The Obama administration’s national security adviser played a central role in “unmasking” several Trump campaign officials who had been swept up in U.S. surveillance operations against foreign targets during last year’s presidential election campaign, according to current White House officials and sources on Capitol Hill.
Susan E. Rice requested that names be provided for otherwise unidentified U.S. people in dozens of raw intelligence reports relating to the Trump campaign, the sources told The Washington Times on Monday.
While Ms. Rice’s actions and alleged interest in the Trump campaign appear to have been within her legal authority as national security adviser, the potentially explosive revelation has touched a nerve in Washington and stirred speculation that she could be called to testify on Capitol Hill about Russian election meddling.
“Smoking gun found! Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign,” Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, wrote Monday on his Twitter feed.
As of Monday night, Ms. Rice had made no public comment on the situation, first reported by Bloomberg View and confirmed by the sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity with The Times.
According to regulations governing international and domestic surveillance of foreign targets, the names of Americans incidentally collected are required to be blacked out, or “masked,” when the information is later compiled in a report for privacy purposes. Issues of national security or criminality can, however, override the right to privacy.
Late last month on the PBS “NewsHour,” Ms. Rice was asked whether any Trump transition officials were the targets of incidental surveillance. She replied, “I know nothing about this.”
The claims about Ms. Rice come nearly five years after she was sharply criticized in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Ms. Rice, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, appeared on several Sunday news talk shows during the days after the attack to spread the later-debunked claim that it had been carried out not by hardened terrorists, but by a spontaneous mob angry about an anti-Islam video on the internet.
The sources who spoke with The Times on Monday said a Trump administration National Security Council staffer, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, conducted a review in February and discovered multiple requests by Ms. Rice to unmask American citizens in raw intelligence reporting on Trump transition activities.
“Ezra’s goal was to provide a policy memo on the process by which Obama administration officials had handled ‘unmasking’ in general,” said one of the sources who spoke with The Times. “But in the course of going through the information, he stumbled across this Susan Rice stuff.”
The 30-year-old Mr. Cohen-Watnick once worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency for former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned in February after just four weeks on the job following reports that he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his dealings with Russia during the transition.
Mr. Cohen-Watnick is also close to Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and chief presidential strategist Stephen Bannon, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Obama eased intel sharing
In a separate and potentially related twist, which occurred before Mr. Trump’s people took over the National Security Council, the Obama administration moved to significantly relax restrictions on the sharing of National Security Agency surveillance intelligence to the nation’s 16 other spy agencies. Debate in national security circles is so far inconclusive on the extent to which the move during the final weeks of the Obama presidency may have impacted the overall Russian probe and allowed Obama loyalists to leak information for political reasons.
Sources who spoke with The Times said the information Mr. Cohen-Watnick unearthed about Ms. Rice is the same as that at the center of a media and political firestorm surrounding Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Mr. Nunes’ office would not comment on the revelations about Ms. Rice.
Last month, Mr. Nunes visited the White House and then held a press conference outside on the lawn to announce that he had just viewed raw intelligence reports showing Mr. Trump and his associates had been swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign targets and unmasked.
Mr. Nunes served on the Trump transition team, and his announcement caused his Democratic counterparts and some leading Republicans to cry foul and question his impartiality. Several, including the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, called for Mr. Nunes to recuse himself from the House panel’s investigation into Russian election meddling.
This weekend, Mr. Schiff tweeted that he had finally seen the surveillance material in question and believes it “should have been shared with the full committee in the first place as part of our ordinary oversight responsibilities.”
The White House did not weigh in on the claims about Ms. Rice on Monday, but Mr. Trump has for weeks been tweeting that House and Senate investigations into Russian meddling in the November election should be focused on potentially illegal leaks that he claims the Obama administration made to the media about his campaign and its contacts with Russian officials.
“The real story turns out to be SURVEILLANCE and LEAKING! Find the leakers,” the president tweeted on Sunday.
A day earlier, Mr. Trump praised Fox News on Twitter for a report that the network published online with the claim that someone “very well known, very high up [and] very senior in the intelligence world” was responsible for unmasking the names of several private citizens affiliated with the Trump campaign who had been swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign officials.
With that as a backdrop, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Monday: “I don’t want to start getting into the motives. Because we still haven’t — again, me getting to the motives, assumes certain things in fact that I don’t think we’re ready to go to yet. Because that, again, would be getting in the middle of an investigation.
Trump administration critics have accused the White House of promoting the claims about leaking and unmasking to distract from allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials to sway the election in Mr. Trump’s favor.
Meanwhile on Monday, staffers from a different House committee told The Washington Times that they were awaiting responses to official requests for information on payments and contacts Mr. Flynn had with foreign government representatives.
The bipartisan letter by leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was sent on March 22 and formally asked the White House, the FBI, the Defense Department, the Director of National Intelligence, and the speakers’ bureau, Leading Authorities Inc., which the Kremlin-backed media outlet RT used to pay Mr. Flynn $45,000 to appear at an event in Russia — to surrender all documents related to Mr. Flynn by late Monday.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, vented his frustration on MSNBC earlier Monday about the payments Mr. Flynn had received. “You’re just not allowed to accept these types of payments as a former military officer,” he said.
Mr. Chaffetz also dismissed Mr. Flynn’s desire to be granted immunity in return for testifying on the Russian election issue.
“I don’t think he should get immunity,” Mr. Chaffetz said. “Immunity for what?”
Last week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence denied Mr. Flynn’s immunity request.
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