There is strong evidence that President Barack Obama’s administration improperly weaponized U.S. intelligence agencies in multiple and shocking ways against Donald Trump and other political enemies.
It appears the Obama administration did this in a number of ways, including: fraudulently obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants to spy on American citizens; promoting the Democratic National Committee-funded dossier assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele that was filled with lies about Trump; politicizing intelligence analysis; leaking intelligence; and spying on political opponents and journalists.
In the period when he was a presidential candidate and president-elect, Trump and his aides seemed to have been the major targets of this misuse of American intelligence for political purposes. But they were not the only targets.
It is imperative to uncover the extent of the Obama administration’s abuse of U.S. intelligence for political purposes. This must include a full list of every American unmasked from intelligence reports – Trump aides, members of Congress, and ordinary Americans – and who made these requests.
It would be irresponsible for the intelligence community and Congress to turn a blind eye to this abuse simply because it happened years ago. Wrongdoing by the Obama administration in this scandal – which President Trump has dubbed “Obamagate” – must be exposed to ensure such actions never take place again.
This week’s revelation that an astounding 39 Obama administration officials – including then-Vice President Joe Biden – made 53 requests to unmask incoming Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s name from National Security Agency phone intercepts between Election Day on Nov. 8, 2016 and Jan. 12, 2017 was a bombshell.
The stunning revelation regarding Obama administration spying on Flynn by secretly recording his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time appears to confirm allegations by President Trump and his supporters of a broad effort by the Obama administration to weaponize intelligence to undermine the Trump presidency shortly before it began.
Flynn was simply carrying out his duties by making contact with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period after Trump was elected president. It is perfectly routine for incoming members of a new presidential administration dealing with foreign affairs to contact foreign officials to introduce themselves before taking office.
Making this worse, the 53 unmasking requests by Obama administration officials are probably the tip of the iceberg of the Obama administration’s abuse of National Security Agency intelligence to target Trump aides.
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif. confirmed this in a Fox Business interview this week on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” when he said the Flynn unmasking scandal is “even worse than this” because “a whole lot” of other Trump associates were unmasked.
With this in mind, it is frustrating to see former Obama officials, the mainstream media and some former intelligence officials brush off the Flynn unmasking requests by claiming such requests are “normal and routine” and that all relevant rules and laws were complied with.
As a former CIA officer who helped process requests to unmask the names of U.S. citizens from National Security Agency reports, I know that unmasking requests are not normal and routine. And I believe these requests raise serious civil rights and legal issues that have not yet been addressed.
From my 25 years working in U.S. government national security jobs, I know how sensitive and rare unmasking requests are.
Names of U.S. citizens mentioned in U.S. intelligence reports – often National Security Agency communications intercepts – are redacted because under U.S. law, America’s foreign intelligence services are normally not permitted to spy on U.S. citizens.
Although senior U.S. officials are permitted to ask for the identity of a redacted name in an intelligence report (an unmasking request), such requests are unusual and the requestor must have a “need to know” the identity of the U.S. person to understand the foreign intelligence information or assess its importance.
When the request is approved, the unmasked identity is released only to the person who requested it – not to everyone who might have seen the original version of the report.
For example, during my time at the State Department from 2001-2006, Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage made about 100 demasking requests. Then-Under Secretary of State John Bolton only made 10 in four years.
Ironically, Senate Democrats made Bolton’s unmasking requests an issue during his 2005 nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by falsely claiming these requests were improper and made to intimidate people and gain political advantage.
Then-Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said at the time that unmasking requests were “rarely requested” and made “infrequently” by “non-career political appointees such as Mr. Bolton.”
An April 14, 2005, New York Times article said this about unmasking requests in connection with the Bolton confirmation hearings: “The identities of American officials whose communications are intercepted are usually closely protected by law, and not included even in classified intelligence reports. Access to the names may be authorized by the N.S.A. only in response to special requests, and these are not common, particularly from policy makers.”
The above statements about the rarity of unmasking requests are consistent with what I witnessed during my government career. In addition, the National Security Agency tightened the rules in 2005 on unmasking because of the controversy over such requests caused by the Bolton hearing.
The Obama administration, however, appeared to weaken the unmasking rules.
The Obama administration expanded access to National Security Agency information in February 2016 and on January 12, 2017. Both changes appeared to allow larger numbers of government officials to have access to unmasked names of Americans in intelligence reporting.
Even more troubling was a major rollback by the Obama administration in rules protecting members of Congress from unmasking requests.
I know from my five years on House Intelligence Committee staff of longstanding sensitivity by lawmakers that U.S. intelligence agencies could be used by the executive branch to spy on a president’s political enemies. For this reason, until 2013 there were strict limits to keep members of Congress out of intelligence reporting and to prevent unmasking their names.
Under a policy in effect in the 1990s, unmasking requests of the names of members of Congress were extremely limited and generally had to be reported to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
According to the Wall Street Journal, these rules were tightened further with “a 2011 NSA directive [that] required direct communications between foreign intelligence targets and members of Congress to be destroyed, but [gave] the NSA director the authority to waive this requirement if he determines the communications contain ‘significant foreign intelligence.””
However, in 2013 the Obama administration significantly weakened rules on unmasking the names of members of Congress from intelligence reports. The requestor’s reason could now merely be “to fully understand the intelligence.”
Rules on notifying Congress also were weakened. National Security Agency officials henceforth would notify Congress when members were unmasked from intelligence reports “as appropriate” and would determine “whether and to what extent congressional notification would take place.”
The Obama administration appeared to take advantage of these rules changes in 2015 when it obtained private conversations from National Security Agency reports of U.S. lawmakers who opposed the Iran nuclear deal in meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The rule changes on unmasking the names of members of Congress have a direct bearing on the Obama administration’s unmasking of Trump aides.
Since there no longer was a prohibition on using U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on members of Congress, Obama officials probably reasoned there was nothing to prevent them from spying on members of a presidential campaign or an incoming presidential administration. This helps explain the hundreds of unmasking requests regarding Trump aides in 2016 and early 2017.
So what should happen now?
In addition to an investigation of spying on American citizens by the Obama administration, all Obama administration rule changes making it easier to unmask the names of members of Congress and ordinary Americans from intelligence reports need to be reversed immediately.
There also should be a requirement in the law restricting when U.S. officials can unmask the names of members of a presidential campaign or incoming administration from intelligence reports or otherwise spy on them. These rules should include a requirement for congressional notification if such spying is deemed necessary in the future.
Finally, I want to know why career intelligence officials cooperated with unmasking Trump campaign and transition officials at the request of the Obama administration.
Since the prohibition on spying on American citizens and keeping the names of U.S citizens out of intelligence reports are cardinal rules of the U.S. intelligence community, how could career intelligence officers agree to process hundreds of these requests? Why did none of them file complaints with their inspector general or the congressional intelligence oversight committees?
The hundreds of unmasking requests of Trump campaign and transition officials made by the Obama administration were in no way routine and necessary. I believe carrying out these unmasking requests was a huge ethical lapse by dozens – maybe hundreds – of U.S. intelligence community employees that must be addressed by the White House and the leaders of our intelligence agencies.
About Fred Fleitz
Fred Fleitz is President and CEO of the Center for Security Policy. He recently served as a Deputy Assistant to President Trump and Chief of Staff to National Security Adviser John Bolton. He previously worked in national security positions for 25 years with CIA, DIA, the Department of State and the House Intelligence Committee staff. Read his complete bio here. Follow Fleitz on Twitter @fredfleitz. View all posts by Fred Fleitz
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