The White House has repeatedly sought to deflect criticism over reports that administration officials
provided intelligence documents to House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes earlier this month by saying that reporters should be more concerned with the “substance” of the intelligence than the “process” by which it was obtained.
But in more recent days, the Trump administration and its allies have been quick to criticise the process by which former national security adviser Susan Rice reportedly obtained the names of Trump transition officials who surfaced in intelligence reports compiled by the National Security Agency.
National-security experts and former intelligence officials say Rice’s requests to “unmask” these officials, on the surface, were neither unusual nor improper, and that if she was given these reports it means they were relevant to foreign policy and national-security matters.
White House has either downplayed or not addressed the substance of those documents, which revealed that at least two transition officials communicated with monitored foreign agents before Trump was sworn in, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.
Instead, the administration has shifted the narrative from substance — which Trump associates spoke with foreign agents, and why the NSA felt compelled to share that intelligence with high-level administration officials — to process: How the intelligence was obtained, and how the press got wind of it.
The shift began with the resignation of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has been identified as one of the transition officials “unmasked” by someone in the Obama administration.
Flynn was forced to resign after reports surfaced, citing intercepted communications, that he and Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak had discussed the US sanctions on Russia. (Rice did not instigate Flynn’s unmasking, but she did request the unmasking of another transition official, according to the Journal’s reporting.)
In a related example of the White House prioritising process over substance, Trump said he asked for Flynn’s resignation not because Flynn did anything inherently improper in speaking to Kislyak, but because Flynn had failed to disclose the true extent of the conversations to Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump argued later that the “real story” of Flynn’s resignation was the “illegal leaks” that ultimately forced the administration’s hand. The president took questions about surveillance, unmasking, and leaking to a new level, however, when he tweeted in early March that Obama had wiretapped phones at Trump Tower just before the election. He called for an investigation into the claim, for which he offered no proof, and Republican members of Congress said they would comply.
Garry Kasparov, the Russian chessmaster and political activist, criticised what he saw as Republicans’ disproportionate focus on intelligence-gathering and leaks over the probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. He summed it up in a tweet that has since gone viral:
Another former Obama administration official responsible for the Defence Department’s Russia policy, Evelyn Farkas, has also come in the White House’s crosshairs recently, for what they have characterised as her admission that Obama-era officials were collecting intelligence on Trump and his transition team.
The administration has taken a very different approach, however, in responding to questions about the classified documents Rep. Devin Nunes — the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and former Trump transition official — said he obtained last month.
Nunes sparked controversy when he bypassed the rest of his committee and went to straight to the White House to brief Trump on the documents, which he said showed that the president and his advisers may have had their communications “incidentally collected” by the intelligence community during the transition period.
Trump told reporters he felt “vindicated” by Nunes’ findings, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the administration was not concerned with how they were obtained because Nunes and his source both had security clearance.
Nunes has still not disclosed his source. But he later admitted to being on White House grounds the day before he briefed reporters and Trump on what he had uncovered. His office said he had travelled there to view the documents in a secure facility to “safeguard the proper chain of custody and classification of these documents,” and insisted that he did not obtain the information from White House officials.
The New York Times and Washington Post reported soon afterward that three White House officials “assisted in the disclosure of the intelligence reports” to Nunes, however, fuelling speculation that the administration orchestrated the stunt to distract the press from the recent revelation that the FBI was investigating Trump associates’ ties to Russia.
Asked again why White House officials would have given a Republican congressman, who was a member of Trump’s transition team, classified documents about surveillance during the previous administration, Spicer said simply, “We’re not as obsessed with the process as with the substance.”
The house is on fire, Trump is running around with a box of matches, and the GOP demands to know who called the fire department.
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) March 20, 2017
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