Opinion writer
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)

It is said that Watergate wasn’t about the crime, but about the coverup. Well, at least in the Watergate scandal, there was a proper crime — specifically, the break-in and wiretapping. The media hasn’t even settled on what to call its quest for a potentially nefarious Russia-Trump link. The whole pursuit is vaguely referred to as looking at President Trump’s “links,” “ties,” “associations” or “contacts” with Russia. Since this is Washington, let’s give it an acronym: L-TACs. With no end in sight, the manic pursuit of L-TACs has produced a basket of denials, lies, half-baked plots, evasions, one-off non sequiturs, side tracks, conspiracies and suspicions between the Trump administration, Democrats and the media. The frenzy has created a scandal without perpetrators or a crime. There is a sense that Washington is on the brink, but no one can say on the brink of what.

When they have to be specific, some Democrats have settled on the idea that the Trump campaign may have collaborated with Russia on the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the John Podesta emails. There is no evidence of this, but it is worth remembering a few things. First, the FBI was aware of the DNC hacking when it occurred. This was confirmed again yesterday in Politico’s interview with Lisa Monaco, who served as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism in the Obama White House. She said the hacking was handled as a law enforcement matter. I assume she was referring to when the FBI called the dolts at the DNC, but the DNC took no action.

Then-national security adviser Susan Rice is seen last year on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

And what Earth-shattering insights were revealed as a result of the hacks? That the DNC was in the tank for Hillary Clinton and had been lying to Bernie Sanders. Everybody in Washington already knew that, and it didn’t make any difference to Trump. In fact, the revelations gave the Clinton camp a pretext to get rid of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz — something it wanted to do anyway. Next, Clinton campaign chairman Podesta’s emails did not reveal anything beyond Beltway gossip that was only of interest to political junkies. Nothing was revealed that drove any votes. If Russian hackers wanted to harass Podesta, what is the crime that the Trump campaign might have committed?

The cacophony of accusations, deflections and distractions has led us to the latest revelation that is causing a “holy cow” double-take, plot-thickening moment in Washington: President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, sought to unmask the identities of Trump aides whose conversations had been collected through routine electronic intercepts of foreign officials’ communications. To unmask, or reveal, the identities of U.S. citizens whose names and conversations were gathered through incidental collection is unusual. And there are more suspicious reasons for Obama’s national security adviser to have sought to unmask the identities of Trump campaign aides than there are valid reasons. Rice has a history of a strained relationship with the truth, and for a national security adviser, she has, at times, flown close to the partisan political flame. So, what was going on? Why did she do it? And with whom, in the government and the media, did she share the information?

Multiple senators are now demanding her testimony. There could have been crimes committed and a real scandal could develop, so you can bet the full story will be slow to emerge. It appears that Rice has issued the standard denials. And her defenders on Capitol Hill and in the media will do all they can to distract and demand that there is nothing to see here. Democrats and their media allies will continue to make baseless allegations, hoping that the Russia investigations will somehow deliver for them and become this president’s Watergate.

The result so far? Competing outrage. Just as Democrats are pursuing L-TACs (links, ties, associations or contacts) in search of a crime, the Obama White House’s national security adviser has now landed as one of the ones who will have to answer for her actions under oath. Washington is as scandal-primed as I’ve ever seen it — there is a lot of smoke right now, but no clear fire. So the noise and finger-pointing will continue. And I have no idea who is winning.