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How Obama’s National Security Advisor Landed at the Center of Trump’s Wiretapping Claims

Susan Rice is suddenly in the spotlight. Jim Watson — AFP/Getty Images

Last month, it appeared Susan Rice had fully moved on from her jobs in the administration of President Barack Obama. She’d served the White House as ambassador to the United Nations and then as national security advisor. On March 8, American University announced Rice had landed the plum job of Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, a role that will allow her to “work primarily on her next book and mentor students [in the School of International Service] on careers in national security.”

But Rice had hardly any time to get settled into that idyllic pasture.

Less than a month later, she’s now at the center of the swirling scandal involving President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that Obama wiretapped his phones as well as the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, which is itself mired in controversy.

Like all the storylines related to Trump, his campaign officials, and Russia, figuring out how Rice ended up here requires some careful unpacking.

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Rice was catapulted back into the political conversation on Monday, when Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, citing anonymous U.S. officials, published an article that said White House lawyers learned last month that Rice, in her former role, had requested the identities “of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign.” That means Rice had sought to “unmask” the names of Americans somehow tied to Trump who were incidentally caught up in the legal surveillance of foreign targets. The identities of these people are usually redacted from eavesdropping summaries that administration officials review.

Lake’s report was a big deal because it answered a question drummed up on March 22 by Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, when he said the president or his closest allies may have been “incidentally” swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies. Nunes’s statement was seen as propping up Trump’s insistence that his phones had been tapped. (Since then, other factors—the sources at the White House who fed Nunes this information and Nunes’s decision to immediately brief the president on it—have prompted calls for his recusal and for the launch of a more independent investigation.)

At the time of his disclosure, Nunes acknowledged that the intelligence gathering at issue was not necessarily unlawful, but he expressed concern that he could learn the identities of the Trump associates by reading reports about the intercepted communications that had circulated among top Obama administration officials. The names of such people are usually masked. So who’d unmasked these individuals and why?

The answer, according to Bloomberg, is Susan Rice and because it was within her authority. Lake writes:

The standard for senior officials to learn the names of U.S. persons incidentally collected is that it must have some foreign intelligence value, a standard that can apply to almost anything. This suggests Rice’s unmasking requests were likely within the law.

The Atlantic has some suggestions about Rice’s specific motivation for the alleged unmasking: Maybe she was acting in connection with a joint investigation into Russian interference in the election. Perhaps, she was simply seeking insight about foreign governments. Or it’s possible she was conducting the kind of political espionage Trump has alleged.

As Lake notes, for now, what Rice did appears to be legal, but it nonetheless will fuel Trump allies who view it as vindicating the president’s assertion of being spied on, even though her actions don’t satisfy what he initially claimed.

In an editorial on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal said the Rice “bombshell” proved that Nunes—”the one official in Washington who seems interested in pursuing the evidence of politicized surveillance”—is “onto something.” The paper criticized Congressional democrats for ignoring Rice’s role in the unmasking after previously defending Americans’ right to privacy in such surveillance sweeps. The Journal said the revelation shouldn’t deter “investigators from looking into the Trump-Russia connection,” but that it’s also worth examining “how the Obama Administration might have abused domestic surveillance for its political purposes.”

On Tuesday, Rice told MSNBC that she didn’t use the intelligence reports to spy on Trump associates for political purposes. She acknowledged that in her senior White House role, she had the ability to request the names of Americans swept up through U.S. spying. But she declined to say whether she saw intelligence on Trump’s associates or whether she asked for their identities, since that information would be classified.

When Rice was asked last month about Trump transition officials and the president himself being picked up in the surveillance of foreigners, Rice said: “I know nothing about this,” adding that she was “surprised” by Nunes’s March 22 report.

This story has been updated to reflect Rice’s comments to MSNBC.