Who Violated Their Designated Role: Ezra Cohen-Watnick or Susan Rice?

In the original version of the latest right wing claim — that Susan Rice requested that multiple incoming Trump figures’ names be unmasked in intercepts — Mike Cernovich describes the genesis of Devin Nunes’ concern this way:

The White House Counsel’s office identified Rice as the person responsible for the unmasking after examining Rice’s document log requests. The reports Rice requested to see are kept under tightly-controlled conditions. Each person must log her name before being granted access to them.

Upon learning of Rice’s actions, H. R. McMaster dispatched his close aide Derek Harvey to Capitol Hill to brief Chairman Nunes.

But as Eli Lake — fresh off having apologized for letting Devin Nunes use him — tells the story, close Mike Flynn associate Ezra Cohen-Watnick discovered it and brought the discovery to the White House Counsel’s office, whereupon he was told to “end his own research” on unmasking.

The pattern of Rice’s requests was discovered in a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” the identities of individuals in the U.S. who are not targets of electronic eavesdropping, but whose communications are collected incidentally. Normally those names are redacted from summaries of monitored conversations and appear in reports as something like “U.S. Person One.”

The National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was conducting the review, according to two U.S. officials who spoke with Bloomberg View on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. In February Cohen-Watnick discovered Rice’s multiple requests to unmask U.S. persons in intelligence reports that related to Trump transition activities. He brought this to the attention of the White House General Counsel’s office, who reviewed more of Rice’s requests and instructed him to end his own research into the unmasking policy.

This repeats a claim Lake had made in his earlier apology post, which he presented as one detail in the NYT version of this story that was not accurate.

Another U.S. official familiar with the affair told me that one of the sources named in the article, former Defense Intelligence officer Ezra Cohen-Watnick, did not play a role in getting information to Nunes. This official said Cohen-Watnick had come upon the reports while working on a review of recent Justice Department rules that made it easier for intelligence officials to share the identities of U.S. persons swept up in surveillance. He turned them over to White House lawyers.

But it adds the detail that Cohen-Watnick had been told to stand down. That would explain why Lake and others would want to claim that Cohen-Watnick wasn’t involved in dealing all this to Nunes: because he had already been told not to pursue it further. If the multiple accounts saying he was involved in the hand-off to Nunes, it appears he did.

The WaPo’s version of this included a detail not included by the right wingers: that Cohen-Watnick went to John Eisenberg, not Don McGahn, with his “discovery.” Eisenberg is significantly responsible, dating back to when he was at DOJ, for ensuring that ordinary Americans would be sucked up in surveillance under PRISM. For him to be concerned about the legal unmasking of Americans’ identities (to the extent that did exist — and the record is still unclear whether it did) is laughable.

The timing of Cohen-Watnick’s research — dating back to February — intersects in interesting ways with the timeline in this March 14 Politico story of H.R. McMaster’s attempt to sideline him, which was overruled by Steven Bannon.

On Friday [March 10], McMaster told the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, that he would be moved to another position in the organization.

The conversation followed weeks of pressure from career officials at the CIA who had expressed reservations about the 30-year-old intelligence operative and pushed for his ouster.

But Cohen-Watnick appealed McMaster’s decision to two influential allies with whom he had forged a relationship while working on Trump’s transition team — White House advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. They brought the matter to Trump on Sunday [March 12], and the president agreed that Cohen-Watnick should remain as the NSC’s intelligence director, according to two people with knowledge of the episode.

The House Intelligence Committee first asked NSA, CIA, and FBI for details on unmasking on March 15, the day after this story broke, at which point Nunes already knew of the White House effort. When Nunes first blew this up on March 22, he falsely claimed that that March 15 request had been submitted two weeks earlier.

It’s clear the right wing wants to shift this into Benghazi 2.0, attacking Susan Rice for activities that are, at least on the face of it, part of her job. But the only way the White House could be sure that she (or Ben Rhodes, who they’re also naming) were the ones to leak this would be to investigate not just those two, but also all the FBI (which would have access to this information without unmasking these names, which not a single one of these right wing scribes admit or even seem to understand). That is, the only way they could make credible, as opposed to regurgitated right wing propaganda accusations about leakers is to have spied even more inappropriately than they are accusing the Obama White House of doing.

