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Susan Rice isn’t a ‘smoking gun,’ but she does have explaining to do

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

This post has been updated with the full question PBS host Judy Woodruff asked that led to Rice's denial.

Susan E. Rice reportedly sought to unmask the identities of Americans connected with President Trump's campaign and transition who were mentioned in foreign surveillance intelligence reports. And with that news, which was first reported Sunday by conservative social-media agitator Mike Cernovich and confirmed Monday by Bloomberg's Eli Lake, Washington spawned a huge game of Choose Your Own Adventure.

Conservatives — even some who have been skeptical of Trump's claim that the Obama administration surveilled him — saw it as highly suspicious. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called it a “smoking gun,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) labeled Rice “Typhoid Mary,” and the Wall Street Journal's editorial board issued a blistering op-ed on Tuesday morning:

All this is highly unusual — and troubling. Unmasking does occur, but it is typically done by intelligence or law-enforcement officials engaged in anti-terror or espionage investigations. Ms. Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity.

The New York Times, meanwhile, is out with an analysis piece that pretty much takes the polar opposite view — that it's much ado about nothing, even a deliberate distraction from the White House:

Former national security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the requests as normal and said they were justified by the need for the president’s top security adviser to understand the context of reports sent to her by the nation’s intelligence agencies.

Here's what we can say about the Rice situation at this point.

There is precisely zero evidence that Rice used this information — assuming the reports are true — for anything other than her own official purposes or did anything unholy. Unmasking is not leaking, and as our own Karen DeYoung notes, Rice couldn't have names unmasked without permission from the relevant intelligence agency — a system in place to prevent political abuses.

And as President Barack Obama's national security adviser, she could very well have had legitimate reasons to ask to unmask individuals in these intelligence reports, which are part of her job. The Journal's claim that “Ms. Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity” certainly takes some logical liberties, given that we don't even know the subject of the reports.

Rice denied wrongdoing Tuesday to MSNBC. "The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes; that's absolutely false," she said. adding: "I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have and never would."

Second — and importantly — there is also still no evidence that any surveillance was targeted at Trump, as he has alleged in tweets. This doesn't speak to that, either.

But at the same time, Rice's own comments about this matter do lead to some legitimate questions. During an appearance on PBS's “NewsHour” two weeks ago, Rice was asked about the announcement by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that Trump and his associates had been swept up in incidental surveillance that wasn't aimed at them.

Here was Rice's response: “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”

If Rice had indeed unmasked Trump associates' identities in these foreign surveillance reports, that response wouldn't quite make sense. We don't know precisely the question she was asked due to how the interview was edited, but PBS host Judy Woodruff led into Rice's comment by saying she asked Rice about Nunes's disclosure that Trump associates “may have been swept up in surveillance of foreigners at the end of the Obama administration.”

Update: In response to this piece, PBS has disclosed the specific question Rice was asked, and it's in line with how Woodruff presented it.

In the first question, PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff asked Rice about Nunes’ disclosure that Trump “and the people around him may have been caught up in surveillance of foreign individuals and that their identities may have been disclosed. Do you know anything about this?” Woodruff added.

And Rice herself says her denial was referring to specific reports -- not Nunes's general disclosure about Trump and his associates being caught up in surveillance.

Rice, of course, is no stranger to making public comments that later prove to be a liability. More than Hillary Clinton's remarks, it was Rice's post-Benghazi comments that gave the Obama administration major headaches, given that Rice said the attack appeared to result from spontaneous protests due to an anti-Islam video.

In this entire Russia situation, the Trump campaign and now the White House have made their job much tougher by saying things that are later contradicted, most notably about their contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States. It makes it seem like they have something to hide, even if there's no smoking gun.

And what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Rice would do well to square her comments two weeks ago with what has been reported — even if it's not the smoking gun that Paul wishes it were.