The totally phony Susan Rice story, explained

The former national security advisor’s surveillance activity is neither illegal or unethical.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice follows President Barack Obama across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, to board Marine One, Thursday, July 7, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
National Security Advisor Susan Rice follows President Barack Obama across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, to board Marine One, Thursday, July 7, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Conservatives are seizing on a report that former national security advisor Susan Rice requested the identity of anonymous people named in intelligence reports, claiming that it provides evidence for President Trump’s false claim that Trump Tower was wiretapped.

Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported Monday that Rice requested the “unmasking” of third parties whose information is collected during targeted surveillance of other individuals. Conservative media jumped on the claim and reported that it corroborates Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee’s allegation that information about Trump’s transition team had been “incidentally collected” during U.S. government surveillance of foreign officials.

But the reports, which originated from the far-right, fringe corners of the internet, do not reveal any illegal activity or violation of privacy laws. They also provide no support for President Trump’s still entirely-unsubstantiated claim that the Obama administration’s surveillance targeted Trump officials.

Funneled from the far right

Susan Rice’s involvement in the unmasking was first reported by far-right extremist Mike Cernovich, who published a story on Medium Sunday alleging that the mainstream media has been attempting to cover up the revelation.

“This reporter has been informed that Maggie Haberman has had this story about Susan Rice for at least 48 hours, and has chosen to sit on it in an effort to protect the reputation of former President Barack Obama,” Cernovich wrote.

Cernovich, a white nationalist, misogynist, and a key figure in the Pizzagate controversy, has been called the “meme mastermind of the alt-right.”

Less than 24 hours later, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake picked up the same reports on Rice’s activity, citing “U.S. officials familiar with the matter.”

Unlike Cernovich, Lake noted that Rice’s unmasking “does not vindicate Trump’s own tweets from March 4 in which he accused Obama of illegally tapping Trump Tower.” Lake did not allege that Rice’s activity is unlawful, but he did write that her actions “highlight a longstanding concern” about surveillance programs.

“[Rice’s] role in requesting the identities of Trump transition officials adds an important element to the dueling investigations surrounding the Trump White House since the president’s inauguration,” Lake wrote.

Within hours, headlines highlighting Rice’s involvement appeared across the conservative internet on sites including Breitbart News, the Daily Caller, the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, the New York Post, and Gateway Pundit.

In the Washington Examiner, David Fredosso wrote that “Eli Lake has the story that everybody should be talking about today.”

On Fox News, reporter Adam Housley called the unmasking “unprecedented” and stoked anger by claiming that the “names of Americans who had done nothing wrong was disseminated to all of the NSC, some at DOD, Clapper, Brennan, basically the people at the top.” Shortly after, Trump tweeted about the segment.

But according to national security experts, Rice’s actions are far from unprecedented.

No legal or privacy issue

The names of unidentified Americans are masked in intelligence reports to protect the identity of third-parties. When someone with credentials to request the classified information asks for the names to be revealed solely to them, the process is known as unmasking.

The unmasking of unidentified Americans in intelligence reports is within the scope of the job of a national security advisor like Rice. According to Kate Martin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Rice’s actions are likely legal and probably do not even raise privacy concerns if the individuals were part of the Trump transition team. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news website housed at the Center for American Progress).

When an American’s identity in a classified intelligence report is unmasked, only those who have a security clearance and the authority to view the classified information may see the unmasked report, Martin said. The information may not be shared with individual members of Congress, let alone outside the government.

Conversations by foreign government officials are routinely surveilled, and those speaking with ambassadors should expect that their conversations may be wiretapped.

Given Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election, it’s not surprising that Rice would look at intelligence reports on Russia, including conversations by Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. If those conversations were with Americans, it follows that Rice would ask for the names to understand more about the conversation.

“There is no legal issue, and if the conversations were by official members of the presidential transition team conducting government business, it is hard to even see what privacy interest those individuals had in such conversations,” Martin said.

On Twitter, Brookings Institution fellow Susan Hennessey expressed a similar skepticism at the validity of the “bombshell” reports on Rice’s unmasking.

Hennessey also wrote that “what we’re seeing here is US officials doing jobs to respond to what had markers of a counterintelligence threat: the Trump campaign.”

Trump still has no support for surveillance claims

Early last month, Trump claimed on Twitter that Obama wiretapped his New York hotel, unleashing weeks of responses, investigations, and allegations.

But Trump and his team have not found any evidence over the last month. In fact, all of the evidence has pointed to the fact that Trump completely made up the claim.

First, FBI Director James Comey asked the Department of Justice to publicly rebut Trump’s allegations. Then James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, rebutted Trump’s claim. And then leaders of the House Intelligence Committee announced they didn’t find any evidence. Senate Intelligence Committee leaders said the same thing.

All of the official reports so far have disputed Trump’s comparison to Watergate and claims that the wiretapping was illegal.

While trying to come up with evidence, however, Nunes has been caught collaborating with Trump officials, raising questions about the legitimacy of his investigation and his relationship with the administration. By now trying to implicate Rice, who is already seen as villainous by many in the GOP, conservatives are searching hard for a distraction.