Republican-led House Committee Asked for ‘unmasked’ Russia Intelligence

by Joshua Eaton –

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of using the same practice to spy on the Trump campaign.

The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee engaged in the same practice of “unmasking” that President Donald Trump and committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., have criticized the Obama administration for, according to a Friday evening report by The Washington Post.

The House Intelligence Committee asked intelligence agencies to reveal the redacted names of U.S. people and organizations in classified intelligence reports about Russian interference in the 2016 election 5 or 6 times last year, according to the Post, citing current and former officials.

Many of the requests were reportedly for the identities of U.S. organizations that were the targets of Russian hackers. It’s not clear whether the requests came from committee Democrats or Republicans, The Post said, but Nunes would have had to sign off on any such requests.

The news comes at an awkward time for Trump and Nunes, who have accused the Obama administration of using the same practice, called “unmasking,” to spy on Republican political campaigns.

“The big story is the ‘unmasking and surveillance’ of people that took place during the Obama administration,” Trump said in a tweet on Thursday.

The big story is the “unmasking and surveillance” of people that took place during the Obama Administration.

At issue are classified intelligence reports based on the U.S. intelligence community’s massive surveillance of foreign communications. Agencies “mask” the names of U.S. persons or organizations are part of those communications, or simply a topic of the conversation, before the raw communications go into finished intelligence reports.

In early 2009, for example, the National Security Agency intercepted a conversation about then President-elect Barack Obama. When the agency distributed the masked intelligence, Obama’s name was replaced with “minimized U.S. president-elect” to conform with privacy regulations, according to a 2014 report in The Washington Post.

Not all masking is so obvious, however. Officials in the White House or Congress can request that an agency “unmask” the masked identities—revealing the U.S. person or organization that was being talked to or talked about—to help them better understand the intelligence.

Agencies track those requests, and they’re subject to oversight from the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, according to the Post.

The once-uncommon practice grew steadily under President George W. Bush as policymakers received a flood of post-9/11 intelligence, according to an April report in Foreign Policy.

“You often couldn’t understand what was going on unless you asked for the identity of the U.S. persons,” once former official told Foreign Policy.

In 2016, the NSA released the identities of 1,934 U.S. persons gathered under a particular surveillance program in response to unmasking requests, according to a transparency report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence earlier this year.

Trump previously re-tweeted stories by The Drudge Report and Fox News that accused Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, of inappropriately requesting that intelligence agencies unmask the redacted names of Trump campaign officials.

As Trump was tweeting Thursday, Nunes was sending subpoenas to the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency for documents related to Rice and the Obama administration’s unmasking requests.

Nunes did not consult with committee Democrats before issuing the subpoenas, according to Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who’s the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.

“This is what the White House wants to see happen,” Schiff told CNN on Thursday. “They’d rather be talking about these issues.”

Nunes recused himself from the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian election hacking in April, after his claim of proof that the Obama administration had spied on the Trump campaign fell apart, leading to accusations Nunes colluded with the White House to distract from the Russia investigation.

“It is standard operating procedure for the House Intelligence Committee to forward all committee members’ questions from both parties to the appropriate agencies, whether or not they are answered,” a spokesperson for committee Republicans told the Post. “I refer you to committee Democrats for further questions on this subject.”

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress