President Trump said Wednesday without offering evidence that Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, may have committed a crime last year by seeking the identity of Trump associates referred to anonymously in classified intelligence reports.
Rice said Tuesday that any allegations that she improperly sought the names of Trump associates and leaked intelligence information was “absolutely false.”
The dispute revolves around so-called “incidental collection”-- when U.S. intelligence agencies inadvertently pick up the names or conversations of U.S. persons on wiretaps or other communications intercepts.
How does incidental collection occur?
The National Security Agency, which conducts global eavesdropping for the U.S. government, intercepts phone calls, email or other communications of suspected terrorists or foreign agents. But it sometimes picks up communications involving U.S. citizens who are not the target of the investigation.
In some cases, Americans are communicating directly with the NSA’s target. In others, the target may mention the name of a U.S. citizen or personal information about her. Sometimes the targets describe previous conversations or interactions with U.S. citizens.
What happens to this information?
If the information involving Americans has no intelligence value, it is supposed to be destroyed.
If the intercept pertains to national security—or if it points to a possible crime—the NSA is allowed to include it in classified intelligence reports that circulate in the government to those with security clearances high enough to view such information.
By law, the agency is still required to protect the privacy of “U.S. persons,” a process known as “minimization.” The rules specify that in most cases a “generic term,” such as “U.S. Person 1” is used, instead of the actual name.
So the names of Americans picked up by eavesdropping can never be used?
Actually, no. But there are lengthy guidelines for when names and other information about Americans can be included in intelligence reports.
If a communications intercept turns up evidence that a U.S. citizen is a foreign spy, for instance, his or her name can be included in intelligence reports sent to the FBI and other counter-espionage agencies for further investigation and possible prosecution.
Americans’ names also can be included if doing so “is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance,” according to guidelines made public by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
How does this pertain to Rice?
Senior government officials who receive highly sensitive intelligence can ask about the identity of U.S. persons, including their names, to get a better understanding of the intelligence. Senior intelligence agency officials then decide whether that information can be provided without violating the legal guidelines.
Rice told MSNBC in an interview Tuesday that she sometimes made those requests while she served as Obama’s national security advisor. But she said it was only “to do our jobs in the national security realm” and not for “political purposes.”
“There is an established process for senior national security officials to ask for the identity of U.S. persons in these reports,” she added.
Is there any public evidence to support Trump’s claim that Rice may have committed a crime?
No, and Trump provided none.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, started all this last month when he said he had been briefed at the White House about “dozens” of intelligence reports containing incidental collection on Trump transition team members.
Nunes’ spokesman said he was was concerned about “possible improper unmasking” of Trump associates in intelligence reports, referring to seeking their names. Bloomberg later reported that White House aides said Rice was responsible for asking intelligence agencies to supply names or other identifying information in the reports.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the committee, said Wednesday that the White House made the allegations against Rice “to distract” from separate investigations by the House and Senate intelligence committees and the FBI into whether there was improper coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
If Rice or someone else in the Obama administration did request the unmasking of Trump associates, would it be a crime?
Not necessarily. Intelligence agency lawyers would need to sign off on such a request. There might have been legitimate reasons for seeking information about Trump associates who were communicating with foreign ambassadors or others in the United States who were under court-authorized surveillance for counterintelligence purposes.
In her interview, Rice said the volume of intelligence reports that she saw about Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election increased after Obama requested an intelligence assessment of Moscow’s interference.
The only transition officials known to have been picked up communicating with foreign officials was Mike Flynn, who had several telephone calls with Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Flynn was forced to resign as national security advisor after he admitted he had misled White House officials about those conversations.