On March 22, Rep. Devin Nunes made his ham-fisted disclosure that the Obama administration had conducted incidental surveillance collection and unmasking of Trump administration officials. It was a revelation that ignited widespread criticism from nearly every corner of Washington
“I have seen intelligence reports that clearly show that the president-elect and his team were, I guess, at least monitored,” the House intelligence chairman said at the time. “It looks to me like it was all legally collected, but it was essentially a lot of information on the president-elect and his transition team and what they were doing.” Nunes went on to claim that the information was spread across a number of agencies and had “little or no apparent intelligence value.”
Perhaps Nunes’ reasons were partisan. Perhaps his framing was exaggerated. We’ll see. But if CNN’s reporting is correct, everything Nunes claimed that day was basically true. Which is a lot more than we can say for others.
On the same day, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice was interviewed by PBS’s Judy Woodruff and asked to respond to Nunes’ accusation that she had unmasked those Trump officials in the waning days of the Obama administration. Here is the exchange:
Woodruff: We’ve been following a disclosure by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, that in essence, during the final days of the Obama administration, during the transition, after President Trump had been elected, that he and the people around him may have been caught up in surveillance of foreign individuals in that their identities may have been disclosed. Do you know anything about this?
Rice: I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.
As we now know, Rice wasn’t surprised. At all. Wednesday, CNN reported that Obama’s former national security adviser told House investigators that she had unmasked those senior Trump officials in an effort “to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York late last year.” According to the report, the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan had circumvented some diplomatic courtesy, which, apparently, was enough justification to spy on American citizens.
The meeting had reportedly come on the heels of efforts by UAE officials to create a back-channel communication between Russia and incoming Trump administration. According CNN, the get-together, which included Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon, was completely Russia-free:
‘The meeting was about ascertaining the Trump team’s view of the region and sharing the UAE’s view of the region and what the U.S. role should be,’ a senior Middle East official told CNN. ‘No one was coming in to sell anything or arrange anything.’
Trey Gowdy and other House members seem okay with this precedent, so I guess there’s nothing to see here. “I didn’t hear anything to believe that she did anything illegal,” Florida Rep. Tom Rooney explained to CNN. Unless Rice or some other Obama official admits to leaking classified information, this statement is surely true.
Then again, there has been a constant conflating of illegality and abuse by those covering this story. Unmasking is a legitimate power. Few argue it should be illegal. The question is, was it abused for political purposes. When it was convenient, Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, the American Civil Liberties Union, and numerous others on the Left warned that Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance could be legally weaponized for political gain. There is no genuine oversight. We are asked to have faith in those in power.
Has Rice earned that trust? This, after all, is the woman who went on national television and repeated a bunch of Ben Rhodes-authored falsehoods regarding the September 11, 2012, Benghazi terror attacks, claiming they were a “spontaneous reaction” to “hateful and offensive video.” This is the woman who went on PBS to lie about her role in unmasking, although there was apparently nothing wrong with it. Rice didn’t tell Woodruff “I can’t disclose that kind of sensitive information,” or “no comment,” she told her “I know nothing about this.” Rice is extraordinarily comfortable lying to the American people.
As I’ve noted many times, I’m willing to believe the worst about the Trump administration. This a courtesy I try to extend to every administration. So I do hope that Rice explained to House investigators how this unmasking helped protect Americans from foreign threats since unmasking is typically reserved for law enforcement in anti-terror or espionage investigations. Otherwise, it sure looks like members of an incoming Republican administration were spied on by a Democratic political operative who happened to find a meeting suspicious. Some of us troglodytes might view this kind of thing as an abuse of power. So it’ll be interesting to hear Gowdy and others explain why it wasn’t.