27 replies
  1. wayoutwest says:

    I’m certain that panic is spreading throughout Obamaland as the Great Right Wing Conspiracy tunes their bombsights again on the Bullshitter of Benghazi. This time it isn’t just incompetence but a real high crime with a paper/electronic trail and a clear motive.

    I read the MSM sat on this story for days so we can expect their usual spin and misdirection now that they have to report on it. The question now is when Susan Rice will flip on Obama and try to avoid final responsibility for these crimes. .

    • Charles says:

      You seem to have missed the entire point of what emptywheel posted. By several light years.


      Let’s break it down a little bit finer:

      Devin Nunes, Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee lied in claiming Obama wiretapped Trump. The documents he received about the White House came freshly cherry-picked from the White House. His ranking member says the documents show no such thing.


      The White House has now tried to shift ground by saying what they were really talking about was the unmasking of names.  The White House Counsel claims credit for discovering that the person who unmasked the names was National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who would have had full authority for the unmasking, particularly since it involved interfering in the imposition of sanctions.


      But wait!  Why wouldn’t the Counsel contact Nunes? Why would he have a bunch of junior people jump in?  Utoh!


      So now Cohen-Watnick is dragged in as having found the reports, but virtuously shielded his eyes and raised the issue to a higher level.

      But wait! Cohen-Watnick wasn’t supposed to be involved at all!  And besides, what about the other two guys?

      And worse, Cohen-Watnick would have been fired by McMaster but for the intervention of Trump. So now the President is iunvolved!

      Klaxons sound.    Dive! Dive!  Dive!


      You suggest Benghazi as a parallel. At the end of a million investigations, the Republicans conceded that it was actually a broad-based failure for which the CIA and Defense share responsibility:


      Ending one of the longest, costliest and most bitterly partisan congressional investigations in history, the House Select Committee on Benghazi issued its final report on Tuesday, finding no new evidence of culpability or wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton in the 2012 attacks in Libya that left four Americans dead.


      So I think a better parallel is Watergate, where a bunch of Republican liars get caught lying and end up getting kicked out of office or into jail.



      • wayoutwest says:

        It’s entertaining watching people try to personalize, timeline and speculate about this news story spinning it away from the fact that it is evidence in a criminal investigation of abuse of power at the highest level of the Obama regime.

        The damning documented evidence was freed from the grip of the IC administrators to someone well qualified and cleared to view it and that was done under strict security, there was no leak. Nunes announced what this evidence relates to but released nothing. With the identifying numbers of these documents the WH could compare them with Susan Rice’s document log and put that perp up for display.

        The evidence of this crime of the century is coming together rapidly and in an organized and businesslike fashion. That is why the ratfucker Clintonite pundits are hysterically chasing anything that will deflect peoples attention.

        • Charles says:

          It must be fun to live in alt-reality.


          Until it collides with reality, at least.  Then the smashed careers and jail time become real.
          By the way, Marcy, if Fox Noise is serving as a stopped clock, it should be really interesting to hear Devin Nunes’ explanation on this one:

          “Meanwhile, Fox News also is told that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes knew about unmasking and leaking back in January, well before President Trump’s tweet in March alleging wiretapping.”

          And yet he had to rush over to the WH to hear it again.

          • wayoutwest says:

            Anyone paying attention, including Nunes,  knew about this mishandling of intelligence product because the NYT reported on it. They didn’t just report it they tried to spin this leaking as an act of courage by Obama making certain this political slime attack was views as exposing Trump’s minions before they covered it up. The unmasking was evident from the leak that exposed Mike Flynn’s recorded conversation with the Russian ambassador.

            The ease with which this story was connected to Susan Rice showing her turning dirty tricks for Obama/Clinton is more than enough to destroy plausible deniability. This was the use of reclassified intercepts for a political agenda aimed at an opposition campaign. It had nothing to do with national security even though it was apparently led by the National Security Advisor.

