This morning Eli Lake rocked political Twitter with a Bloomberg report that began like this:
White House lawyers last month learned that the former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
The pattern of Rice’s requests was discovered in a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” the identities of individuals in the U.S. who are not targets of electronic eavesdropping, but whose communications are collected incidentally. Normally those names are redacted from summaries of monitored conversations and appear in reports as something like “U.S. Person One.”
To be clear, as our own Andrew McCarthy has repeatedly pointed out, officials have broad discretion to unmask Americans, and Lake notes that Rice’s requests were “likely within the law.”
While Lake’s reporting is fascinating, there’s much less to the actual text of the report than the abundance of all-caps tweets would suggest. Indeed, how you interpret the report betrays more about your assumptions and baseline trust than it does about the status of the controversy itself.
If you’re operating under the assumption or strong suspicion that Americans working with Trump were engaged in improper communications with Russia, then the unmasking requests look a lot like due diligence. Also, if you have a baseline level of trust for the Obama administration, then it’s easy to imagine that unmasking was necessary or important for context even if conversations didn’t directly pertain to Russia but instead to other issues of “foreign intelligence value.” In such circumstances, unmasking looks a lot less pernicious.
However, if you’re operating under the assumption or strong suspicion that claims of Trump campaign collusion with Russia represent nothing more than malicious conspiracy theories, then the news takes on a much darker hue. Also, many others (like me) look at the Obama administration’s well-documented record of falsehoods and surveillance abuses and have a trust level for Susan Rice that hovers somewhere near zero. In this circumstance, unmasking looks a lot less like due diligence, and a lot more like an abuse of power.
Unfortunately, we don’t yet know enough about the documents to make any real judgments about Rice’s conduct. Here’s how Lake describes their content:
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.
“Valuable political information” is a broad phrase and can obviously overlap with information that has meaningful national security implications. The bottom line is that the significance and meaning of Lake’s excellent reporting will become truly clear only as we gather more information about the underlying controversy itself.
If Trump’s team was engaged in improper or illegal activity, then Rice’s alleged unmasking requests will look considerably different than if Trump’s team was innocently and in good faith doing the conventional work of a presidential campaign and presidential transition. One thing, however, is clear – in the aftermath of her own grotesque falsehoods, Susan Rice has earned every ounce of the suspicion she now receives.