President Trump, who has tweeted complaints about “fake” news exactly 33 times since taking office, has found a press report that he considers “amazing.”
Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends. "Spied on before nomination." The real story.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2017
The story that amazed Trump wasn't reported by “Fox & Friends,” but it certainly dominated Monday's edition of the president's favorite morning show. It was a report from Friday by Fox News senior correspondent Adam Housley, which began like this:
The U.S. intelligence official who “unmasked,” or exposed, the names of multiple private citizens affiliated with the Trump team is someone “very well known, very high up, very senior in the intelligence world,” a source told Fox News on Friday.
Housley did not get the name of this “very senior” individual. But “Fox & Friends” nevertheless dubbed the report a “bombshell” and blasted the rest of the media for not treating it as such.
Bombshell report over the weekend shows a 'very high up' Obama official unmasking Trump associates for political purposes, sources say pic.twitter.com/Rj6JEXbobb
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) April 3, 2017
Mainstream media ignores report on who's unmasking Trump associates, but they were all over report on how Nunes got unmasking info pic.twitter.com/ixsAGDXF00
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) April 3, 2017
“Fox & Friends” attributed the lack of attention on Housley's report to media bias, but there is another, more logical explanation: The report just didn't deliver anything new or surprising.
Before we proceed, let's pause for a moment to review the unmasking issue. Recall that Trump initially alleged, in a series of tweets March 4, that President Barack Obama had tapped the phones at Trump Tower during the campaign. Trump presented no supporting evidence, and FBI Director James Comey testified before Congress on March 20 that his agency possesses “no information that supports those tweets.”
Since then, the White House has pivoted to a different argument. The president's team now concedes what major news outlets have previously reported — that foreigners, not Trump associates, were wiretapped by U.S. intelligence agencies and that Trump associates were swept up in surveillance when they communicated with foreigners whose phones had been bugged.
For example: Pre-inauguration calls between Michael Flynn, Trump's original national security adviser, and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak were intercepted because Kislyak was being surveilled. Reporting on the calls Feb. 9, The Washington Post's Greg Miller, Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima wrote that their information had been “provided by officials who had access to reports from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats.”
The new White House strategy is to downplay questions about why Flynn, who resigned Feb. 13, and other Trump aides such as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former foreign policy adviser Carter Page were communicating with Russians. The “real story,” as Trump put it in Monday's tweet, centers on another question: Why were the names of Flynn, Manafort and Page even included in intelligence reports (i.e., unmasked) and subsequently leaked to the press?
Typically, intelligence reports focused on the actions of foreigners under surveillance would not identify the American citizens with whom they have communicated. A report on Kislyak, for instance, might have identified Flynn only as “U.S. Person 1” or some other alias.
At the same March 20 hearing where Comey testified, National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers explained that the NSA considers a couple of key questions when deciding whether to include an American citizen's real name in an intelligence report, including this one: “Is the identification necessary to truly understand the context of the intelligence value that the report is designed to generate?”
Who answered this question in the affirmative, thereby authorizing the unmasking of Trump associates? Here is where Housley's report comes in. According to his source, it was someone “very well known, very high up, very senior in the intelligence world.”
Okay. But it was already pretty obvious that whoever approved the unmasking was “very high up” because Rogers testified two weeks ago that “there are 20 individuals, including myself, who I have delegated this authority to approve unmask requests.”
Twenty is a pretty exclusive club. We already knew that the decision to unmask was made at or near the top of the intelligence community. Without the name of the person who made the call, Housley's report, while accurate, doesn't add to the public understanding of the situation.
Housley quoted an unnamed “congressional source” who complained about “the spreading of these names for political purposes.” That is certainly the pro-Trump view: Someone in the intelligence community wanted to make the Trump team look bad and therefore made the politically motivated decision to identify his associates in intelligence reports.
No wonder the president thinks the Fox News report is so “amazing.”
Another view is that the answer to the question posed by Rogers — “is the identification necessary to truly understand the context of the intelligence?” — is yes. After all, U.S. intelligence agencies are probing Russian efforts to influence the presidential election and trying to determine whether the Trump campaign collaborated with the Kremlin.
Thus, it matters whether Russians were communicating with members of Trump's team or unaffiliated American citizens who could be masked without consequence as “U.S. Persons 1, 2 and 3.”
The view to which you subscribe, dear reader, likely depends on your own politics.