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Situational Media Attitudes Toward 'Unmaskings'


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This week’s news that at least 39 Obama officials had unmasked Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s private conversations during the last month of their administration seemed a little shocking. Today, major media outlets are telling  readers and viewers that the practice is “routine.”

A CNN headline told readers, “Trump pushes 'Obamagate' conspiracy based on routine intel activity.”

Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, now a CNN contributor, told his viewers that it is “routine” to unmask Americans who are communicating with foreigners under surveillance.

Yahoo News told its readers unmaskings are “routine.”

New York Times reporter Charlie Savage tweeted the practice is so "routine" that under President Trump, the National Security Agency handled 10,000 unmasking requests last year and 17,000 requests in 2018 – an average of 37 per day over the two years.

The frequency of such unmaskings – which violate the privacy of Americans in the name of national security – may be common knowledge in Washington. But that was not the impression given in 2017 when news first broke that Flynn’s identity had been unmasked in conversations he had with the Russian ambassador, and then illegally leaked to David Ignatius of the Washington Post. The message then was that Flynn’s behavior was so grave that extraordinary steps had to be taken.

Is media concern about unmaskings a conditional thing, depending on whose behavior is at issue -- whether that of a potential traitor serving a President considered an interloper or civil servants presumed to be diligently defending the realm against subversion?

In an interview with Andrea Mitchell on April 4, 2017, one of the top people in the need-to-know loop, Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice, suggested that the practice was rare and subject to rigorous scrutiny. “There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided," Rice said. If she felt it was essential to identify that person, she would have her intelligence analysts “take that question back, they would put it through a process, and the intelligence community would make a determination about whether the identity of that U.S. person could be provided to me." 

Also in April 2017:

  • USA Today underscored the message that unmaskings were rare when it reported: “Names of citizens and permanent residents — 'U.S. persons' in intelligence parlance — are typically excluded from intelligence reports to protect their privacy, but there are exceptions.”
  • NBC News implied that only a limited number of officials had such authority, reporting that an unmasking request is “a routine thing" -- for national security advisers, that is. 
  • ABC News expanded that number when it reported “there are 20 high-ranking officials within the U.S. government who have to power to approve requests to reveal those identities if they deem that information is necessary to understanding the value of the intelligence.”

All of which makes it surprising to learn, as the Wall Street Journal reported, that the 39 officials who unmasked Flynn included “four U.S. ambassadors, six Treasury officials, and people connected to the Energy and Justice departments and NATO, among others.”

The contrast between what the public was led to believe about unmaskings (that they were rare and subject to rigorous review) and how they are now viewed when deployed wholesale against Trumpworld (not such a big whoop) recalls recent revelations about widespread problems in FBI court applications to spy on American citizens. Many in the media, stout defenders of privacy in other contexts, seemed to view what happened to Trump campaign adviser Carter Page as not much to get upset about.

Puzzling, perhaps, but easier to fathom if you understand the situational principles of today's fourth estate.



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