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August 01, 2017 05:59 PM EDT
Former Obama White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes is now emerging as a person of interest in the House Intelligence Committee’s unmasking investigation, according to a letter sent Tuesday by the committee to the National Security Agency (NSA). This adds Rhodes to the growing list of top Obama government officials who may have improperly unmasked Americans in communications intercepted overseas by the NSA, Circa has confirmed.
The House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-CA, sent the letter to the National Security Agency requesting the number of unmaskings made by Rhodes from Jan. 1, 2016 to Jan. 20, 2017, according to congressional sources who spoke with Circa. Rhodes, who worked closely with former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and was a former deputy national security adviser for strategic communications for President Obama, became a focus of the committee during its review of classified information to assess whether laws were broken regarding NSA intercepted communications of President Trump, members of his administration and other Americans before and after the election, according to congressional officials. The committee is requesting that the NSA deliver the information on Rhodes by August, 21.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, Rice and former CIA Director John Brennan have all been named in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the unmasking of Americans. A letter sent last week from Nunes to Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, suggested that top Obama aides made hundreds of unmasking requests during the 2016 presidential elections. The story, which was first reported by The Hill last week, stated that the requests were made without specific justifications as to why the unmasking was necessary. Rice and Brennan have confirmed they sought the unredacted names of Americans in NSA-sourced intelligence reports but insisted their requests were routine parts of their work and had no nefarious intentions. Power also has legal authority to unmask officials, though the practice has not reportedly been common for someone in her position. Rhodes also had legal authority to unmask Americans in NSA-source intelligence reports. But intelligence and congressional sources question the extent of the unmasking.
Nunes told Coats in a letter last week that the committee has “found evidence that current and former government officials had easy access to U.S. person information and that it is possible that they used this information to achieve partisan political purposes, including the selective, anonymous leaking of such information.”
Multiple federal law enforcement and intelligence officials told Circa, that requesting an unmasking for intelligence and analytical purposes is something that is done only when the information is absolutely necessary to analyze a specific threat or for other national security purposes. An intelligence source, with direct knowledge of the type of requests made by the Obama aides, said “it’s like hell and high water to fill out and gain approval for these types of unmaskings. It’s something analysts take seriously and could entail filling out 80 pages of paperwork to prove there is a need to unmask. If top officials were unmasking without oversight it’s something everyone should be concerned about and it puts our intelligence community in a very bad place.”
Retired House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra, (R-MI) and nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, who was a supporter of the NSA programs, said he is “deeply concerned” that there may have been an abuse of power regarding the warrantless spying programs, saying “there needs to be a full investigation into who was being unmasked and why. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if there isn’t enough votes to reauthorize the program, unless this situation can be resolved.”
Hoekstra noted how unusual it was for senior officials to request hundreds of unmaskings of Americans and “the apparent lack of explanation for why such unmaskings were necessary.”
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is set to expire at the end of the year and the most significant part of the act is Section 702, which allows a secret federal court to approve – under specified conditions – the collection of communications on foreign persons overseas at the request of the intelligence community. The unmasking of American’s occurs when an American is communicating with a person overseas and they are incidentally swept up in the communications.
“It appears Section 702 became a backdoor for unmasking Americans without cause and if that is the case then a full investigation is not only needed but warranted,” said another intelligence official, with direct knowledge of the program. “It would be a gross violation of Constitutional rights.”
Last week, CNN reported Rhodes met with the Senate Intelligence Committee to discuss the Russia probe. The panel did not respond to comment seeking confirmation of the meeting.
Rice and Brennan have confirmed they sought the unredacted names of Americans in NSA-sourced intelligence reports but insisted their requests were routine parts of their work and had no nefarious intentions. Power, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations also has legal authority to unmask officials, though the practice has not reportedly been common for someone in her position. Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser, also had legal authority to unmask Americans in NSA-source intelligence reports. But intelligence and congressional sources question the extent of the unmasking.
The number of Americans’ identities who have been unmasked appears to have increased beginning last July around the same time Trump secured the GOP nomination. The number accelerated after Trump’s election in November launched a transition that continued through January, as reported by Circa.
U.S. officials and lawmakers have raised concern that the gathering of such intelligence was used for political espionage, Circa has learned.
According to U.S. officials who spoke to Circa on condition of anonymity, the intelligence reports included some intercepts of Americans talking to foreigners and many more involving foreign leaders talking about the future president, his campaign associates or his transition. They noted that most of the intercepts had little to do with the Russian election interference scandal and some appeared to have nothing to do with national security.
During his last year in office the Obama administration significantly expanded efforts to search National Security Agency intercepts for information about Americans, distributing thousands of intelligence reports across government with the unredacted names of U.S. residents during the midst of a divisive 2016 presidential election. The data was made available by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and reported by Circa in May. It provided evidence of how information accidentally collected by the NSA overseas about Americans was subsequently searched and disseminated after the Obama administration loosened privacy protections asked for by the intelligence community to make such sharing easier in 2011.
According to the documents reviewed by Circa, government officials conducted 30,355 searches in 2016 seeking information about Americans in NSA intercept meta-data, which include telephone numbers and email addresses. The activity was a 27.5 percent increase over the prior year and more than triple the 9,500 such searches that occurred in 2013, the first year such data was kept. In 2016 the administration also scoured the actual contents of NSA intercepted calls and emails for 5,288 Americans, an increase of 13 percent over the prior year and a massive spike from the 198 names searched in 2013, according to the data.