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President Trump’s wild charge that Susan Rice committed a crime, explained

White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice Briefs The Media On Obama's Trip To Africa (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Susan Rice, President Obama’s final national security adviser, has all of a sudden become public enemy No. 1 in Trumpworld. In a Wednesday interview with the New York Times, President Trump suggested that she had criminally misused classified information for political purposes.

“Do I think [she committed a crime]? Yes, I think,” the president told the Times’ Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman. “It’s such an important story for our country and the world. It is one of the big stories of our time.”

Trump’s comments are in reaction to a series of recent reports — published in Fox News, Bloomberg View, and elsewhere — that have claimed that Rice asked the intelligence community to provide the names of Trump transition officials who had been caught speaking to foreigners who were under surveillance by US spies. Typically these names are redacted in transcripts, but high-level US officials can request them on occasion — a process called “unmasking.” Even if these reports these are true, there is no evidence that Rice’s behavior was illegal (it’s unclear what crime, precisely, Trump thinks she Rice committed).

The intercepts in question were first revealed to the public by Rep. Devin Nunes in late March, in what’s now widely seen as an attempt to deflect blame away from President Trump’s baseless claim that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower during the campaign. And indeed, many in the conservative media are treating the Rice reports as vindicating the president.

“She participated in the monitoring of the Trump campaign,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his Monday night show. “Let’s drop the euphemisms: Monitoring the communications of your political opponents and then trampling measures designed to protect their identities [is] spying.”

This is incorrect: Revealing the name of transition officials who were caught up in legal wiretaps of foreigners is not the same thing as illegally spying on the Trump campaign. But that has not stopped the Susan Rice story from becoming the dominant story on the American right.

On Monday, Sen. Rand Paul called for Rice to testify under oath, speculating that Obama might have ordered her to unmask Trump officials for unspecified nefarious purposes. On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that a story on the subject from men’s rights activist Mike Cernovich was worthy of a Pulitzer.

Rice herself, in a Tuesday afternoon appearance on MSNBC, admitted that she had asked for US citizens to be unmasked on several occasions throughout her tenure — though she was cagey about whether any of them were Trump transition team members. But she insisted she had done nothing wrong.

“The allegations that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes are absolutely false,” she said. “[Unmasking] is necessary to do my job. ... Imagine if we saw something of grave significance about Russia, or China, or anybody else interfering with our political process.”

So who’s right — Trump and his allies, or Rice? Well, the actual experts on intelligence and national security who have followed this story — regardless of their political affiliation — have nearly uniformly backed Rice. They believe there would have been nothing worrisome about Rice asking for the names of Trump officials to be unmasked while in her post as the administration’s top national security official.

“Nothing in this story indicates anything improper,” Susan Hennessey, a former attorney for the National Security Agency and current Brookings Institution fellow, tweeted. “What we're seeing here is US officials doing jobs to respond to what had markers of a counterintelligence threat: the Trump campaign.”

The Rice flap, on close inspection, isn't a story about the Obama administration purportedly spying on the Trump campaign. It’s a story about how far the conservative media and some congressional Republicans are willing to go to muddy the waters around Donald Trump’s wildest and least defensible ideas.

There is no reason to believe Rice did anything wrong

John Kerry, Susan Rice, Michael Flynn Attend 'Passing The Baton' Conference
Rice with her successor, Michael Flynn.
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There are two important things to note about this controversy. The first is that the revelations about Rice do not in any way support the president’s claim that team Obama “wire tapped” Trump Tower during the campaign. The timing is off — the intercepts Rice sought access to cover the transition, not the campaign — and getting the name of an American caught up in lawful US surveillance of foreign nationals is completely different from an illegal wiretap targeting the president’s chief political opponent.

The second is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Rice’s behavior was improper.

The closest thing to such evidence is an anonymously sourced report, from Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake, that the contents of the intercepted calls contained important information about the Trump people.

“One US official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration,” Lake writes.

Yet Lake goes out of his way to say that, pace Trump, Rice did nothing illegal.

“The standard for senior officials to learn the names of U.S. persons incidentally collected is that it must have some foreign intelligence value, a standard that can apply to almost anything,” Lake writes. “This suggests Rice's unmasking requests were likely within the law.”

