John Solomon and Sara Carter
As his presidency drew to a close, Barack Obama’s top aides routinely reviewed intelligence reports gleaned from the National Security Agency’s incidental intercepts of Americans abroad, taking advantage of rules their boss relaxed starting in 2011 to help the government better fight terrorism, espionage by foreign enemies and hacking threats, Circa has learned.
Dozens of times in 2016, those intelligence reports identified Americans who were directly intercepted talking to foreign sources or were the subject of conversations between two or more monitored foreign figures. Sometimes the Americans’ names were officially unmasked; other times they were so specifically described in the reports that their identities were readily discernible. Among those cleared to request and consume unmasked NSA-based intelligence reports about U.S. citizens were Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice, his CIA Director John Brennan and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Some intercepted communications from November to January involved Trump transition figures or foreign figures' perceptions of the incoming president and his administration. Intercepts involving congressional figures also have been unmasked occasionally for some time.
The NSA is expected to turn over logs as early as this week to congressional committees detailing who consumed reports with unmasked Americans' identities from their intercepts since the summer of 2016.
This information is likely to become a primary focus of the Russia counterintelligence probe of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.
Circa confirmed the unmasking procedures through interviews with intelligence professionals and by reviewing previously classified documents it obtained that described the loosening of privacy requirements.
To intelligence professionals, the public revelations affirm an undeniable reality.
Over the last decade, the assumption of civil liberty and privacy protections for Americans incidentally intercepted by the NSA overseas has been eroded in the name of national security.
Today, the power to unmask an American’s name inside an NSA intercept -- once considered a rare event in the intelligence and civil liberty communities -- now resides with about 20 different officials inside the NSA alone. The FBI also has the ability to unmask Americans’ names to other intelligence professionals and policymakers.
And the justification for requesting such unmasking can be as simple as claiming “the identity of the United States person is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance,” according to a once-classified document that the Obama administration submitted in October 2011 for approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It laid out specifically how and when the NSA could unmask an American’s identity.