Former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice is once again in the news, embroiled in a growing scandal. Bloomberg News has reported this week that Rice requested or directed the unmasking of the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports, who were involved with the Trump transition team. The communications of these individuals were apparently collected incidentally during the course of electronic monitoring of communications involving foreign officials of interest. Normally, Americans’ identities are masked, with generic references such as the title "U.S. Person One."
According to Eli Lake’s Bloomberg report, “The intelligence reports were summaries of monitored conversations -- primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials. One U.S. official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.”
Daily Caller has reported that Rice “ordered U.S. spy agencies to produce ‘detailed spreadsheets’ of legal phone calls involving Donald Trump and his aides when he was running for president,” citing former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova as a source.
Circa has reported that Rice’s snooping actually preceded the election: “Susan Rice accessed numerous intelligence reports during Obama's last seven months in office that contained National Security Agency intercepts involving Donald Trump and his associates.”
It also appears that the monitoring at issue had little if anything to do with the investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election.
These reports, and others along the same lines, raise serious questions about what Rice was doing with the unmasked identifiable information she obtained access to, even though nothing revealed so far indicates that Rice broke the law. She had the authority to request unmasking under certain circumstances where there was an intelligence need in the interest of national security for such information. But given Rice’s closeness to Obama and concern for preserving his legacy, politics, not national security, was more likely her primary motive.
Michael Doran, former National Security Council senior director, told the Daily Caller that “somebody blew a hole in the wall between national security secrets and partisan politics.” This “was a stream of information that was supposed to be hermetically sealed from politics and the Obama administration found a way to blow a hole in that wall,” he said.
It is a threat to our electoral democracy if a party in power is able to use the nation’s intelligence apparatus to do opposition research on the party out of power. This is what Rice appears to have done, perhaps to protect her boss's legacy from being undermined by the new Trump administration. Rice denies all of this, of course.
“The allegation is that somehow, Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” Rice told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “That’s absolutely false.” It is what Rice did not expressly deny that is revealing. She did not deny making any unmasking requests, which she claimed would not be unusual in and of themselves. She said, however, that “I don’t have a particular recollection of doing that more frequently after the election.” Then she changed the focus from unmasking to leaking. “I leaked nothing to nobody,” she declared. But she ducked the question of whether she would agree to testify under oath.
The problem is that Susan Rice cannot be trusted. Just look at her track record. During a PBS interview last month, Rice denied any knowledge as to whether Trump transition officials may have been swept up in surveillance of foreigners at the end of the Obama administration. “I know nothing about this,” Rice told Judy Woodruff. She also questioned the validity of a New York Times report that Obama administration officials widely disseminated information within the government, during the final days of the Obama administration, about what they knew regarding intelligence that the Russians had interfered in the election last year and that there may have been a connection with Trump campaign officials.
And who could forget Rice’s infamous appearances on five Sunday TV talk shows in 2012 falsely blaming a “hateful” Internet video for the Benghazi terrorist attack? She repeatedly mouthed the Obama campaign talking points on the anti-Muslim video days after intelligence had established the terrorist connection to the Benghazi attack.
Now Rice is again on TV, denying any impropriety with respect to unmasking requests. Even if she did not leak the information she received regarding Trump campaign or transition officials herself, however, who is to say that she did not share the sensitive information with someone like her deputy Ben Rhodes, who could have done the leaking for her?
That would be the same Ben Rhodes who boasted about creating “an echo chamber” in the press to sell the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal.
Here is what we know so far from multiple sources. There was electronic surveillance of foreign officials' communications, during which the communications of Trump associates were incidentally collected. The identities of at least some Trump associates were unmasked, in part at Susan Rice’s request or direction. During the final days of the Obama presidency, Obama administration officials widely disseminated information across government agencies regarding intelligence purportedly linking Trump officials to Russian contacts. Some of that information has been leaked to the press, most notably leaked transcripts of former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s communications with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
The Washington Beacon has reported, citing multiple sources, that Ben Rhodes was part of “a small task force of Obama loyalists who deluged media outlets with stories aimed at eroding Flynn's credibility.” Rhodes and his buddies apparently resorted to his echo chamber tactics in order to discredit Flynn, an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal that Rhodes so strongly believed in. The purpose, according to the Washington Beacon report, was presumably “to handicap the Trump administration's efforts to disclose secret details of the nuclear deal with Iran that had been long hidden by the Obama administration.” While Ben Rhodes’ involvement in the actual leaking of the Flynn transcript has not been definitively established, we do know that Rhodes had no problem with the exposure of Flynn’s and other Trump officials' Russian contacts after the leaks happened. In a tweet on March 2nd, Rice’s White House deputy Rhodes wrote: “Flynn, Kushner, Manafort, Page, Sessions all meet with Russians pre-inauguration. Why? And why go to such lengths to conceal these contacts?”
Where the trail will ultimately lead remains to be seen. Rice will most likely have to testify under oath or plead the fifth, as other Obama administration officials have done. It is not too soon to begin asking, what did Barack Obama know and when did he know it?