Politics

Unpacking the Unmasking Scandal

James Clapper revised the unmasking rules in 2013, opening the door for Obama and company to take advantage.

Thomas Gallatin · Aug. 2, 2017

Almost immediately after Donald Trump won the election, Democrats and their cohorts in the mainstream media began pushing the narrative of a Trump/Russia collusion conspiracy. The Leftmedia ran story after story of leaked information from various government sources, spun in such a way as to imply that it was only a matter of time before Trump was found guilty of colluding with Vladimir Putin. Some of the leaked information contained the names of Trump campaign personnel, with the biggest and most damaging being that of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. He was forced to resign, but questions emerged about the intelligence community and “unmasking” after Trump tweeted that Barack Obama had “wiretapped” his phones.

Suddenly, questions were being asked about this unfamiliar practice. What was it, and who had the authority to do it? It was learned that the names of Americans who had been incidentally caught in intelligence surveillance of a foreign individual were to be redacted in order to protect their Fourth Amendment rights. Unmasking was the practice where special authorization was given by the appropriate authority to un-redact the name of an American caught up in surveillance. The rules for unmasking were created in 1992 and stipulated that only the director of the CIA could authorize an unmasking after providing a written reason for doing so.

Fast forward to 2013, when James Clapper, head of the National Security Agency at the time, issued a revision to the procedures for unmasking. The updated procedures effectively made it easier for executive branch officials to unmask the names of lawmakers or congressional staffers who had been caught up in intelligence intercepts overseas. On the surface, it may appear that Clapper’s reasoning for the revision was politically motivated, but there’s far more to the story that is not nearly so nefarious. To put it simply, Clapper seems to have been primarily motivated by a desire to bring the official unmasking guidelines up to date with the current practice. Over the years, unmasking procedures had unofficially evolved — significantly so since 9/11. Clapper’s revision did little to change the widely accepted and practiced unmasking procedures; it simply made those practices official.

Yet while Clapper’s motives may not have been politically calculated, it is clear that the Obama administration took advantage of the rule changes as the number of unmaskings increased significantly following the revisions. As an intelligence official familiar with the rule changes stated, “We understood we were more than doubling the universe of those who could make special requests outside the normal de-minimization process and that language was added to ensure we did not accidentally create downstream leaking of information.” And this is where the scandal lies. Who within the Obama administration was responsible for leaking the information “downstream”?

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