Q&A: What is 'unmasking' and why would Obama adviser do it?

AP News
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Posted: Apr 04, 2017 5:16 PM
Q&A: What is 'unmasking' and why would Obama adviser do it?

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice is in the center of a political storm this week, drawn in by new revelations about her handling of intelligence reports in the waning days of the Obama administration.

According to a U.S. official, President Donald Trump's national security aides discovered after the inauguration that Rice had asked for the identities of Trump associates who were referenced in intelligence reports. Revealing the identities of Americans in this context is called "unmasking." Rice's requests were documented in executive branch records, as are all requests made for unmasking.

The reports were likely based on routine surveillance of foreign officials. In some cases, Americans will be named in these discussions or be on the other end of the conversation with a foreigner under surveillance. This is referred to as "incidental collection," meaning the American was not the target of the U.S. intelligence surveillance.

To Trump backers, the so-called "unmasking" is evidence that the Obama administration was surveilling the incoming administration for political purposes. Trump has made the claim, but has yet to point to evidence to support it.

"There is a civil liberties component to this that should be very troubling in terms of the revelations that keep coming out," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday.

Rice defended herself in an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday, saying she did nothing inappropriate in requesting the information for national security purposes and did not leak the names.

Here's a closer look at the key questions and answers about the allegations facing Rice.

WHAT EXACTLY IS UNMASKING?

During routine surveillance of foreign targets, names of Americans will occasionally come up in conversations. For instance, the foreigners could be talking about an American by name. Or a foreigner could be speaking directly to an American.

But unless here is an intelligence value to knowing the American's name in the so-called "incidental collection," that name is not revealed in the reports and is instead referred to as "U.S. Person 1," for example.

If an official reviewing the report wants to know the identity, the official can request that the agency that collected the information "unmask" the name.

This is typically done because the official needs the name to understand the full context of the report. Records are kept of such requests.

COULD RICE UNMASK NAMES?

She would not have been able to do it on her own. But as national security adviser, Rice was authorized to ask an intelligence agency — such as the FBI, the CIA and the NSA — to unmask a U.S. person.

Rice was routinely briefed on intelligence that was collected and then deemed relevant by U.S. spy agencies. It would not have been unusual for those reports to have involved or mentioned masked individuals. Nor would it be unusual for her to request those identities be unmasked.

At a March 20 House intelligence committee hearing, FBI Director James Comey addressed this issue when asked if Rice would have access to an unmasked American's name.

"Yes, in general, and any other national security adviser would, I think, as a matter of their ordinary course of business," Comey said.

DID RICE ASK FOR NAMES OF TRUMP ASSOCIATES TO BE UNMASKED? AND WHY?

Yes. A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity did not offer detail on the types of reports Rice was reviewing or the motivations behind it.

Rice has not confirmed or denied making the requests, but denies that any requests were politically motivated.

"That's absolutely false," she said.

Rice said she would need to see unmasked names as part of her to "protect the American people and the security of our country," Rice said Tuesday.

"There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to. Name not provided, just a U.S. person. And sometimes in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out, or request the information, as to who the U.S. official was," Rice said.

WHY WOULD RICE BE LOOKING AT REPORTS INVOLVING TRUMP ASSOCIATES?

It's not entirely clear. But there are some likely explanations for why Rice would have been briefed on intelligence involving the incoming administration.

It's not unusual for the U.S. government to use intelligence collected from foreigners to get a sense of how other countries view the administration.

In addition, since last summer, intelligence agencies have been investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election, including its role in hacking into Democratic email systems and distributing stolen communications and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

In early December, Obama ordered a review of the Russia-related hacking.

Rice said as a result of that review, intelligence agencies were generating more reports that were shared with senior policymakers like herself.

"Fulfilling the president's request for such a report, they went back and scrubbed more reports," Rice said of the intelligence agencies.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN "UNMASKING" AND "LEAKING" CLASSIFIED INFORMATION?

One is legal and the other isn't.

Unmasking can be routine and is considered necessary to understanding intelligence.

It is not illegal to improperly unmask an American's name. If that happens, it is considered a compliance incident, said Todd Hinnen, head of the Justice Department's National Security Division during the Obama administration and a National Security Council staff member under George W. Bush. In these cases, the government would have to report the improper unmasking to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court and it could also be reviewed by an agency's inspector general, he said. Congressional oversight committees also review whether unmasking has been done properly.

It is illegal to leak classified information.

Disclosing any of the classified contents of intelligence collected under the authorities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, is illegal.

Rice said she did not leak any classified information.

"I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would," she said.