With allegations targeting former Obama national security adviser Susan E. Rice, here's what you need to know about "unmasking" U.S. persons. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

If you’re an ally (let alone an employee) of Donald Trump, the ever-widening Russia scandal has to have been disheartening. Nearly everyone agrees that the Russian government actively attempted to aid Trump’s presidential campaign, which might be possible to explain away as not Donald Trump’s fault, were it not for the fact that so many of his aides and associates have ties of one form or another to Russia, as does the president himself. So with each new revelation or phase of the investigation, the questions get more and more uncomfortable.

Which is why conservatives have been waiting so desperately for something, anything they can use to turn the story around to their advantage, no matter how ludicrous the arguments they make might be. And now they’ve found it.

And boy, are those arguments ever ludicrous. At this moment, the right wing media is going bonkers over reports that Susan Rice, who was national security adviser at the time, in 2016 requested the “unmasking” of certain U.S. persons who had been picked up in surveillance of foreign intelligence targets. Because those persons turned out to be associates of Donald Trump, conservatives have managed to twist this into the allegation that the Obama administration was “spying” on Trump and his campaign. Over at foxnews.com I count 11 separate articles about Rice on the home page. You can find similar screaming headlines at Breitbart, the Daily Caller, and all the other conservative sites — and don’t ask what’s happening on Twitter (if you want to get a taste of the lunacy, search #SusanRice).


Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Why the gleeful eruption of accusations? Certain conservative media already had their basic storyline, which is that the problem isn’t Russian meddling in our election, the problem is that somebody revealed Russian meddling in our election. That’s why, along with President Trump, they’re so outraged (or are at least pretending to be outraged) about leaks of the various investigations. But what they lacked was a single villain, and now they have one, someone they hated already and on whom they can focus all their considerable venom.

This afternoon on MSNBC, Rice responded to the allegations. She said, “The allegation that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes, that’s absolutely false,” adding that “I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have and never would.”

While Rice answered most of Mitchell’s questions in general terms, we need to go over this as carefully as we can, to make clear a simple point. Based on what we know so far, Susan Rice not only didn’t do anything wrong, she did exactly what we would expect of a national security adviser. Indeed, it would have been alarming if she didn’t do what we’re hearing she did.

We start with a report yesterday from Bloomberg’s Eli Lake, who was told by sources in the Trump administration that “former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” This is referred to as “unmasking,” since ordinarily, when a U.S. person is picked up in surveillance of a foreign intelligence target, their identity is masked out of privacy concerns. For instance, the NSA might be recording the phone calls of the Russian ambassador, and if he calls an American friend and has an innocuous conversation, the identity of the American will be masked.

It’s important to understand that “unmasking” doesn’t mean making the name public, or even making the name widely available to officials inside the government. It means that the official who made the request gets to see the name. High-ranking American officials can and do request the unmasking of U.S. persons in these reports if it’s relevant to national security. As Lake himself wrote: “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. This suggests Rice’s unmasking requests were likely within the law.”

But it goes even farther than that. If Rice saw a report on conversations with foreign intelligence targets (whom we’re assuming are Russians, though we don’t yet know for sure) with the identities of the U.S. persons redacted, the content of those conversations had to have given her some reason for concern, something that suggested it would be important to know who those U.S. persons were. It wasn’t a random fishing expedition that just happened to land on associates of Donald Trump. If Rice saw a report saying that a Russian intelligence target “Placed call to U.S PERSON 1 and inquired as to when his dry cleaning would be ready,” she wouldn’t have cared who that person was, and she wouldn’t have requested the unmasking to find out.

Yet conservatives are trying to convince people that the Obama administration set out to spy on the Trump team, an allegation for which there is zero evidence. Senator Rand Paul tweeted, “Smoking gun found! Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign.” Fox’s Tucker Carlson said to his audience, “What exactly were the Obama people doing spying on the Trump people?”, adding that “Our laws currently provide no serious protection to U.S. citizens from being spied upon for political reasons by their own government, and worse, it actually happens. In fact, it just happened, and that is the scandal here.”

We can have a debate about the scope of the NSA’s surveillance authority, but we have to be clear about this: Susan Rice couldn’t have known that the foreign intelligence targets were speaking to Trump associates when she made the unmasking request, because their identities were masked. Unmasking enabled her to find out who they were. I suppose it’s possible that the content of the conversations made it obvious that the foreign intelligence target was speaking with a Trump associate, but at a time when the government was investigating Russian efforts to subvert our election, that would have made it even more urgent to know which Americans they were talking to.

It isn’t just that Rice’s effort to fully understand what was passing back and forth between foreign intelligence targets and Trump associates was legal, though it was, or that it was appropriate, though it was. It was more than that: it was absolutely critical. Indeed, it would have been a shocking dereliction of duty if she hadn’t.

What conservatives are really saying is that the national security adviser, knowing that Russia was undertaking what amounts to an assault on the American political system, shouldn’t have tried to learn all she can about what it involves. If she got a report about foreign intelligence targets talking to Americans, and the content of those conversations was enough to raise alarms, she should have just put it in a drawer and not asked any questions.

When you see conservatives screaming about Susan Rice and accusing her of all manner of nefarious deeds, keep in mind what their goal is: to distract from the inquiry into whether Trump and his associates may have cooperated with Russia in their meddling in our election. That’s what they’re after.