Unmasking Samantha Power
Of all the Russia storms raging around Donald Trump —the Christopher Steele dossier, the email to Don Jr. promising dirt on Hillary Clinton —there is still only one clear felony we know about: the leaking of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s name after someone had identified him from a classified intelligence report. Funny how this is a scandal no one seems interested in.
Well, almost no one. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, recently sent a letter to the Director of National Intelligence with some startling information. The committee has learned that “one official, whose position had no apparent intelligence-related function, made hundreds of unmasking requests during the final year of the Obama administration.”
Unmasking is simply an official requesting the identity of an American whose name has been redacted from an intelligence report. There is nothing inherently wrong with unmasking, and law enforcement, intelligence operatives and policy makers can have a legitimate need to know who these Americans are.
But protecting the privacy rights of American citizens as well as not revealing which foreigners U.S. intelligence is targeting is also crucial, which is why U.S. government officials are supposed to give good and specific reason for seeking the identity of a redacted American. Yet in all but one of the requests for names from top-level Obama officials, Mr. Nunes writes, the language was “boilerplate” and did not specify why the official needed to know the names.
The House committee has not identified the Trump people who were unmasked. Nor has it identified the “one official” who made those hundreds of requests. But it’s pretty obvious this was Samantha Power, Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. In May the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed the unmasking requests from Ms. Power, former CIA director John Brennan and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Ms. Power is the only one of those three whose job had no clear intelligence-related function. The plot got even thicker when the committee asked for the same unmasking records for Ben Rhodes. He was the hyper-political Obama Deputy National Security Adviser who last year gleefully boasted to the New York Times how he’d manipulated reporters to sell Mr. Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
In Washington, this is one story most people want to dismiss. During a recent interview report, for example, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr told CNN “the unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes.”
Mr. Burr’s comment came before Mr. Nunes released his letter revealing the hundreds of requests from a single Obama official. A spokeswoman for Mr. Burr says her boss’s comments have been misinterpreted by the press. She further noted that in the CNN interview he had also said the names of some unmasked people had improperly became public and his committee intends to get to the bottom of it.
That’s more than Democrats are doing. When Mr. Nunes first raised the issue, he was accused of leaking classified information, and activist groups including MoveOn.org filed complaints with the House Ethics Committee. But rather than resolve what are plainly politically motivated complaints, it looks like Democrats on the committee are more interested in keeping a cloud hanging over Mr. Nunes as a way of keeping a cloud over the investigation.
Some are now calling for all the unmasking information to be declassified so we can know whose names were unmasked and who asked for those names. But there may still be good reasons not to do so, out of respect for the privacy rights of those unfairly unmasked, and to avoid making public any details about intelligence operations that might tip off foreigners being watched.
Americans certainly need to find out anything Vladimir Putin did to interfere in the presidential election. But if high-level members of the Obama Administration were abusing intelligence to spy on Trump people during that same campaign, the American people deserve answers on that too.
Appeared in the August 12, 2017, print edition.