In Context: Did Susan Rice lie about unmasking Trump associates?

Former White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice is battling claims that she mishandled classified information in requesting the identities of people connected to President Donald Trump’s transition team in raw intelligence reports.

Critics of former National Security Adviser Susan Rice say she’s caught in a lie about misusing intelligence for political purposes.

A few media sources, most prominently Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake, have said Rice repeatedly asked to learn the names of unidentified American citizens who appeared in intelligence reports in connection to the Donald Trump campaign and transition. These reports are based on anonymous sources, and Rice has neither confirmed nor denied them.

At first glance, this narrative clashes with an interview Rice gave to PBS on March 22, where she seemed to say she didn’t know if Trump associates had been picked up in surveillance. But looking at the PBS interview in its full context, it’s not 100 percent clear that Rice made an intentionally false statement, though she might have omitted relevant (and potentially classified) information.

In a separate fact-check, we explained why these allegations against Rice don’t automatically indicate wrongdoing.

What Rice told PBS’s Judy Woodruff on March 22

Woodruff asked Rice about Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who claimed to have learned that surveillance of foreign individuals might have picked up Trump and his associates, and their names might have been disclosed. Nunes has since stepped away from his role chairing the House investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.

Woodruff: "We’ve been following a disclosure by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee,  Devin Nunes, that in essence, during the final days of the Obama administration, during the transition, after President Trump had been elected, that he and the people around him may have been caught up in surveillance of foreign individuals in that their identities may have been disclosed. Do you know anything about this?"

Rice: I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.

Let’s back up and recall where we have been. The president of the United States accused his predecessor, President Obama, of wiretapping Trump tower during the campaign. Nothing of the sort occurred, and we’ve heard that confirmed by the director of the FBI, who also pointed out that no president, no White House, can order the surveillance of another American citizen. That can only come from the Justice Department with approval of a FISA court.

So today, I really don’t know to what Chairman Nunes was referring. But he said whatever he was referring to was a legal, lawful surveillance, and it was potentially incidental collection on American citizens. I think it’s important for people to understand what "incidental" means. That means that the target was either a foreign entity or somebody under criminal investigation, and the Americans who were talking to those targets may have been picked up.      

It’s possible, given the question asked, Rice was trying to say that she didn’t know what Nunes was specifically talking about, as opposed to not knowing anything about incidental surveillance pickups of Trump’s associates generally — an explanation Rice herself gave on Twitter April 4.

"I said I did not know what reports Nunes was referring to when he spoke to the press. I still do not. But the full (House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence) needs to know," she tweeted.

At this point, too little is known about the allegations against Rice, as well as Nunes’ claims, to assess whether Rice’s March 22 comment— "I know nothing about this" — was truthful.