I have written about my mixed views of coverage of President Donald Trump. On one hand, he has caused much of the negative coverage with sensational and insulting tweets — as well as unforced errors by his White House staff. On the other hand, I have never seen more biased coverage by some major outlets which fail to offer counterarguments in favor of Trump or ignore developments supporting his claims. The recent disclosure that the unmasking of Trump aides may have been ordered by President Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice is a case in point. The most recent story was published by Bloomberg News. The startling disclosure was all but ignored by major outlets and networks or given only passing attention. As I have said on air, the unmasking allegation is a serious one and it is made all the more serious by the denials of Rice that she had any knowledge of any unmasking. [Update: Rice has gone on air and, while refusing to address the requests to unmask these individuals, she insisted that such requests are not unusual and, if done, were not done for political purposes. She did not deny that she was indeed the person asking for the unmasking of the individuals.]
The story emerging suggests the White House learned last month that Rice requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports involving Trump staff inadvertently intercepted. There were reportedly dozens of such requests, suggesting a comprehensive and ongoing effort to unmask aides. That would constitute a serious privacy abuse and raise troubling questions about the use of intelligence operations for political purposes.
The National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, reportedly discovered Rice’s multiple requests to unmask U.S. persons and raised it with the White House.
U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive (Section 18) only allows unmasking of the identity of U.S persons when it is essential to national security. The question is why the identity of Trump aides satisfied this standard if there was no evidence (as has been reported) of collusion. Nevertheless, this intent standard is difficult to violate absent a confession or incriminating statement.
However, just last month, Rice was asked on the “PBS NewsHour” about reports that Trump transition officials, including Trump himself, were swept up in incidental intelligence collection, Rice said: “I know nothing about this,” adding, “I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that account today.”
That would seem to magnify the importance of the story. Yet, it has received relatively little attention on some networks. It raises past concerns with media largely ignoring proven lies from Democratic officials like James Clapper. Rice should be given the right to respond and deny these accusations, but there should be greater media interest in the answer. CNN however has called claims under that story “demonstrably untrue” while others on the network have openly dismissed it as news. Why? I can understand demanding further proof but this seems a legitimate and important news story. It is certainly for civil libertarians long concerned with unmasking by intelligence officials.
Fox News has reported that unmasked names of Trump aides were given to officials at the National Security Council (NSC), the Department of Defense, James Clapper, President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, and John Brennan, Obama’s CIA Director. However, Clapper has also denied any such knowledge. I have previously written about Clapper’s emergence as a reliable witness in this controversy.
It seems impossible for some reporters to admit that Trump might have been partially right about surveillance and that the Obama Administration might have committed serious privacy violations. The facts still need to be established but there remains troubling questions raised by these reports.
In her only public statement, there was no effort to press Rice on her earlier denial of knowing anything about any unmasking of aides. Now she says such unmasking was routine and confidently denies that it involved political motivations. By the way, there still remains how this routine practice threatens not just privacy but she would have likely known that these were political opponents. Rice returned to the same parsing of words of “wiretap” — a point that I have previously criticized.