Unmasking Intelligence Abuse: Did President Trump Have a Point?

Until last week, most Americans assumed that “unmasking” only applied at Halloween parties or spa facials. Few of us have ever thought that unmasking would apply to the way in which one presidential administration would abuse the intelligence community to surveil their political opponents. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Obama Administration did, in fact, surveil Trump transition officials last fall. It seems that intelligence officials under President Obama targeted foreign persons for surveillance who had regular contact with Trump officials as a way of tangentially surveilling those close to the incoming president.

American Intelligence gathering is highly regulated, and it is a crime for the CIA or NSA to directly target U.S. Persons for surveillance; however, if U.S. persons are in contact with a foreign surveillance target their communications with said foreign targets can legally be obtained. Normally, these incidental gatherings of intelligence on U.S. persons are not widely disclosed and the identities of said persons are not revealed or “unmasked.” What is clear thus far in this investigation is that a senior Obama intelligence officials did authorize intelligence gathering against certain foreign persons largely based on their proximity to Trump officials for the purpose of finding a back-door way to gather intel on the Trump team.

By using foreign intelligence techniques, the Obama Administration found a legal loophole to conduct said surveillance without technically breaking the law. That does not make what they did any less disturbing or any less wrong. Such abuse of our intelligence services by political appointees is appalling and unacceptable. Once the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have concluded their investigations, the Congress should move to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to prevent such abuse in the future.

The only people left to “unmask” in this abuse of our nation’s intelligence capabilities are the people who authorized such surveillance against the incoming administration. The respective intelligence committees should seek to learn how high-up the chain of command in the last Administration knowledge of this operation went last fall. The likelihood of criminal prosecution is not high, given that these were legal loopholes that seem to have been exploited, but the perpetrators should not be able to hide behind anonymity. They should be revealed for the political hacks they are, and never allowed back in the intelligence community ever again.

Gathering of foreign intelligence is a critical tool in America’s toolbox in the fight against terror and other national threats. The solution here is not to demonize the intelligence community, but to expose those who abused it for political purposes. Congress must strengthen FISA laws to outlaw the gathering of information on U.S. persons not under investigation, and to prevent their identities from being revealed. Confidence in our intelligence community is critical to our national security, but the actions of a few Obama political appointees have undermined its credibility. Congress must seek to restore confidence in our intelligence services before it is too late.