Whenever a former Obama administration official’s name comes up in the process of investigating the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russian sources, Democrats take the position that the right’s penchant for “whataboutism” neutralizes the implication of wrongdoing. The Democratic objective is to shame those who are committed to crafting a full and unbiased portrait of the events of 2016 into ignoring inconvenient facts, but the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee remains unintimidated.
This month, the committee has met with a variety of senior Obama officials behind closed doors amid its probe of the Russia affair, including former Chief-of-Staff Denis McDonough, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The committee will meet with former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power on Friday.
These interviews are apparently being conducted in the effort to get to the bottom of why incoming Trump administration officials who were inadvertently captured in intelligence intercepts of foreign targets were conspicuously “unmasked” with their names and the details of their conversations leaked to the press. Trump administration opponents call the issue a distraction, but it’s a matter of grave national importance.
Those who are disinclined to look too deeply into the issue of “unmasking” have latched onto a comment from Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr like flotsam in a shipwreck. “The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes,” Burr said of the House Intelligence Committee chairman whose reckless conduct compelled him to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s conduct. “I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” he added. Fewer have, however, paid much attention to Burr’s full quote. “Clearly,” he added, “there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”
Indeed, there is a lot to explain. Only weeks into the new Trump administration, unnamed former Obama administration officials began telling reporters to expect to see details involving the surveillance of administration officials and Trump associates’ communications with their Russian counterparts. The New York Times, for example, revealed how these Obama officials left a “trail” of evidence of these contacts for investigators to uncover.
A month earlier, the Washington Post disclosed that former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had privately discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in phone calls prior to the inauguration. The transcript of those intercepted communications was related to reporters, despite its highly classified nature. This revelation contradicted the transition team’s repeated denials that any such conversations between Flynn and Kislyak took place and it served as just cause for Flynn’s termination.
Flynn was a liability and should never have been placed in such a sensitive role. His dismissal was a relief, but the methods by which he was discredited established a dangerous precedent. If a private citizen swept up in routine intercepts of communications with foreign agents can be “unmasked” to achieve a political purpose, even if that purpose is defensible, it won’t be long before that precedent is applied toward more ambiguous ends.
Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have been the target of a politically motivated intelligence reveal. As reported by, again, the Washington Post, the attorney general apparently misled U.S. officials and members of Congress with regard to the nature of his contacts with Russian officials. According to communications intercepted by “U.S. spy agencies,” Kislyak related the details of two conversations he apparently had with then-campaign advisor Sessions to his superiors in Moscow. Sessions was not personally swept up in those intercepts, but Kislyak mentioned his name and the substance of those intercepts was related to Post reporters.
The outlet stressed that it could not confirm the authenticity of the intercepts as they could in Flynn’s case, but President Trump went ahead and did that for them. “A new INTELLIGENCE LEAK from the Amazon Washington Post, this time against A.G. Jeff Sessions,” the president declared on Twitter. “These illegal leaks, like [former FBI Director James] Comey’s, must stop!”
This particular leak was widely viewed within the context of the ongoing public feud between the president and his attorney general, but it should not be so quickly dismissed. In cryptic testimony before Congress, Comey revealed that Sessions’s recusal from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia had nothing to do with Justice Department rules. He said he knew that recusal would be forthcoming, but he could not say why in an unclassified setting. Comey’s disclosure and this leak may not be unrelated.
Trump administration opponents who celebrate these unprecedented disclosures because they damage the administration are being extraordinarily parochial. This is an assault on the American social compact. The precedent being established now erodes the prohibitions on using intelligence gathering as a tool to discredit your political enemies. Democrats can bet that this practice will be deployed against them in the foreseeable future. In the process, political actors will render intelligence products suspect, weakening their utility for policymakers and, thus, making America less safe.
It is a tragedy that Democrats have not followed the lead of Senator Burr and other Republicans who are treating the issue of “unmasking” as seriously as they are the unprecedented efforts by Moscow to shape the course of American political affairs in 2016. Like the hacks of Democratic targets, this is not a partisan issue. The “unmaskers” will one day come for Democrats, and they will regret their silence in this pivotal hour.