Sunday, June 04, 2017

Unmasking and Leaking Take Center Stage: Prepping For This Morning's Talk Shows

WaPo  |  Every day, U.S. intelligence agencies sweep up vast quantities of foreign communications. Sometimes, they pick up communications involving U.S. individuals or organizations. In reports based on those communications, intelligence agencies “mask” the identities of the Americans, part of an effort to protect their privacy. 

Senior government officials, however, can ask spy agencies to reveal the names of Americans or U.S. organizations in the reports if they believe that doing so will help them better understand the underlying intelligence. They must have a legitimate need to know, and National Security Agency unmaskings are reviewed by the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, known as the ODNI.

Some officials said that House Intelligence Committee members may not have realized spy agencies would count their requests as unmaskings. These officials said lawmakers submitted questions that intelligence officers could answer only by revealing the identities of U.S. individuals. 

Nunes served subpoenas this week to the CIA, the NSA and the FBI asking for information about unmaskings requested by three former officials: national security adviser Susan E. Rice, CIA director John Brennan and U.N. ambassador Samantha Power.

On Thursday, Nunes tweeted, “Seeing a lot of fake news from media elites and others who have no interest in violations of Americans’ civil liberties via unmaskings.”

Democrats on the panel say they believe the latest direction of Nunes’s investigation is designed to deflect attention from the Russia probe. In April, Nunes was forced to recuse himself from the committee’s probe of Russia because of allegations he may have inappropriately disclosed classified information. Nunes has denied any wrongdoing.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say requests for unmaskings are a routine and necessary part of their national security work. After requests are made, spy agencies decide whether to provide the names. Officials say few requests are rejected because most are legitimate.

Still, senior officials know that unmaskings can be controversial and are often reluctant to submit large numbers of requests. To protect themselves from any allegations of abuse, spy agencies track unmasking requests closely.

Rice and Brennan declined to comment. During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” in April, Rice denied that she sought to improperly unveil the names of Trump campaign or transition officials for political purposes. In recent congressional testimony, Brennan also has denied that he made any improper unmaskings. 

Power did not immediately respond to a request for comment.