Assuming Rice comes in for questioning, she may be able to come up with some plausible-sounding reason for the particular unmasking request she is recorded as having made. And there will be many – e.g., some of the media, as well as Democrats – who are happy to take that as the end of the story. We’ll have to rely on Nunes to understand that it’s not, and take this as far as it has to go, to get to the truth.
The scope of all this was undoubtedly much bigger than Susan Rice. She is just the tip of the iceberg.