WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to develop rules for disclosing the names of Americans whose identities are blacked out in classified spy reports disseminated across the government.
The issue prompted a heated partisan debate after Republicans alleged that Obama administration officials improperly shared the identities of members of Trump’s presidential transition team mentioned in intelligence reports.
Democrats insist there is no evidence that the identities of any Trump transition officials were improperly revealed. They say there already are tough rules in place to guide the process known as “unmasking.”
Trump’s order follows a letter that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats wrote last month to Congress. Coats told lawmakers that he will tighten rules for providing government officials the identities of Americans concealed in intelligence reports. Coat’s policy would aim to stiffen existing safeguards to ensure that names aren’t disclosed for political reasons, especially during presidential transitions.
Trump’s order directs Coats to issue and publicly release within 30 days a policy requiring all U.S. intelligence agencies to develop and maintain procedures for responding to unmasking requests.
When a U.S. intelligence agency, such as the National Security Agency, conducts surveillance on a foreign target, sometimes that surveillance picks up the name of an American. Intelligence analysts are obligated to hide the name, but government officials with proper security clearances can ask to know the person’s identity.
This doesn’t mean that the American’s name becomes public. Unmasking is typically done internally, on a case-by-case basis, because the official is requesting the name to understand the full context of the classified report. Records are kept of each request.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House intelligence committee, wrote a letter to Coats in July saying that senior government officials in the Obama administration had “easy access” to the names of Americans omitted from intelligence reports and sometimes provided little justification for requesting their identities.
“We have found that the intelligence community’s U.S. person unmasking policies are inadequate to prevent abuse, such as political spying,” Nunes wrote.
Coats said the new procedures will further clarify existing rules, making clear that intelligence agencies cannot engage in any intelligence activity, including dissemination of U.S. person identities, to the White House for the purpose of influencing the U.S. political process. He said adequate justifications would be required for any requests.
“In addition, this policy will require heightened levels of approval for requests made during a presidential transition when these requests relate to known members of a president-elect’s transition team,” Coats wrote.
Intelligence agencies say that in 2016, government officials requested to know the identities of more than 1,900 Americans whose information was swept up by NSA surveillance programs last year. The identities of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents were found in 3,914 intelligence reports the NSA distributed in 2016. In 2015, government officials requested the unmasking of 2,232 identities.