During an exchange with Republican Senator John Cornyn in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein confirmed that unmasking American citizens for political reasons is in fact a crime.
"If someone is to use the unmasking process for a political purpose, is that potentially a crime?," Cornyn asked.
"Yes sir," Rosenstein answered.
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe agreed, adding that leaking the name of an unmasked individual is also a crime.
"For somebody to leak the name of an American citizen that is unmasked in the course of incidental collection, to leak that classified information, is that also potentially a crime," Cornyn asked.
"Yes, I think that's the most significant point, Senator. I think it's important for people to understand unmasking is done in a course of ordinary legitimate intelligence gathering to understand the intelligence significance of the communication. Leaking is a completely different matter," McCabe said. "Leaking is a crime, disclosing information to someone without a legitimate purpose, need to know that information, that will be prosecuted in appropriate circumstances, and there have been cases where we've been able to determine that's a willful violation of federal law, a disclosure not authorized."
"Prosecutions have been brought and will be brought," he continued.
Questions surrounding unmasking come after allegations former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former UN Ambassador Samantha Power and former CIA Director John Brennan unmasked a number of Trump campaign officials for political reasons last year.
After outright denying ever engaging in unmasking during her time in the White House, Rice changed her story and argued during an interview with MSNBC that she unmasked individuals for the sake of national security.
"We only do it to protect the American people and to do our jobs." Rice said, adding Obama officials never used intelligence to spy on Trump officials for political purposes. "I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would."
A number of former intelligence officials have said the type of unmasking seen with Trump campaign officials is out of the ordinary,"not routine" and looks to be political. Former CIA Analyst Fred Fleitz wrote a skeptical op-ed strongly questioning Rice's explanation.
Rice confirmed that she requested the demasking of Americans while she was National Security Adviser. While Rice would not deny that she asked that names of Trump officials be demasked, she insisted the Obama administration did not spy on Mr. Trump or his staff for political purposes. She also offered some questionable explanations for the demasking process.
As a former CIA analyst who has handled requests for demasking the names of American citizens for a U.S. policymaker, I thought Rice’s claims in her interview did not add up.
The names of U.S. citizens “incidentally” mentioned in NSA reports are masked to preserve their identities because America’s intelligence agencies are barred from spying on American citizens except in extraordinary circumstances with court approval.
Rice correctly said in her interview that policymakers sometimes request to know the identities of Americans from NSA reports to understand these reports in certain circumstances. She also tried to dismiss this controversy by claiming NSA demasking requests are routine.
They actually are not routine and taken very seriously by NSA.