Moreover, his story contains a vital detail to understanding this. He notes that the intercepted conversations “were primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials.”

This means that Rice wasn’t sifting through the Trump administration’s internal conversations to find their secrets. Either the Trump transition officials were sharing these vital secrets with foreign officials, on calls they should have known were being monitored, or the foreign officials had learned this information somewhere else and were discussing it among themselves.

Either way, potentially valuable information about the next US administration had gotten into the hands of foreign governments. It would be surprising if America’s national security adviser didn’t want the names of Trump officials who were involved in these calls in order to identify possible counterintelligence risks.

Business Insider’s Natasha Bertrand asked four separate intelligence experts, of varying ideological stripes, whether they thought the behavior described by Lake was improper. Their answer was unanimous: It wasn’t.

"We should be disturbed if whoever was in office was not keeping close tabs on that sort of thing," Paul Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran and current Georgetown University professor, told Bertrand. "This whole story strikes me as just more of the effort to divert attention from the issue of the relations that Trump and his associates have had with Russia, and as part of the diversion to try to suggest impropriety of some sort on the part of the Obama administration."

Nada Bakos, another longtime CIA analyst and current senior fellow at the right-leaning Foreign Policy Research Institute, tweeted a similar assessment to Pillar’s.

“She was the National Security Advisor reading a report of foreign officials discussing US persons coming into [the White House],” Bakos tweeted. “This isn't odd or wrong.”

What Rice actually did

To understand the Rice allegations, and why intelligence experts are so skeptical about any allegations of wrongdoing, you need to understand a little bit about how American spies actually work.

While government surveillance of US citizens is heavily constrained by statute and the US Constitution, spying on foreigners is relatively easy. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows secret courts to issue surveillance warrants for non-Americans, which they are very willing to grant. In 2015, the FBI and the NSA — the two agencies that handle most electronic surveillance — asked for a combined total of 1,457 FISA surveillance warrants. Not a single request was denied.

Oftentimes, targets of FISA warrants — like foreign diplomats — speak to or about Americans on the phone. The result is an American being accidentally surveilled, or an American’s personal information being collected, under a warrant that’s supposed to target foreigners only.

This is called “incidental collection” in intelligence jargon, and it creates a bit of a privacy rights dilemma. You don’t want to let the US intelligence community use FISA warrants as a backdoor way of spying on US citizens, and you also don’t want the names of Americans who have been surveilled incidentally to leak publicly.

The solution is a process called “minimization,” wherein the name of US citizens on the call or mentioned on the call is replaced with some kind of descriptor in the intelligence community’s write-ups. Let’s say the US government has a FISA warrant on my fiancée, who is Canadian, and intercepts some boring call we have about groceries. She would be identified by name in the transcript, but I would be referred to as something like “Journalist #1” or “Relative #2.”

On occasion, high-level officials — say, the national security adviser — can ask the intelligence community to reveal the names of Americans picked up in the surveillance. Theoretically, they’re only supposed to ask for someone to be “unmasked” when the report is unintelligible without the person’s identity OR when there’s a compelling national security reason to do so (like if a suspected foreign terrorist was talking to a US citizen about their joint plan to blow up a building).

Such requests make a lot of sense, and do happen with some frequency. But out of context, it sounds scary — the US government is trying to find out individual citizens’ names on warrants that are supposed to target foreigners!

This is what Nunes’s initial disclosures last month were all about. Nunes announced that US intelligence had incidentally collected information on Trump transition officials and, moreover, that the names of these Trump officials had been unmasked. This did raise some questions about privacy rights. But because Nunes was extremely vague about who was unmasked and why, the controversy didn’t initially focus on that aspect of things.

The Rice reports have refocused things significantly, linking the unmasking to a specific Trump administration official. This led, almost immediately, to speculation that Rice had asked for the unmasking for improper political reasons — building off Trump’s unsubstantiated allegation that Obama had spied on him during the campaign. By giving Republicans a specific target, rather than a vague one, they could make a lot more hay out of unmasking allegations — even though if you understand how surveillance actually works, you realize that what Rice was doing was fairly routine.

