I have a lot of respect for Michael Hayden and the work he’s done during his career. Considering the Obama administration’s use of the government as a weapon during his tenure, I cannot completely write off the idea Susan Rice and others didn’t seek to damage Donald Trump and his incoming Administration with intelligence information. That said, neither is there evidence of any wrongdoing on her part.
But what we have learned to date about the former national security adviser and her requests to unmask U.S. person’s information is well short of a smoking gun. In fact, on its face, it appears (certainly so far) to be lawful, appropriate and — dare I say — maybe even routine.
It’s an area where I keep seeing varied opinions. Some argue unmasking is very rare and only happens under very specific circumstances. Materials I have read and national security experts I have spoken to say unmasking is quite common. In an interview with The Cipher Brief, Michael Morell, former Deputy Director of the CIA said the following:
TCB: It does raise the question of unmasking U.S. persons – although Congressman Schiff says Nunes told him most of the names were masked, but Nunes was able to figure out for himself who it involved. Is there anything irregular or improper here?
MM: The unmasking of the names of U.S. persons happens all the time too. And, the unmasking is a whole different process. Senior officials in the U.S. government, when they see one of these intelligence reports that say U.S. Person 1 or U.S. Person 2, can go back to NSA and ask, “who is that person?” They have to have a good reason for asking that question, and they have to explain that reason to NSA. Once the request is made, NSA says yes or no. There’s only a small number of people at NSA — I think [NSA]Director Rogers said 20 the other day on the Hill — 20 people at NSA can actually approve an unmasking. And when that gets approved, it only gets approved for the individuals who specifically requested the unmasking. It is not unmasked broadly.
Hayden goes on:
Barely reading between the lines of Chairman Nunes’ comments, it’s clear to this former NSA Director (who was there for the 2001 and 2005 transitions) that the Chairman was referring to what must have been overwhelming foreign speculation as to the future course of the United States following Trump’s victory. After all, foreign capitals were as surprised as most of us were at the outcome.
In the normal course of its intelligence work, the NSA would collect, process, translate, analyze and report on these communications when they revealed significant foreign intelligence like what country X thought about or how it planned to respond to policy Y or rumored appointee Z. Or where country X saw weakness or leverage it could exploit.
Taken in its entirety, this is called intelligence. It’s why we do all of this in the first place.
Emphasis mine. Hayden goes on to discuss the process behind unmasking requests:
The NSA is notoriously conservative in revealing the identity of protected persons so the agency would have instinctively defaulted in many cases to U.S. person number one when making these references. Once an identity is out there, it’s out there. It’s bureaucratically wiser (and safer) to mask and then see who might have cause to ask for more.
So when Ambassador Rice got one of these intelligence reports we know that NSA already had judged that it had intelligence value (otherwise the report would not exist). It also would not have been surprising that she might ask for more detail on masked U.S. persons, at least a clearer descriptor if not an actual name.
The request would then have been adjudicated at the NSA, and the agency would make the judgment whether or not more detail was warranted. Unmasking can be requested by any of the recipients of the original report, even a junior analyst at, say, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Clearly a request from the national security advisor would carry great weight, but in all cases the decision to unmask is the agency’s and it is based on whether the requester needs the detail to do his or her job.
More important than anything else, is the audit trail.
And it should be a simple matter to judge whether the unmasking requests themselves were within or beyond traditional norms. NSA has an audit trail on this that rivals the way that Catholic parishes husband Baptismal records.
That allowed me in early 2005 to refute Democrat charges that John Bolton, then nominated to be U.N. ambassador, had abused American privacy by asking for the unmasking of U.S. identities in about a dozen intelligence reports.
It’s why I keep coming back to the idea that so much of what Trump and Nunes are doing is attempting to run out the clock and deflect away from the FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. More important is the scope of the investigation that determines whether or not Trump campaign officials colluded with anybody in Russia to assist in those efforts.
I cannot count how many times people have said to me, “If there were any wrongdoing, we’d have known about it already because of leaks!” It’s a silly line of thought. The FBI investigation started last July, and nobody knew for sure it was happening until FBI Director James Comey confirmed it in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
Finally, Hayden says this can all become clear very quickly if only the supposed “victims” would move go get it done:
A group of trusted agents — perhaps a bipartisan group of respected former security and intelligence officials — could make quick work of the task and deliver a verdict in short order and we would put this affair behind us.
Such a thing can only happen with President Trump’s say-so. He can declassify all of the information in question and if Susan Rice or anybody else in the Obama administration acted in a way where they used classified information for political purposes, I will be the first one to call for a full-scale criminal investigation. Until then, all we’re left with is talk and selected information leaked to Fox News as a means of taking the spotlight away from Trump/Russia.