Let’s begin with a brief flashback. On March 22, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes conducted a bizarre press conference on White House grounds. His claim? That Obama-administration officials had monitored members of the incoming Trump administration as part of routine surveillance of foreign officials.
The whole episode was strange enough that it ultimately led Nunes to recuse himself from the Russia probe. After all, he’d gone to White House grounds to “brief” the president on information he’d obtained from the White House. He did so without sharing that information with his committee and as part of a transparent effort to help the Trump administration muddle through one of its many self-imposed public firestorms. (In March, Trump had tweeted claims that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower before the election.) In short, he did the wrong thing the wrong way.
But that didn’t mean that all of Nunes’s claims were wrong. He asserted that he’d seen evidence that Obama administration officials had “unmasked,” or disclosed in intelligence reports, the identities of Trump officials who met or communicated with representatives of foreign governments and that “none of this surveillance was related to Russia.” These were serious claims, and while they may not involve criminal behavior (“unmasking” isn’t a criminal offense), it would be highly improper — corrupt, even — to abuse America’s national-security resources for partisan political advantage.
Former national-security adviser Susan Rice was at the center of the storm, accused of making a vast number of unmasking requests. What was her response? On the very day of Nunes’s press conference she said, “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”
Here’s the video:
Over time, however, her story evolved. She later clarified that she was simply saying that she didn’t know “what reports Nunes was referring to.” In April she said she never did anything “untoward with respect to the intelligence” she received. So, what was the truth? Did she “know nothing” or did she do nothing “untoward”? Those aren’t the same statements, and the differences matter.
Let’s flash forward to yesterday. Lost amidst the news of the Trump “deal” with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer was this little scoop from CNN:
Former national security adviser Susan Rice privately told House investigators that she unmasked the identities of senior Trump officials to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates was in New York late last year, multiple sources told CNN.
Allegedly, the meeting happened before the UAE tried to “facilitate a back-channel” between Russia and Trump transition officials. The story continues:
The Obama administration felt misled by the United Arab Emirates, which had failed to mention that Zayed was coming to the United States even though it’s customary for foreign dignitaries to notify the US government about their travels, according to several sources familiar with the matter. Rice, who served as then-President Obama’s national security adviser in his second term, told the House Intelligence Committee last week that she requested the names of the Americans mentioned in the classified report be revealed internally, a practice officials in both parties say is common.
“I know nothing” is old and broke. The new hotness is, “Yeah, I did it, and it was totally cool.” But I’m sorry, Susan Rice doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
I’m having Benghazi flashbacks. In September 2012, faced with a bad news cycle following a horrific terrorist attack, Rice went on national television and told falsehood after falsehood. To keep a campaign narrative alive for just a few more days (remember, Obama was running as the guy who had decimated al-Qaeda), she helped transform a setback into a scandal. After all, Americans understand that sometimes terrorists succeed. We do not understand (and should never accept) any decision to lie to minimize the threat.
Here we go again. Back in March, Susan Rice wanted to win another news cycle. If she told the truth — that, yes, she had made unmasking requests — she might have given a floundering Devin Nunes a lifeline. So she pled ignorance. She claimed not to know things that she plainly and clearly knew in detail.
So, what now? Some in the media are ready to let bygones be bygones, accept the new story, and move on. That’s clearly the tenor of the CNN piece, which says that “her explanation appears to have satisfied some influential Republicans on the committee.” CNN even claims her testimony is “undercutting both Nunes and Trump and raising new questions about whether any Trump associates tried to arrange back-channel discussions with the Russians.”
That’s one way to spin catching a former administration official in a blatant falsehood. I propose a different approach. Don’t believe anything she says. Verify everything. It’s entirely possible that the new story is the true story, but there’s also no reason for a member of the public to accept it on faith — or on the basis of CNN summaries.
It’s long been important to fully investigate the Russia controversy. Yes, investigate the Trump administration. But we also need to know if the Obama administration politicized otherwise-proper foreign-surveillance operations.
Much of the media are well on their way to locking in a white-hat/black-hat narrative on the contrast between the Obama and Trump administrations. The facts, however, are far messier, and Obama’s administration far more scandal-ridden than its defenders admit. Susan Rice may seek high office again. We have to learn the truth about her conduct in office, and we cannot sweep even one more lie under the rug.