Two high-profile officials who served under the Obama administration told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on May 8 that they had reviewed classified information in which Donald Trump, his associates, or members of Congress had been unmasked.
When an intelligence agency gives transcripts of intercepted communications, it often seals the names of U.S. citizens. When a recipient of an intelligence report requests to have the name revealed, it is referred to as “unmasking.”
The testimonies by Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, and James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence (DNI), raised the question of whether communications of the Trump team were gathered for legitimate purposes or for political purposes.
Last month, White House lawyers discovered that under President Barack Obama, national security adviser Susan Rice requested unmasking names on dozens of occasions—starting in July 2016 and increasing in frequency after the elections—of members of the Trump team.
The Obama administration tripled its unmasking requests in the election year, jumping from 654 requests in 2015, to 1,934 requests in 2016. The information was included in an April report from the DNI.
At least some of the requests appear to have been related to an investigation ordered by Obama in July 2016 into potential Russian interference in the election and collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
During his testimony, Clapper reaffirmed that the investigation by the DNI as well as the CIA, FBI, and NSA did not find any evidence of collusion.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn
In her testimony, Yates said that she had warned the Trump administration that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The Trump team confirmed Flynn had lied and fired him on Feb. 13, after he’d spent just 24 days on the job.
During the hearing, Yates declined to answer most questions about unmasking, on the grounds that it’s classified.
However, both Yates and Clapper confirmed that they received classified information in which Trump, his associates, or members of Congress were unmasked.
When asked if they personally requested unmasking in these cases, Clapper said he did in one instance, and Yates said, “I can’t give you the details.”
During Trump’s transition into office, someone who received the reports with unmasked names of Trump team members then leaked the classified information to The Washington Post—violating U.S. law.
Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 9 that in the case of Flynn, in which his unmasked communications were leaked to the media, “that is illegal.”
The statements from Yates raised additional questions on how she received the information on Flynn, and whether this fits into the broader investigation of whether the Obama administration violated the law with the surveillance and with the transmission of classified information.
The Senate subcommittee is now also investigating who was behind the leak and who, in turn, provided them with the information. Both Clapper and Yates said they were unsure who was behind it.
It was confirmed during the hearing that someone requested unmasking the surveillance reports, and then spread the documents with the names revealed. Yates confirmed she had received such reports.
Rogers said the intelligence community has a “very strict process” for handling the unmasking of names. He said if someone’s name is unmasked in a report, that report is given only to the individual who requested it and “they are specifically told and reminded” not to share it.
This brings further questions onto Susan Rice, who said she had requested unmasking, yet said in an interview with MSNBC in April that she did not do it for political reasons.
Rice was asked to testify before the Senate committee, but she declined to appear.
The findings may also expand the investigations into whether the Obama administration spied on members of Congress, and again whether it was done with a political motive.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote a letter to Trump on April 10, obtained by news and entertainment website Circa, in which he said an anonymous source alleged that “my name, as well as the names of other members of Congress, were unmasked, queried, or both, in intelligence reports of intercepts during the prior administration.”
On May 5, Paul wrote on Twitter, “I have formally requested from the WH and the Intel Committees info on whether I was surveilled by Obama admin and or the Intel community!”