            Trump is not satisfied that this is the whole story especially with the use of legal and incidental to describe the long term surveillance of him and his team.

        • Avattoir says:

          You aren’t arguing, you’re echoing, and spinning consistent with Russian active measures. It’s purest derp. It may well work for a time with hard core Trumpers, but your spin cycle is, out of necessity, too hard; it’ll burn out the motor.


          I have to wonder what you and your fellow derpsters think you’re even doing in commenting on a site like this. Only a moron would imagine emptywheel & her readers would go for such moronic assertions as yours.

    • Tom in AZ says:

      Go away, troll. Why you are allowed to post anywhere on the net is beyond me. Not you, Charles. ;)

      • wayoutwest says:

        Thanks, Tom just when I think no one is listening a cranky old lizard steps up and pisses all over himself because of my heresy. The part about banning me from the WWW is precious but it does show your impotence in the face of conflict.

    • GKJames says:

      @wayoutwest Interesting. (1) What’s “Obamaland”? (2) Are you suggesting that there really is a “Great Right Wing Conspiracy”? (3) What’s the “real high crime” that’s been committed?

      • wayoutwest says:

        Obamaland is more people than a place and his admirers have their work cut out for them to sandbag and attempt to protect his pitiful legacy.

        All partisan politics is based on conspiracy to undermine the opposition. We’re witnessing a truly fanatic  one right now with drooling witch hunters trying to make fire from dross.

        Presidential abuse of power especially for a political agenda using classified information seems to fit the description of a High Crime.

        • GKJames says:

          You mean like, VanBurenland, or Bushland, etc.? (You have to admit, though, Clevelandland sounds pretty dumb.) And would it be Ikeland or the more formal — he was a general after all — Eisenhowerland? (You, one suspects, are a denizen of Reaganland.)

          But I digress. With nomenclature out of the way … what does it mean that Obama “admirers” intend to “sandbag and attempt to protect his pitiful legacy”?  Who are they and what, exactly, are they doing? How does one “sandbag” a legacy?

          Skipping past the “drooling witch hunters” (I’ve no feel for the occult), what “[p]residential abuse of power” are you referring to? Other than what febrile imaginations in Trumpland (hey; it works!) are concocting — while they’re at it, do Republicans drool or soil their trousers, or both? — what reality-based facts (not Spicerland “facts”) can you proffer which Sessions can use to prepare the indictment(s)?


  2. SpaceLifeForm says:

    Clearly now, if you are called a ‘whistleblower’ by someone in a government role, then that is all fine and dandy, as long as the ‘whistleblower’ is leaking ‘stuff’ that either defends their position or allows them to control the narrative. But otherwise, you get called a ‘leaker’ or a traitor. Usually both. Ask ES.

    The hypocrisy is really flagrant.


    Three named officials—two Trump appointees and arguably his leading defender on the Hill —appear to have engaged in precisely the behavior that the president describes as the true national security threat posed by the Russia debate. Secrecy regulations, including SF312, the Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement, do not permit Ellis and Cohen-Watnick to distribute sensitive compartmented information through a back channel to Nunes. This is true, and their conduct no less an offense, even though Nunes holds clearances sufficient to receive the information through proper channels. The offense, which in some cases can be prosecuted as a felony, would apply even if the White House officials showed Nunes only “tearsheet” summaries of the surveillance reports. Based on what Nunes has said in public, they appear to have showed him the more sensitive verbatim transcripts. Those are always classified as TS/SI (special intelligence) or TS/COMINT (communications intelligence), which means that they could reveal sources and methods if disclosed. That is the first apparent breach of secrecy rules. The second, of course, is the impromptu Nunes news conference. There is no unclassified way to speak in public about the identity of a target or an “incidentally collected” communicant in a surveillance operation.

    If events took place as just described, then what exactly were Trump’s appointees doing? I am not talking only about the political chore of ginning up (ostensible) support for the president’s baseless claims about illegal surveillance by President Obama. I mean this: why would a White House lawyer and the top White House intelligence adviser be requesting copies of these surveillance reports in the first place? Why would they go on to ask that the names be unmasked? There is no chance that the FBI would brief them about the substance or progress of its investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to the Russian government. Were the president’s men using the surveillance assets of the U.S. government to track the FBI investigation from the outside?

