White House officials on Monday said they were concerned by reports that indicated the National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama had reportedly “unmasked” names of associates of President Donald Trump which were gleaned from eavesdropping on foreign intelligence targets, as the President once more claimed he was the target of surveillance during the 2016 elections.
The President and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer both pointed to stories involving Susan Rice, who served as Mr. Obama’s National Security Advisor, raising questions about whether she had taken actions to find out the names of Americans mentioned in legal U.S. surveillance on certain foreign targets – names that might be linked in some way to Mr. Trump.
“There’s a troubling direction that this is going in,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who chided reporters at a daily briefing each time they asked about the Rice story, as he said the press was ignoring reports that favored some of the charges made by President Trump about election surveillance.
“I think that it is interesting, the level or the lack of interest that I’ve seen in these developments,” Spicer said, accusing the press of being more interested in stories that played negatively against President Trump and his key aides.
Asked what Rice’s motives might have been to see such information, Spicer demurred.
“Getting into the motives assumes certain things in fact that I don’t think we’re ready to go to yet,” as Spicer said he did not want to get “in the middle of an investigation.”
A story about Rice by Bloomberg’s Eli Lake said the evidence so far suggested that “Rice’s unmasking requests were likely within the law.”
President Trump though was emphasizing a different angle, using the argument that Rice had been spying on his campaign in 2016.
One thing the stories about Rice did not cover was any charge that the information had been illegally leaked or wrongly shared with others in the Obama Administration.
Asked directly if Rice had done anything illegal, Spicer again brought up the name of Evelyn Farkas, the former Pentagon official in the Obama Administration, who in early March had talked up saving intelligence related to any links between Russian officials and the Trump campaign.
Farkas, who left her Pentagon job in October of 2015, has denied having access to any intelligence; she reiterated that in a series of tweets on Monday evening that seemed to have been accidentally sent out at large, instead of in a direct message on Twitter.
This reporter just happened to be checking Farkas’s Twitter page as four different tweets popped up – after checking back a few minutes later – all four had been deleted.
“Off the record, Jim,” the first tweet began, as she said her quotes from an MSNBC interview had been taken out of context, and wondering why the almost month old interview had suddenly surfaced in more conservative media.
It was not immediately clear who Farkas was corresponding with.
The next three tweets all start mid-word, meaning she was likely sending direct messages, and mistakenly sent a few of those messages out on her Twitter feed.
In the messages that were deleted, Farkas says her MSNBC statements were “personal analysis based on my experience, not based on any intelligence.”
On Tuesday morning, Farkas sent direct messages to this reporter, complaining about my use of her deleted messages, retroactively declared her morning note to be off the record, and then blocked me on Twitter.
The story about Rice and the possible unmasking of names did not make immediate inroads with Republicans in the Congress, though Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who had played golf with the President on Sunday, declared the story a “smoking gun.”
The rules involving names of American citizens (also referred to as U.S. Persons) have been getting extra attention in recent weeks, amid the discussions of ‘incidental collection.’
Incidental collection occurs when the U.S. is monitoring a foreigner under a FISA warrant (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), and that foreign target happens to communicate with an American.
In intelligence reports, the name of that American is “masked” – so that it is not spread far and wide in the Intelligence Community.
Certain officials in the government can ask for the name to be “unmasked” – that is what likely happened involving former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, as his contacts with the Russian Ambassador were then evidently leaked to the press.