The fact that Susan Rice is the one at the center of the new flap, and not a different former Obama administration official, was the last ingredient necessary to turn this non-scandal into a conservative obsession.

How this became such a big deal

Republicans have gotten so incensed over the Rice reports that they’re already calling for investigations into it.

“I think every American should know whether or not the national security adviser to President Obama was involved in unmasking Trump transition figures for political purposes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a Tuesday appearance on Fox News. “It should be easy to figure out, and we will.”

The first part of the answer is that much of America’s conservative establishment has been flailing to find ways to justify Trump’s initial tweet about alleged Obama wiretapping. Because nothing resembling evidence of surveillance of Trump Tower during the campaign has come to light, anything that looks like surveillance of Trump officials by the Obama administration has been trumpeted as proof that Trump was right.

In March, for example, former Obama aide Evelyn Farkas said in an MSNBC interview that team Obama attempted to preserve as much information on Trump-Russia ties as they could before leaving office, as they were worried Trump would delete them. Her phrasing was imprecise — “get as much intelligence as you can before President Obama leaves the administration” — and nodes in the pro-Trump media ecosystem, like Fox’s Sean Hannity, seized on it as evidence that Obama did wiretap Trump (“Surveillance Confirmed,” the banner on Hannity’s show read). Mark Levin, a right-wing radio host, called it a “smoking gun.”

The Rice reports sound even more troubling than the Farkas stuff — Obama officials manipulating classified information! — and have gotten even more attention. If you look at the home page of Breitbart on Tuesday afternoon, for example, every single story is Rice-related, all of them hyping it as evidence that Rice and the Obama administration were attempting to weaken Trump.

Breitbart homepage as of 2:35 pm EST on April 4.

Of course, not every wild claim on these sites leads to calls from senators for investigations, especially relative Trump-skeptics like Lindsey Graham. The reason the Rice stuff has gotten more lift than the Farkas comments is Rice herself.

Susan Rice, if you’ll recall, was at the center of the controversy after the 2012 Benghazi attack, back when she was Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. Shortly after the attacks, Rice went on television to explain what had happened, arguing that the attack (which claimed the lives of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya) grew out of a “spontaneous protest” motivated by an extreme anti-Islam video released on YouTube.

This turned out to be wrong. While some of the attackers really were incensed by the film, closed-circuit footage from the diplomatic building showed that there was no protest.

Republicans accused the White House of making up the "spontaneous protest" claim in order to cover up their failure or downplay the role of terrorism. They also accused the administration of inappropriately manipulating the “talking points” the intelligence community provided to Rice in preparation for her TV appearances. Congressional Republicans spent countless hours looking into the talking points. Detailed dissections of the talking points, like this one from the Weekly Standard's Steven Hayes, appeared all over right-wing media.

Benghazi also became a catchphrase for Republicans attacking Hillary Clinton’s national security credentials during the last election. The problem is that there wasn’t much there there.

While the talking points Rice used were incorrect, several US government investigations have shown this to be the result of an honest CIA error made in the first days after the incident, and not a deliberate White House cover-up. There is no evidence of inappropriate White House tampering, which we know because the Obama White House eventually released all the drafts of the talking points in question.

But the whole incident poisoned Republican views of Rice, who’s now seen as a malevolent political operator by virtually the entire GOP. When she was named as the person responsible for the unmasking, Republicans were primed to assume there was a scandal there — a point many openly admit.

“Susan Rice is the Typhoid Mary of the Obama administration foreign policy,” Sen. Tom Cotton said in a Tuesday interview on The Hugh Hewitt Show. “Every time something went wrong, she seemed to turn up in the middle of it, whether it was these allegations of improper unmasking, intentional or improper surveillance, whether it’s Benghazi or the other fiascos over the eight years of the Obama administration.”

What we’re seeing now, in short, is not a legitimate debate about the threat posed to civil liberties by improper unmasking. We are seeing a toxic combination of Trump’s penchant for wild speculation, a right-wing media echo chamber, and the legacy of the Benghazi controversy coming together to produce an absurd pile-on — one that seems to have brought the Republican Party together around their remaining hatred for Rice and the Obama administration.