    • Silly but True says:

      The why is clear. It would be valuable insight into Democratic Party and its nominee in an election to know exactly who from the opposing campaign was talking to whom and about what.

      There are multiple problems just from what we know.

      1. FISA law defines all such surveillance as “the President’s surveillance program” and defines it as “all communications.” The tweet-speak of “President wiretapped me” is technically and legally accurate description of someone who was surveiled through FISA. We precisely know that the nature of Obama’s surveillance of Trump campaign was “incidental surveillance.” This can actually come in two general forms: Suspect A talks to Person B about Incidental Surveiled C. The other is Suspect A talks to Incidental Surveiled C. There are very rigid laws which govern how Americans can be incidentally surveiled. Trump (at least those of his campaign) was surveiled (incidently) by Obama (those in his administration) under Obama’s surveillance program.

      2. First, incidental surveillance of an American must be minimalist. Raw communications are firewalled and an analyst reviews. Absolutely all identifying information must be purged from summaries, descriptions or reports such that identities cannot be determined. The Attorney General or Director of National Intelligence can request identities to be reported to them only to better understand the primary national security context. Nunes noted two separate problems: first that the masking of Americans’ identities was not minimalist; rather the opposite was that they could be easily discerned from the reports where they were masked. Second, Nunes also noted that there were identities of Americans that were not even masked. Both instances are violation of FISA law and policy.

      3. The leaking of identities absolutely is against the law (as is leaking of any T/S information); FISA includes its own special penalties, generally highlighting the seriousness of the entire apparatus. Clearly unmasked names of Americans incidentally surveiled apparently through FISA were leaked.

      We start with the leaked report. One step back is who all had access to unmasked versions of communications – that is a small pool that can be readily interrogated.

      Who failed to minimally mask? That’s already a problem. Who unmasked and disseminated the identities – that’s a much more serious breach.

      There’s no problem if Rice read a summary of a masked communication, asked for identities, realized they were associated with a Presidential election campaign and, and promptly stopped and forgot about it.

      But somehow those identities which could only be unmasked by a relatively small number of individuals ended up as front page news. That’s the problem.

  3. Raistlin says:

    Nunes is covering for the whistleblower who brought him the story in January. They’re trying to construct the full story, and Nunes’ awkwardness is because he doesn’t want to reveal who really first told him.

  4. lefty665 says:

    Looks like neither violated their roles.

    The crimes, likely felonies, were in releasing the unmasked names to the press. Rice unmasked the names, then Obama facilitated the leaks with his EO widening the distribution of classified reports including the unmasked names. Neither of those acts are crimes. We’ll probably eventually find some poor schmucks way downstream as the actual criminal culprits. I encourage some of the lawyers around here to debate where legal acts cross the line into negligence, collusion or coordination as Comey says he is investigating with the Trumpistas and the Ruskies.  An analogy is for a banker to intentionally leave the combination to the safe and keys to the door lying around where criminals can get at them. Is the banker culpable when someone walks in and commits a crime by taking the money?

    The right wingers are undoubtedly nuts, but are Dems really all that pleased with the New McCarthyism they have turned into a frenzy? It is every bit as ugly as Benghazitis, and as dangerous as the original old Joe.  Are Dems really happy about being saddled up with McCarthy’s ghost, Graham, McCain, the Koches, neocon Kagans and their ilk?  My old white haired mother used to say “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas”.



  5. Tope says:

    I appreciate the breakdown of the timeline but to be honest this post seems more like a diversion than an explanation. If Susan Rice ordered the “unmasking” it was obviously for political reasons, she may have had legal authority to do so but that exercise must be proper. The reporting has been sloppy, that’s a given for the right wing press but they seem to have uncovered something genuinely disturbing. I suppose I’m alone in thinking this (at least here) but of all the stupid and possibly illegal things Trump has done, is doing and will do I am almost 100% certain “colluding” with Russians is not one of them. It always looked to me like a manufactured story designed to deligitimize Trump and limit his freedom of action to mend relations with Russia. Can someone explain what this means “is to have spied even more inappropriately” in context? Does that mean that NSC Director Cohen-Watnik has no lawful authority to investigate the “unmasking” or something else? Still trying to wrap my head around this.

