What It Means to Be 'Unmasked,' and Why People Are Talking About It

April 3rd 2017

Mike Rothschild

The complex and far-reaching investigation into Russia's involvement in the 2016 U.S. election has brought with it a number of unfamiliar terms. ATTN: wrote about one, "active measures," last week — but the latest is "unmasking."

At issue is whether the Obama administration ordered surveillance on the Trump campaign and did so to help Hillary Clinton, an unsubstantiated claim that observers note has deflected attention away from the FBI and congressional investigations into the president and his aides.

Indeed, no evidence has emerged to support President Donald Trump's early-morning assertion that the "wires were tapped" at his New York City home by his predecessor. But names tied to Trump have apparently been swept up in communications related to Russian officials who were being watched by U.S. intelligence agencies. This has led Trump to falsely declare his original claim was vindicated, while deepening the intrigue of the already high-stakes investigations in the House and Senate. 

What is unmasking?

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) can collect the names of U.S. citizens communicating with foreign entities under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As CNN explains, "If the NSA picks up communications from a U.S. citizen in the course of monitoring a foreign national, it is practice to 'mask' the identity of the U.S. person. Additionally, the identification of a U.S. citizen mentioned in discussions between two foreign nationals is supposed to be masked." 

However, officials with proper clearance can ask that those names be made known in intelligence reports. This is known as unmasking, and is a normal and legal part of the duties of national security staffers. It is not the same as leaking information to the media, which can be illegal under some circumstances. 

What does it have to do with the Trump/Russia investigation?

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said March 22 that Trump staffers had been incidentally caught up in Russia-related intelligence gathering. That same day, Nunes held a press conference where he alleged he'd been given documents that contained "details about people associated with the incoming administration… with little apparent foreign intelligence value." 

While he re-stated that no evidence supported Trump's allegations of wiretapping, Nunes did ominously state: "I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked." These names have not been revealed. 

Who was responsible for the unmasking?

On Sunday night, far-right blogger and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich published a post claiming (without citing sources) that former Obama administration National Security Advisor Susan Rice had requested the names of the Trump staffers caught in NSA surveillance of Russian figures.

The next day, Bloomberg's Eli Lake published a story alleging that Rice's request for unmasking was discovered in NSA logs by a Trump staffer. According to Lake, it was likely these reports were given to Nunes, sparking his briefing to the press on March 22.

The story was quickly picked up by a slew of right-wing media sites as "proof" that Trump was right about the wiretapping — and that the Obama administration had been conspiring to spy on Trump and gather damaging intelligence on his campaign.

Hasn't Susan Rice been a right-wing punching bag before?

Rice was already a familiar figure to readers of far-right news outlets as the Obama administration official who went on the Sunday talk shows after the Benghazi attack and blamed the incident on rage sparked by a YouTube video. Later analysis showed Rice was simply disseminating the administration's understanding of the situation at the time, which turned out to be incorrect, but she became a target for those who believed there was cover-up related to the 2012 attack in Libya, which resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Did she do anything illegal?

According to multiple analysts, what Rice did in asking for the names to be revealed was well within the scope of her duties as National Security Advisor, particularly one investigating ties between Russians and entities in the United States.

Susan Hennessy, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution, said "nothing in this story indicates anything improper" on the part of Rice. As CNN explained, it's common for the names of U.S. citizens to be used by foreign entities who routinely come under NSA surveillance. Even Lake's story for Bloomberg, which is the most mainstream exposure the story has received, maintains that "Rice's requests to unmask the names of Trump transition officials do not vindicate" Trump's accusations of wiretapping.

How Does It Impact Regular People?

While U.S. citizens aren't supposed to be targeted by NSA surveillance, intelligence gathering under FISA is a process that's been described as both a bulwark against terrorism and as intrusive and rife with the potential for abuse. Lake's story asserts there's little legal standard for senior officials to unmask names, leading to privacy concerns about the practice.

However, the fact that members of Trump's team may have been caught up in wiretaps targeting Russian intelligence assets points to the story — and ongoing investigations — that this administration would rather not be the media's focus.

What Happens Next?

Trump will likely try to tie Rice to a larger conspiracy by Obama officials to stop his election through wiretapping, while the House and Senate will continue their investigations. Rice herself has not commented.