A former federal prosecutor says it is highly unusual for anyone in a political position to request the “unmasking” of U.S. citizens and he says it is vital for congressional investigators to determine the full scope of the federal government’s incidental surveillance of Donald Trump and his associates during the campaign and the presidential transition.
On Tuesday, Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice admitted to requesting the intelligence community unmask Americans captured in communications with foreigners under legal surveillance. However, she insists there was nothing unusual about it and that she did not leak any of the classified information.
Andrew C. McCarthy was a federal prosecutor, most famous for leading the prosecution of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and his associates for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and their plots to attack other New York City landmarks. He’s written about the Rice revelations this week at National Review Online.
He says Rice’s actions were very unusual.
“We’re talking about what’s supposed to be incidental collection. It starts to look a whole lot less incidental if you’re doing the same thing again and again with respect to the same people or group of people,” said McCarthy.
“By the time someone like Susan Rice gets a finished intelligence product or report in her hands, the unmasking question has already been answered by the people who know it best, which is the collecting agency. It’s highly, highly unusual for consumers of intelligence to go to the collecting agencies and ask them to unmask the identities,” said McCarthy.
With Rice admitting to requesting the unmasking, the question now becomes what President Obama knew. McCarthy says every administration has safeguards in place to protect the president and give him plausible deniability in situations like this. But he says it was clear to the intelligence-gathering agencies (CIA, NSA, and FBI) who they were responding to.
“If you were the NSA and you got a call from Susan Rice, who says, ‘You know, I’d really like to see the identity of this American that you haven’t identified in your report,” when you hear that question, you’re not talking to just any government official. You’re talking to the president’s right hand,” said McCarthy, who says the NSA still should have denied the request.
He also believes it’s highly unlikely that Rice personally did any leaking. But he is beginning to connect the dots on how all of this played out.
“I think what happened here is you had very high people at the top who did the unmasking. You had this executive order by Obama which pushed this information out across the intelligence community. And then you have people like Evelyn Farkas, who tell us that the administration was putting pressure on members of Congress to ask the intelligence community for as much disclosure as possible,” said McCarthy.
“So what you did is you set up a situation where leaking of classified information, probably about Trump people, became inevitable. And what ended up happening over the last five months? There was lots of leaking,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy says his experience leads him to some simple conclusions.
“Where I come from, the best evidence of conspiracy is success. If what they were trying to do was create a situation where there would be a lot of leaking of classified information, there’s been a lot of success over the last five months,” said McCarthy.
While finding the actual leakers of the classified information is important, McCarthy says there ought to be higher priorities.
“It’s much less important that you figure out where people committed crimes here than to get to the bottom of whether there was a grotesque abuse of power,” he said.
He says answering that question definitively could determine the future security of the nation.
“The important thing here is that at the end of this year, all of these surveillance powers are up for reauthorization by Congress. If the American people are led to believe, because it’s true, that there’s been massive abuse of these powers, those powers are going to be curtailed. There’s going to be a scandal and there’ll be a lot of pressure on Congress to remove some of these surveillance authorities,” said McCarthy.
“If that happens, that will make our country much less safe, because all power can be used roguishly. But these powers are there because we actually need them to protect the country. I’m worried that this scandal puts the government in such disrepute, once we get to the bottom of it, that the public will not trust the government to use these powers responsibly,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy is not worried about the bickering in the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee, suggesting it’s just like lawyers arguing vigorously on different sides of a case.
However, he does say it is up to Congress to find out what happened.
“Congress is the only game in town because this is all classified information. The intelligence committees are cleared to do this kind of investigation. So if we don’t have Congress do it, it’s probably not going to get done anytime soon,” said McCarthy.