For months, the media has demonstrated an insatiable – and understandable – appetite for the story of potential Russian interference in American politics during the 2016 election cycle. Demands for investigations into whether people in the Donald Trump campaign had contact or coordinated with Russian intel operatives have resulted in probes at the FBI as well as in both chambers of Congress.
The stakes for US security and global standing are obviously high, and the need for accountability in governance may never be greater. This potential scandal will almost certainly wind up as one of the most-watched stories of 2017 – and deservedly so.
Oddly, though, media curiosity does not appear to extend equally in all directions. Some of the sources for the concerns over political interference come from leaked transcripts of conversations apparently monitored by the National Security Agency (NSA), an agency with heavy restrictions on surveillance involving domestic communications, especially when involving “US persons” – American citizens and legal residents at home or abroad.
Before the passage of the Patriot Act and its controversial Section 702, the NSA could not collect such data even if incidentally captured. Since then, it has become permissible in some circumstances, but analysts redact the names of those inadvertently captured from transcripts of such conversations unless a specific FISA warrant allows for their collection. The fact sheet for Section 702 published by the NSA to argue for its renewals every five years notes that dissemination of surveillance data involving US persons is prohibited in all but a narrow set of circumstances:
The dissemination of any information about U.S. persons is expressly prohibited unless it is necessary to understand foreign intelligence or assess its importance; is evidence of a crime, or indicates a threat of death or serious bodily harm.
Even then, that information would be only disseminated to agencies with jurisdiction over those issues, not publicly released. The leaking of transcripts identifying Michael Flynn in a conversation with Russian ambassador Sergei Kirlyak in December did not meet any of those conditions, and neither did subsequent leaks of similar material naming other US persons. This led Republicans in Congress to demand investigations into the leaks themselves; FBI director James Comey declined to tell Congress whether such an investigation was underway. Rep. Trey Gowdy demanded an investigation, calling the leaks “the felonious dissemination of classified material.”
That brings us back to one big question: how did the names of US persons get back into the transcripts in the first place, after being redacted? When former national security advisor Susan Rice was asked by PBS two weeks ago about incidental surveillance of Trump campaign members, she demurred on the topic altogether. “I know nothing about this,” Rice replied. “I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that account today.”
However, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported that not only did Rice know about the collection of this data, she specifically requested to be provided the unredacted transcripts – and had done so as a “pattern” discovered by the National Security Council. While those requests fall within the jurisdiction of a national security advisor, it flatly contradicted what Rice had claimed to PBS in March. When confronted with Lake’s reporting, Rice cemented the contradiction, claiming that although she had seen the transcripts, “I leaked nothing to nobody.”
That’s quite the memory boost in a two-week span, but strangely enough, media outlets began rushing to let Rice off the hook. At CNN alone, Jim Sciutto assured viewers that a source “close to Rice” insists that there was nothing to this story, and both Sciutto and anchor Don Lemon proclaimed it a “diversion” from the Trump-Russia scandal. Fellow anchor Chris Cuomo called it “fake news.” The Washington Post declared it “ginned-up … a fake scandal.”
NBC News argued that Rice couldn’t have gotten the transcripts without permission from the agencies, an explanation that didn’t explain why she just didn’t explain that when first asked. The New York Times buried mention of Rice’s extraordinary flip-flop on page A16, prompting a round of laughter from the panel on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday, and a provocative question from host Joe Scarborough.
“What if Dick Cheney had asked for the unmasking of names for Barack Obama’s incoming administration?” Scarborough continued, “There are a lot of things we don’t know. A lot of questions we don’t know. I do know this, though, I heard the hallelujah chorus come and immediately on cue last night saying…nothing to see here. Move along, move along.”
This display of aggressive incuriosity was all the more remarkable given its immediacy. Not only did the national media want to instruct people to ignore Lake’s report, but they also wanted to make sure they were seen as completely unwilling to ask questions on the basis of it. Rather than investigate it and ask tough questions of former Obama administration officials about the approval and dissemination process that gave Rice access to unredacted information about US persons, they wanted to paint the questions themselves as illegitimate.
Furthermore, every one of these pushbacks painted the Rice story as an either/or decision for coverage with the Trump-Russia probe. Major media outlets can cover more than one story at a time, however, and the possibility that an administration might have used intelligence data for political purposes would be just as big a story – if not perhaps even bigger. That, after all, was a key component in the Watergate scandal that brought down the Richard Nixon presidency, a scandal largely uncovered under media pressure.
Perhaps further investigation would demonstrate that Rice and other Obama administration officials did not use intelligence for political purposes. The information from those unredacted transcripts got leaked by someone, though, and Rice is the first major figure known to have accessed them outside of the agencies that collected the data in the first place. After having demonstrated such drive to connect dots between Russians and Trump, the lack of curiosity from the same media to follow up on such an obvious lead on a major leak lends itself to the conclusion that the media only has an interest in intrigue when it involves Republicans.