The White House called on the media Monday to show more zeal in investigating allegations that Obama administration officials abused their access to intelligence to seek out and disclose potentially damaging information about Donald Trump’s campaign and transition.
Struggling to defuse ongoing investigations of alleged Russian interference in the election on behalf of now-President Trump, and to deflect reports of possible ties between Trump associates and Moscow, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he was “somewhat intrigued” at the media’s “lack of interest . . . in one set of developments versus another set of developments.”
But Spicer, in contrast to weeks of outrage he has expressed from the White House podium, said he would not comment on a new report that Susan E. Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, had requested that the intelligence community provide her with names of Trump associates whose conversations with foreigners were incidentally intercepted.
Conservative social-media agitator Mike Cernovich reported Sunday that the White House counsel’s office had “identified” Rice as asking for the names of “incoming Trump officials,” during an internal review of document logs. The report did not indicate whether conversations with Russians were involved.
Rice could not be reached for comment on the report.
Information from the review, according to White House officials, was turned over to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes subsequently announced that he had briefed Trump on the information.
Both the House and Senate intelligence committees, along with the FBI, are investigating the reports of Russian interference and possible collusion. House Democrats have said that Nunes, who also served as a Trump transition official, should step down as chairman. The standoff temporarily froze the committee’s hearings. On Monday, Nunes said the panel could resume interviewing witnesses in two weeks.
The administration has pushed back on the reports of Russia contacts by saying they stem from efforts by Obama officials to undermine Trump. That, the administration insists, should be the focus of investigations, rather than the information. Trump has charged, without offering proof, that his communications were intercepted under orders from Obama.
In a Monday tweet, Trump referred to “Such amazing reporting on unmasking and the crooked scheme against us . . . ‘Spied on before the nomination.’ The real story.”
“Unmasking” refers to revealing a name that has been blacked out in an intelligence report on surveillance. The law does not permit surveillance of U.S. persons without a warrant; if one shows up in authorized surveillance of a foreign person, it is “masked.”
According to a former senior national security official, top aides in all administrations are assigned an individual intelligence “briefer” who gives them a curated report each morning, including foreign surveillance reports deemed of interest to them.
The former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said that in a minority of cases, the recipient may determine that the context of a particular communication, especially if it deals with sensitive security or foreign policy matters, requires knowledge of the U.S. person involved. The official can ask the intelligence briefer to “unmask” that person. The request is considered and acted upon — or not — by the intelligence agency involved. The process is neither uncommon nor illegal.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he had no independent knowledge that Rice had unmasked Trump campaign or transition figures, but called the reports that she had “explosive” and called on her to testify before Congress. He also said he was considering a bill to reform the unmasking process to protect U.S. citizens caught in foreign surveillance dragnets.
Paul, who played golf with Trump over the weekend, said he raised the issue with Trump, but he did not detail the president’s views on the matter.
Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.