This morning, Susan Rice turned to the friendly confines of MSNBC to respond to explosive allegations about her role in the Obama spy/leak scandal. Host Andrea Mitchell did all she could to make Rice feel at home. She asked no tough questions, failed to follow up on evasive answers, and sometimes jumped in to reinforce claims made by Rice. The video is below; watch it and draw your own conclusions. Here are my observations:
1) Amazingly, Rice got through a 16-minute interview without ever confirming or denying that she unmasked associates of President Trump. She replied to Mitchell’s initial questions by describing the process: as National Security Adviser, she would get raw intelligence (i.e., intercepts) from the intelligence community. Sometimes, she said, she would need to know who “US Person 1” was in order to assess the significance of the intelligence, and she would ask for his name. It was up to the intelligence community to decide whether to respond to her request.
Mitchell asked, gingerly, whether she saw names of Trump associates. Rice replied by claiming that information is classified. Not the contents of the intelligence, but simply whether she saw intercepts that included Trump associates. That seems like a dubious claim, but in any event, the bottom line is that Rice refused to say whether she had unmasked (or requested unmasking) of Trump associates.
2) Rice did say that the Obama administration didn’t use intelligence for political purposes. But that is a conclusion, not a fact. We need to know much more before we can evaluate it.
3) Rice vehemently denied leaking classified information. That denial could well be true. Leaking was more likely done by Rice’s assistant, Ben Rhodes, or another subordinate.
4) Rice generally wouldn’t comment on specific reports, but she made an exception for the report that she asked intelligence agencies to produce “spread sheets” of calls involving Trump and his aides. She denied the existence of such “spread sheets.”
5) Most telling, I thought, was Rice’s response when Mitchell asked whether she would be “willing” to testify in response to a Senate subpoena. Rice’s answer: “You know, Andrea, let’s see what comes. I’m not going to sit here and prejudge.” Translation: I may decide to take the Fifth.
Senator Tom Cotton appeared on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show this morning. The discussion preceded Rice’s MSNBC appearance, but Cotton’s description of how Intelligence Committee members receive intelligence–I assume Rice would be in the same category–is somewhat at odds with how Rice characterized the process:
HH: In either the raw material or the finished product, you’ve seen masked names. Have you personally, Senator Cotton, ever asked for an unmasking?
TC: No, Hugh, I’ve never asked for an unmasked name, and frankly, it’s hard to imagine the circumstances you would in ordinary course of business outside of an exceptional review like we’re conducting now. Unmasking normally occurs by law enforcement or intelligence analysts who need it to conduct an investigation or to understand the raw intelligence. *** HH: To confirm again, you’ve never requested an unmasking. Are you aware of any of your colleagues on the Intelligence Committee ever requesting unmasking?
TC: I’m not aware of that, Hugh.
HH: Why is that such a serious deal? Would you explain for the Steelers fans?
TC: Well, typically, we wouldn’t see transcripts of intercepts to begin with. Those transcripts are part of the raw intelligence that analysts at the NSA and the CIA and other intelligence agencies use to produce finished products that then we would review. Now if you really want to get into the factual basis for those finished products, that’s when you would do what we’re doing now, for instance, on the Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russia hacked into those emails. We’re looking at the raw intelligence in the same way a lawyer might review the record to see if the claims in a brief are supported. But that’s fairly unusual. Typically, we’re dealing with finished products, and we’re dealing with hearings where the authors or the sponsors of those products are testifying. So I’ve never had the occasion or need to request an unmasking of that, and it would be a pretty momentous action, because those minimization procedures are in place specifically to protect the privacy and the civil liberties of American citizens.
if unmasking was relevant to the Russia investigation, it would have been done by those three agencies. And if it had been critical to know the identities of Americans caught up in other foreign intelligence efforts, the agencies that collect the information and conduct investigations would have unmasked it. Because they are the agencies that collect and refine intelligence “products” for the rest of the “intelligence community,” they are responsible for any unmasking; and they do it under “minimization” standards that FBI Director James Comey, in recent congressional testimony, described as “obsessive” in their determination to protect the identities and privacy of Americans.
Understand: There would have been no intelligence need for Susan Rice to ask for identities to be unmasked. If there had been a real need to reveal the identities — an intelligence need based on American interests — the unmasking would have been done by the investigating agencies.
The national-security adviser is not an investigator. She is a White House staffer. The president’s staff is a consumer of intelligence, not a generator or collector of it. If Susan Rice was unmasking Americans, it was not to fulfill an intelligence need based on American interests; it was to fulfill a political desire based on Democratic-party interests.