I am not going to write about the ethics issues in the latest Susan Rice controversy, but I am going to write about why I can’t get an objective enough assessment of what the story is to write about it competently.
Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, sought to “unmask” the identities of members of President Trump’s campaign and transition team who were incidentally mentioned in foreign surveillance intelligence reports. This was first reported over the weekend by conservative conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, which meant that no commentators on the Left believed it, but then it was confirmed yesterday by Bloomberg’s Eli Lake.
Many conservatives treated this as confirmation of President Trump’s much-derided claim that the Obama administration “wiretapped” him. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board issued an op-ed this morning, saying,
All this is highly unusual — and troubling. Unmasking does occur, but it is typically done by intelligence or law-enforcement officials engaged in anti-terror or espionage investigations. Ms. Rice would have had no obvious need to unmask Trump campaign officials other than political curiosity.
On Medium, Mike Doran wrote,
“In late December, the administration launched an information campaign designed to depict President-elect Trump as Moscow’s Manchurian candidate. Vladimir Putin had installed Trump in office by “hacking the election,” so the argument went; Hillary Clinton, therefore, was the rightful president.
The claim that Susan Rice was unmasking merely to arrive at the ground truth of Russian behavior would be easier to swallow if the information she gleaned from unmasking had not been used to perpetrate a fraud on the American public. The leak to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius about General Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak (which I discuss in this article) is the most egregious example of a senior administration official using material gathered from illicit unmasking in order to tell a very big and very pernicious lie.”
The New York Times, sadly predictable in its knee-jerk defense of Democrats rather than resolving to get at the truth, immediately argued that there was nothing to the story at all:
Former national security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the requests as normal and said they were justified by the need for the president’s top security adviser to understand the context of reports sent to her by the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum mocked the story as pure conservative fantasy regarding a favorite villain:
But! Susan Rice is also a Republican bête noir, the villainess of Benghazi who LIED ON TV repeatedly and tried to get everyone to believe that the attacks were due to an INTERNET VIDEO when we knew all along they were really the work of RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISTS, a phrase that OBAMA WAS UNWILLING TO UTTER.Here’s what we can say about the Rice situation at this point.
Sarcasm is used by Drum here to hide the fact that Rice did lie about Benghazi, and was part of an Obama administration effort (that included Hillary Clinton) to blur the fact that it was a planned terrorist attack, not a spontaneous reaction to a video, which would have undermined Obama’s campaign assertions that he had “decimated” Al Qaeda. ( Mother Jones readers will not believe anything negative about Obama, Democrats, or progressives.)
The Federalist, meanwhile, called foul on CNN, which immediately moved to discredite the latest Rice story:
“A couple weeks ago, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee publicly stated that he’d seen dozens of reports that were disseminated widely in the intelligence agencies featuring unmasked information on people close to Trump. He stated that these reports were of little to no intelligence value, so that the unmasking was disconcerting. He also stated that these reports had nothing to do with Russia…Yesterday, the news broke at multiple outlets that the unmasking wasn’t done by a low-level official at an intelligence agency, but by Susan Rice herself. She was President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor. All of a sudden people began admitting that Nunes was right that information on political opponents had been collected, unmasked, and disseminated, but they turned to downplaying this as significant news….CNN, which formerly at least attempted to position itself as politically neutral, decided to declare the news story “fake” because of this report from former Obama political appointee Jim Sciutto (who was a colleague of Susan Rice at the Obama State Department), who now covers the Republican administration:
Wait, wait, wait, wait. Slow down here. A person close to Rice said she did nothing wrong? Well this changes … oh wow, this changes … nothing. …Of course Susan Rice’s family and friends will rush to her defense. That’s what friends are for. But that doesn’t “debunk” a story. The idea that you wouldn’t pursue this story and all of the interesting questions raised by it is an affront to journalism. But that seems to be the road CNN has chosen to go down. A few examples:
The “person close to Rice” is likely somebody Sciutto knows – Before Sciutto worked at the White House, he worked at ABC. Do you know who he worked with at ABC? Ian Officer Cameron. Do you know who’s married to Cameron? Susan Rice.
At the same time, the Daily Caller reported…
“Former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice ordered U.S. spy agencies to produce “detailed spreadsheets” of legal phone calls involving Donald Trump and his aides when he was running for president, according to former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova.
“What was produced by the intelligence community at the request of Ms. Rice were detailed spreadsheets of intercepted phone calls with unmasked Trump associates in perfectly legal conversations with individuals,” di Genova told The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group Monday.
“The overheard conversations involved no illegal activity by anybody of the Trump associates, or anyone they were speaking with,” di Genova said. “In short, the only apparent illegal activity was the unmasking of the people in the calls.”
Other official sources with direct knowledge and who requested anonymity confirmed to The DCNF di Genova’s description of surveillance reports Rice ordered one year before the 2016 presidential election.”
Now the Washington Post: while noting that it hasn’t been shown that Rice did anything illegal or improper, since her motives are unknown, Aaron Blake points out…
Rice’s own comments about this matter do lead to some legitimate questions. During an appearance on PBS’s “NewsHour” two weeks ago, Rice was asked about House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’s (R-Calif.) announcement that Trump and his associates had been swept up in incidental surveillance that wasn’t targeted at them.
Here was Rice’s response: “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”
Here is what we can say with some confidence, then, and it isn’t enough:
1. Susan Rice did “unmask” (but didn’t leak) the names of Trump staffers caught up in security surveillance.
2. Conservative news sources, which believe that President Obama’s administration was covertly working to undermine the Trump campaign and later, the legitimacy of his election, regard this as evidence of serious wrongdoing.
3. Liberal news sources, which want to believe all Democrats are as pure as the driven snow, and who also would love to see Trump destroyed, are claiming that this proves nothing, and are not knocking themselves out to show otherwise.
4. CNN, as usual of late, has disgraced itself and not disclosed a serious conflict of interest.
5. Susan Rice lied. Of course, we knew she was a liar. But why this lie?
If you hate Trump, you just assume that the Left’s media reports are correct. If you distrust Obama, Rice, the news media, and would love for the Left’s Russian conspiracy theory to fall flat while President Trump’s conspiracy theory is revealed as having more substance and justification (which wouldn’t be hard), you assume the worst about Rice’s actions, as articulated by Roger Simon.
But what do you do if you just want to know WHAT THE BLOODY HELL IS GOING ON????