President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, made sure she knew who was who on President Trump's transition team during the waning days of the Obama administration.
As Trump's team prepared to take over the federal government, intelligence services' surveillance of foreign officials incidentally popped up with conversations about or involving members of Team Trump. Logs kept on a White House database reportedly show that Rice asked in several cases to see the names of the Americans involved. That information is typically "masked" or concealed in written reports because U.S. intelligence services are not supposed to monitor Americans. Meanwhile, details about at least one such conversation, with names included, were leaked to the Washington Post.
This is a very big story and a potential political scandal. But since it's not about Trump but his predecessor, Obama's media fans are not taking it well.
"President Trump, right-wing media types peddling a fake scandal," announced CNN's Chris Cuomo on his show Tuesday morning. "What is it? Well, this suggestion that former national security adviser Susan Rice improperly unmasked the identity of Trump associates is part of what the president calls a crooked scheme. An associate of Rice says it's just plain false."
Don Lemon, of the same network, was even more dismissive the night before: "On this program tonight," he had said, "we will not insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise, nor will we aid and abet the people trying to misinform you, the American people, by creating a diversion."
Maybe this isn't the most important story in Washington (although it might turn out to be), but it's certainly more than a "diversion," and nothing about it is "fake" at this point. It was broken by Eli Lake, an excellent and widely respected national security reporter at Bloomberg. It's also a big enough story that Rice probably should not have gone on television Tuesday to discuss what she may or may not have done. But she did, and she confirmed much of the story, denying only that her actions were improper.
Not only is Rice's track record spotty when it comes to telling the truth on television, but it is also known that the Obama administration was willing to use the coercive power the federal government to attack political opponents; just ask all those conservative groups victimized by the IRS.
Rice's explanation also raised as many questions as it answered. For one thing, why did she deny any knowledge of this affair in a PBS interview two weeks ago, only to admit her involvement now? Is her memory just that bad?
Further, Rice told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell that the names of Trump campaigners that she requested to be unmasked were neither leaked by her nor disseminated to others in government. In that case, who provided the Washington Post's David Ignatius with the information about Mike Flynn's phone calls to the Russian ambassador a week before Trump even took office? As Rice noted in the interview, that leak illegally put classified information into the open. Not to mention that it is a police state tactic worthy of Vladimir Putin's government but not of ours. It is improper for intelligence services to leak secret surveillance information about American citizens to the press, even if it is gathered lawfully and by accident.
As for the intercepted conversations that House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes referred to earlier — they were intercepts unrelated to Russia — is it true that these had no apparent intelligence value, as he claimed at the time? If so, Rice would have had no good reason for unmasking the names. So why did she do it?
The intelligence services have great power and operate in such secrecy that the potential for abuse is enormous. NSA employees and contractors have been caught in the past indulging their curiosity by, for example, spying on their exes. The use of the surveillance state against opposition political staff would be a far more serious matter even than that.
Not only should journalists be taking this issue seriously, but Congress also owes it to the public to get the bottom of Rice's inconsistent account of what happened and discover whether it was indeed improper.