Former national security advisor under President Barack Obama Susan Rice denied allegations from right-wing media that she had “unmasked” associates of President Donald Trump “for political purposes.” In an interview with MSNBC, Rice explained the process of “unmasking” an American, noting that it was sometimes “necessary” for her to do so to “understand the importance” of intelligence.
Right-wing media scandalized a story originally propagated by “alt-right” media figure Mike Cernovich -- a conspiracy theorist who promoted Pizzagate and insisted that “white genocide is real” -- claiming that Rice had ordered requested that the identities of Trump transition officials be “unmasked” and suggested that they story proved Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Obama personally ordered officials to wiretap Trump Tower “right.” Additionally, the Daily Caller dubiously claimed that Rice “ordered U.S. spy agencies to produce ‘detailed spreadsheets’ of legal phone calls involving Donald Trump and his aides when he was running for president.” However, multiple national security experts pointed out that “nothing in this story indicates anything improper.”
On MSNBC, Rice explained, “The effort to ask for the identify of the American citizen is necessary to understand of an intelligence report in some instances” and emphasized “the notion ... that by asking for the identity of an American person, that is the same as leaking it, is completely false.” Rice also addressed the claim from the Daily Caller, calling it “absolutely false” and stating that she had “no spreadsheet, nothing of the sort.” From the April 4 edition of MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports:
ANDREA MITCHELL (HOST): This is a firestorm. It is involved with the whole question of the Russia investigation, of the response by President Trump, and now these accusations against you. How do you reply, how do you respond?
SUSAN RICE: Well, Andrea, this is not anything political has been alleged. The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That’s absolutely false. Let me explain how this works. I was a national security advisor. My job is to protect the American people and the security of our country. That’s the same as the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the CIA director. And every morning, to enable us to do that, we receive from the intelligence community a compilation of intelligence reports that the IC, the intelligence community, has selected for us on a daily basis to give us the best information as to what's going on around the world. I received those reports, as did each of those other officials and there were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided, just U.S. person. And sometimes, in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request the information as to who that U.S. official was. Let me give you just a hypothetical example. This is completely made up, but let's say there was conversation between two foreigners about a conversation they were having with an American who was proposing to sell to them high-tech bomb-making equipment. Now, if that came to me as national security advisor, it would matter enormously. Is this some kook sitting in his living room communicating via the internet offering to sell something he doesn't have? Or is this is a serious person or company or entity with the ability to provide that technology, perhaps to an adversary? That would be an example of a case where knowing who the U.S. person was necessary to assess the information. So when that occurred, what I would do or what any official would do, is to ask their briefer whether the intelligence committee would go through their process -- and there’s a longstanding established process -- to decide whether that information as to who the identity of the U.S. person was could be provided to me. So they’d take that question back, they’d put it through a process, and the intelligence community made that determination as to whether or not the identity of that American individual could be provided to me. That is what I, and secretary of state, secretary of defense, CIA director, DNI would do when we received that information. We only do it to protect the American people, to do our jobs in the national security realm. That's the only reason.
MITCHELL: Within that process and within the context of the Trump campaign, the Trump transition, did you seek the names of people involved in -- to unmask the names of people involved in the Trump transition, the Trump campaign, people surrounding the president-elect in order to spy on them and expose them?
RICE: Let me be clear, absolutely not for any political purposes, to spy, expose, anything. But let me --
MITCHELL: Did you leak the name of Mike Flynn?
RICE: I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would. But let me explain this. First of all, Andrea, to talk about the contents of a classified report, to talk about the individuals on the foreign side who were the targets of the report itself or any Americans that may have been collected upon incidentally is to disclose classified information. I’m not going to do that, and those people who are putting these stories out are doing just that. I can't describe any particular report I saw, and by the way I have no idea what reports are allegedly being described by those putting out this story. I don't know the timeframe they were from, I don’t know the subject matter, and I don't know who they think was collected upon.
MITCHELL: The allegation is, in one case they are alleging in the Daily Caller, there was a spreadsheet that you put out of all of these names and circulated.
RICE: Absolutely false. No spreadsheet, nothing of the sort. And let me also elaborate and say that when the intelligence community would respond to a request from a senior national security official for the identity of an American, that would came back only to the person who requested it, and it would be brought back to them directly.
MITCHELL: To you directly.
RICE: To me, or to whoever might have requested it, on occasion, and this is important. It was not then typically broadly disseminated throughout the national security community or the government. So the notion, that some people are trying to suggest, that by asking for the identity of an American person, that is the same as leaking it, is completely false. There’s no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking. The effort to ask for the identity of the American citizen is necessary to understand of an intelligence report in some instances.