If you’re one of the millions of Americans who get their news from thrice-divorced supplement salesmen on right-wing radio, then you’re probably aware that Susan Rice wiretapped Donald Trump’s phone in a nefarious plot to steal the 2016 election for serial murderer (and/or Muslim Brotherhood sleeper agent) Hillary Clinton.
If you’re one of the dozens of Americans who get their news from The Wall Street Journal editorial page, then you’re probably aware that Trump transition officials had their communications intercepted when they communicated with foreign agents who were under the surveillance of the U.S. spy state. And you know that this was perfectly legal — but, you also know that when private citizens are incidentally surveilled in this fashion, their names are masked to protect their privacy. And yet, Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice asked to unmask the name of at least one member of the Trump team — and personally reviewed other intelligence summaries that “technically masked Trump official identities” but “were written in such a way as to make obvious who those officials were.” And you know that this is all “highly unusual—and troubling,” and an abuse of the Executive’s surveillance powers that exposes the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party’s self-styled civil libertarians.
If you are one of the handful of House members who’ve seen the actual intelligence documents on which this whole hullabaloo is based, you’re aware that both those narratives are bullshit — and that the real story goes something like this:
One Saturday morning last month, our Fox News grandpa-in-chief woke up, misread a Breitbart article, and announced that the former president had wiretapped his phone. Unable to admit that he had baselessly defamed his predecessor, President Trump ordered his staff to validate his paranoid delusion. Weeks later, James Comey announced that the FBI was looking into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The White House decided it could change the subject — and prove that the president had never been wrong on the internet — by feeding a story about incidental surveillance and improper “unmasking” to Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee and head of the lower chamber’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But the intelligence reports that the administration fed to Nunes, which he dutifully represented as scandalous, expose nothing but the competence of America’s intelligence community. And Susan Rice’s requests to unmask certain names in those documents were neither unusual nor inappropriate.
Or so those of us who get our news from CNN and The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza now understand. Last week, the cable network reported that Republican and Democratic House members who examined Nunes’s documents “found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal.” This week, anonymous intelligence sources briefed Lizza on the details of those innocuous documents — and on the nefarious process that turned them into front-page news:
What the intercepts all had in common is that the people being spied on made references to Donald Trump or to Trump officials. That wasn’t even clear, though, from reading the transcripts. The names of any Americans were concealed, or “masked,” the intelligence community’s term for redacting references to Americans who are not the legal targets of surveillance when such intelligence reports are distributed to policy makers.
… I spoke to two intelligence sources, one who read the entire binder of intercepts and one who was briefed on their contents. “There’s absolutely nothing there,” one source said. The Trump names remain masked in the documents, and Rice would not have been able to know in all cases that she was asking the N.S.A. to unmask the names of Trump officials.
… The intelligence source told me that he knows, “from talking to people in the intelligence community,” that “the White House said, ‘We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled.’ They put out an all-points bulletin”—a call to sift through intelligence reports—“and said, ‘We need to find something that justifies the President’s crazy tweet about surveillance at Trump Tower.’ And I’m telling you there is no way you get that from those transcripts, which are about as plain vanilla as can be.” (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)
To review: The (non-tin-foil hat-wearing) conservative narrative about all this is that Susan Rice legally — but inappropriately — requested to unmask the names of Trump transition officials who were legally surveilled, for no other reason than to satiate her “political curiosity” about the incoming administration. And, somehow, this distasteful exercise of legitimate authority deserves equal billing with an FBI investigation into collusion between a foreign power and the American president’s 2016 campaign.
If Lizza’s reporting is true, then the actual story is:
(1) Trump transition officials didn’t have their communications intercepted, but were merely discussed by foreign agents under surveillance.
(2) Their names remained masked in the intelligence reports presented to committee members.
(3) Rice requested to unmask some of the names without knowing that the individuals in question were affiliated with Trump.
(4) The White House leaked, and misrepresented, classified intelligence material to validate the president’s tweet.
(5) The Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee know this.
Last week, Democrats and Republicans finalized their witness lists, and the names tell a tale of two separate investigations. The intelligence source said, “The Democratic list involves all of the characters that you would think it would: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page,” speaking of the three Trump campaign officials who have been most closely tied to the Russia investigation. “The Republican list is almost entirely people from the Obama Administration.”
The fake scandal created by Trump and Nunes is not over yet. The first name on the Republican list is Susan Rice.
The show must go on. There are bad headlines to distract from, and supplements to sell.