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What is "unmasking" and is it illegal?

Malaika Jabali
Apr, 06, 2017

For the past month, Donald Trump and his administration have tried to convince the public that Barack Obama wiretapped his Trump Tower residence in the weeks leading up to the November election. In yet another example of Trump running wild with baseless information, the president now claims that Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, engaged in criminal activity after it was revealed that she unmasked the names of Trump officials that were mentioned in intelligence documents.

Despite how right-wing media and legislators attempt to spin it, unmasking names is a standard procedure regulated by the National Security Agency in their Signals Intelligence Directive 18. Through a rigorous process, the NSA grants federal officials’ requests to identify redacted names of US persons incidentally discussed when the agency surveils foreign nationals.

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Without knowing the precise nature of the intelligence documents, which neither the Trump administration nor any Republican legislators complicit with this charade claim to know, the assertion that Rice abused her role is completely unjustifiable. Further, there is absolutely no evidence that Rice engaged in criminal activity by leaking names of the Trump officials she requested to unmask.

Trump does not claim to have such evidence. Neither does House Intelligence Committee Chair David Nunes.

The latest so-called smoking gun — where, in fact, a federal official appeared to follow federal rule to assess information in intelligence documents in pursuit of her job — is a far cry from Trump’s earlier claim that Obama went so “low” as to “tap” the phones at his home. The propensity to shift goal posts is par for the course — pun very much intended — for a president who seems to spend more time golfing and relying on speculative media pundits than understanding his own agencies’ rules and procedures.

To note, these new claims have only surfaced after multiple prior attempts to substantiate Trump’s tweet failed. James Comey testified on March 20 that neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice have found any evidence of Obama and his administration wiretapping Trump Tower. Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer then attempted to implicate the Government Communications Headquarters, the intelligence service of the United Kingdom. After ruling out U.S. enforcement agencies, the heads of whom have denied any wiretapping, Spicer said Obama used GCHQ to do his bidding instead.

GCHQ’s response to Spicer’s claims? “They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

If only we can do this with Trump’s entire presidency.