Using Misleading Information, Liberal Watchdog Group Accuses Trump of Lying About ‘Wiretapping’

Freedom of Information Act requests were too narrowly worded and submitted to wrong agencies
September 3, 2017 Updated: September 7, 2017

A liberal watchdog group founded by former officials of the Obama administration is accusing President Donald Trump of lying about NSA spying, after finding the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) did not have records that matched the group’s specific requests. The accusation relies on flawed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and the mixture of technically correct information and questionable conclusions has the characteristics of disinformation.

The group, American Oversight, filed FOIA requests for any records the FBI or the DOJ’s National Security Division may have of former President Barack Obama wiretapping Trump Tower. It outlined the response to its requests on Sept. 2, stating that neither the FBI nor the National Security Division have records that Obama wiretapped the building.

The FOIA requests were made in response to a series of tweets sent out by Trump on May 4, in which he alleged that “President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”

The group’s accusation that “Trump lied” appears to have been formed by taking information out of context and by using a play on words. 

FOIA requests are very literal; one only gets an answer to the information requested. For example, it is highly unlikely that Obama would have himself physically placed a wiretap. And wiretaps are not the primary means used by the federal government to monitor phone calls.

American Oversight appears to have used a propaganda technique known as “disinformation.” Among the technique’s many tactics is citing technically true information to draw false conclusions. The instigator can then use these conclusions to form false narratives to lodge attacks against an opponent.

Public records show the NSA was used to spy on members of the Trump team, and officials of the Obama administration have admitted to requesting or seeing the transcripts of this monitoring. It’s unclear why American Oversight filed its requests to the FBI and DOJ, but not to the NSA.

White House lawyers discovered in April that Susan Rice, the national security adviser under Obama, requested to unmask the identities of individuals on the Trump election campaign and transition team gathered from intercepted communications.

Bloomberg reported on April 3 that Rice made such requests on dozens of occasions.

House intelligence committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said on March 22 that information gathered by intelligence agencies on Trump and his transition team had appeared in intelligence reports.

The cases involved “unmasking.” When the NSA intercepts communications, it is required to seal the names of U.S. citizens. Unmasking is when U.S. officials with access to these intelligence reports request that the names be revealed.

In an interview on MSNBC in April, Rice said the frequency of these requests increased after Obama called for an investigation into whether Russia interfered with the 2016 elections.

Susan Rice (C) looks on as Former President Barack Obama (L) and US Trade Representative Michael Froman (R) meet with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi on May 23, 2016. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Susan Rice, (C) Former President Barack Obama, and US Trade Representative Michael Froman, at the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on May 23, 2016. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

According to Nunes (R-Calif.), the spying on Trump’s team was unrelated to Russia. He said in March, “None of this surveillance was related to Russia, or the investigation of Russian activities, or of the Trump team.”

Records of Rice’s unmasking requests are now allegedly sealed in the Barack Obama Presidential Library.

While Trump did specifically use the term “wiretap” in his accusations, the technical terms for the type of spying used by the Obama administration would be “unmasking” or “requests for upstream data.”

Among the few known cases of the FBI “wiretapping” Trump associates was the bureau’s secret court order to monitor the communications of Carter Page, an oil industry consultant and founder of Global Energy Capital, which was revealed in April. Page was allegedly a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, although Trump’s team denies he had this role.

The House intelligence committee is investigating the Obama administration’s spying and unmasking requests on Americans. On May 31, the committee issued three subpoenas seeking information on unmasking requests made by Rice, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.

Nunes told The Daily Beast on June 5 that “this is only the beginning. There are many more officials that we have concerns about abusing the intelligence programs.”

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