Ben Rhodes Emerging as ‘Person of Interest’ in House Intelligence Committee Unmasking Probe

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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters.

Former Obama White House National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes is emerging as a person of interest in the House Intelligence Committee’s unmasking investigation, according to a letter obtained by Circa.

The letter sent from the House intelligence committee to the National Security Agency (NSA) on Tuesday requests the number of unmaskings made by Rhodes between Jan. 1, 2016 to Jan. 20, 2017, congressional sources told Circa.

The committee is requesting that the NSA deliver the information on Rhodes by August 21.

Unmasking refers to the practice of having the identity of an American caught up in surveillance of a foreign target revealed. Their names are hidden — or masked — because U.S. intelligence agencies are prohibited from spying on Americans.

An intelligence consumer, however, can request that an American’s name be unmasked, or revealed, through a formal process. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes recently said in a letter to Director for National Intelligence Dan Coats that Obama aides made “hundreds” of requests in their final year in office.

Some of the unmaskings were followed by leaks in the press, he said. While unmasking is not illegal, leaking classified intelligence is illegal.

Nunes has been conducting an investigation to see whether Americans — including Trump campaign associates — were improperly unmasked before and after the election.

Nunes said in the letter to Coats that the committee has “found evidence that current and former government officials had easy access to U.S. person information and that it is possible that they used this information to achieve partisan political purposes, including the selective, anonymous leaking of such information.”

U.S. officials told Circa on condition of anonymity that the intelligence reports included some intercepts of Americans talking to foreigners and many more involving foreign leaders talking about the future president, his campaign associates, or his transition team. They noted that most of the intercepts had little to do with the Russian election interference scandal, and some appeared to have nothing to do with national security.

The intelligence panel has requested information related to its investigation on unmasking for former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.

An intelligence source, with direct knowledge of the type of requests made by the Obama aides, told Circa:

It’s like hell and high water to fill out and gain approval for these types of unmaskings. It’s something analysts take seriously and could entail filling out 80 pages of paperwork to prove there is a need to unmask. If top officials were unmasking without oversight it’s something everyone should be concerned about and it puts our intelligence community in a very bad place.

During his last year in office, the Obama administration significantly expanded efforts to search National Security Agency intercepts for information about Americans, according to a previous Circa report.

According to data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, government officials conducted 30,355 searches in 2016 seeking information about Americans in NSA intercept meta-data, which include telephone numbers and email addresses.

The activity was a 27.5% increase over the prior year and more than triple the 9,500 such searches that occurred in 2013, the first year such data was kept, the report said.

In 2016 the administration searched for data related to 5,288 Americans — an increase of 13 percent over the prior year.


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