Trump orders limits on ‘unmasking’ of US citizens snagged in surveillance
President Donald Trump has ordered the intelligence community to develop new rules to handle requests from government officials who want to reveal the identities of US citizens collected through foreign surveillance.
Trump signed a memorandum Tuesday, ordering Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats to create a policy requiring each branch of the intelligence community to create their own procedures for responding to so-called “unmasking” requests.
Specifically, Trump gave the DNI 30 days to implement a policy that would limit intelligence agencies from uncovering the identity of non-public US citizens and information “concerning known unconsenting United States persons that was originally omitted from disseminated intelligence reports.”
The purpose of the memorandum is to improve the efficiency of “unmasking” requests and ensure the intelligence community complies with privacy laws, a White House official told Bloomberg.
The memorandum comes after Republicans complained about President Barack Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice admitting to revealing the identity of members of Trump’s campaign team, whose identities had been concealed in surveillance reports.
In September, Rice told CNN that she “unmasked” the identities of then-candidate Trump’s top aides in order to understand why the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was in New York in December 2016.
After Rice testified before the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Trey Gowdy, (R-South Carolina) told the Daily Caller that there was “nothing that came up in her interview that led me to conclude” that Rice improperly “unmasked” the Trump advisers or disclosed classified information to the media.
However, the Washington Post was later able to obtain “unmasked” discussions between then-Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which ultimately led to Flynn being fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
Some Republicans have suggested that Flynn’s “unmasking” to the media was orchestrated by Obama officials for political purposes, in an attempt to damage the Trump presidency.
The intelligence community frequently monitors the communications of foreigners in the US, but redacts the names of American citizens that were “incidentally collected” to protect their privacy rights. Senior officials can request that certain names be “unmasked” if they decide they need more information.
While the White House did not release any details on what the new policies would entail, Coats wrote a letter to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California) in November, which outlined the basic policy changes at the time.
Coats said that the new policy would ensure that the intelligence community elements cannot “engage in political activity, including dissemination of U.S. person identities to the White House, for the purpose of affecting the political process of the United States.”
Additionally, the policy would require “heightened levels of approval for requests made during a Presidential transition when those requests relate to known members of a President-elect’s transition team,” Coats wrote in the letter obtained by Reuters.
The memorandum came on the same day that the House Freedom Caucus said they would oppose a bill to reauthorize section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, without “significant reforms to ensure that Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected.”
“The House Freedom Caucus is opposed to the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 because it allows the government to collect and search Americans’ communications without a warrant,” the caucus wrote on Tuesday.
Section 702 gives US intelligence permission to spy on and store internet data and communications of foreign people living outside the US. However, the program has been widely criticized over its collection of Americans’ communications, which can be “swept up” among foreign communications and can then be searched without the need for a warrant.
The bill to reauthorize the program is scheduled for a vote in the House on Thursday.