    • bmaz says:

      This is absolute nonsense. In fact, reviewing such material is exactly what Susan Rice’s job was.

  6. Charles says:

    Lefty, why would it be a crime to disseminate the knowledge that the close associates of a corrupt businessman have had an extraordinary number of contacts, many of them under fishy circumstances, with a foreign rival? Especially when that corrupt businessman is about to enter one of the most sensitive jobs (from an intelligence aspect) of any in government.

    I think it’s a perfectly reasonable silent warning to intelligence personnel to guard sources and methods.

    What they do with it afterward could be criminal. However, it’s the kind of crime that many celebrate Bill Binney, Ed Snowden, and Thomas Drake for committing. Does the public have a right to know that their president may be selling favors to a foreign power?

    Except in the release of the Steele dossier, no sources/methods have been compromised so far. And the Steele dossier may well have come from John McCain or some other politician.

  7. SpaceLifeForm says:

    Rice denies Obama administration inappropriately unmasked Trump team


    “The allegation is that somehow, Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” Rice told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “That’s absolutely false.”

    “There was no such collection or surveillance on Trump Tower or Trump individuals, it is important to understand, directed by the White House or targeted at Trump individuals,” Rice said. 


  8. Les says:

    She presumably had access to the transcripts sans identities. In order to justify the unmasking, there has to be something in the transcripts that indicates someone is committing a crime. So far, there’s been nothing but attempts to use the contents of the transcripts to play gotcha in interviews. Anybody can made to look guilty if the questions are phrased using broad interpretations of meetings or other activities.

  9. drouse says:

    Over at Balloon Juice, Adam Silverman highlighted a somewhat disturbing thing. The alt-right(or whatever you call it) has a line into the WH.

    snipped from post at Balloon Juice;
    Rothman is referring to this Medium post from yesterday, 2 APR 2017, by Mike Cernovich. It now appears that Cernovich’s claims that he, at least, and other prominent members of the alt-right have ongoing contacts with senior White House/Administration officials. What Rothman is reporting, that, at least, Cernovich’s ties are accurate, this is important news. It shows that the white nationalist/white supremacist/neo-NAZI community that goes by the more respectable name the alt-right actually has a solid connection to the new Administration. This is disturbing on many levels. Not least is where the flow of information went: Cernovich, Zero Hedge, InfoWars, Gateway Pundit.

    It appears to my simple mind that there is one person with access to both the inner workings at the NSC and the alt-right.

    • J2 says:

      Hi I went to Balloon Juice and found what you cited.

      This is the content of the Rothman tweet that Juice is referencing:

      “The biggest unspoken detail in Eli Lake’s report: someone in the White House counsel’s office really is talking to Mike Cernovich.”

      An “unspoken detail” in an account – funny way to put things.

      I then read the Medium post by Cernovich of April 2. Please check my work. Here’s a link:


      There is nothing in Cernovich’s post that refers to or suggests White House contacts

      It is not in the Eli Lake report and it is not in Cernovich’s Medium post.

      That’s Balloon Juice for ya.


  10. drouse says:

    Damn, the reply function isn’t.


    In a way you’re right. He makes no mention of attribution at all. Since he seems to be patient zero for this particular story, where did he get it from? Not even an anonymous source so it sprang full grown from his forehead?

  11. John Casper says:

    wayout at 1:50 pm

    Trump land “is more people than a place and his admirers have their work cut out for them to sandbag and attempt to protect his pitiful” administration.

    “All partisan politics is based on conspiracy to undermine the opposition. We’re witnessing a truly fanatic one right now with drooling witch hunters trying to make fire from dross.

    Presidential abuse of power especially for a political agenda using classified information seems to fit the description of a High Crime.”

Comments are closed.