WASHINGTON — Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Tuesday that she did not seek to "unmask" the names of Trump associates for political purposes, but also described the process of asking for the intelligence community to reveal the names of U.S. citizens as a "longstanding, established process."
"The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes," Rice told MSNBC. "That's absolutely false."
Rice was responding to allegations in conservative media outlets that she used her office to request information about Trump transition officials. While she would not discuss specific information that she asked for — or whether Trump associates were involved — she described the process of "unmasking" Americans mentioned in intelligence reports as routine.
The controversy over "unmasking" is an outgrowth of the investigation into Russian interference of the 2016 presidential election. President Trump has denied any collusion with Russia, and instead has said the investigation should focus on his claims — as yet unsubstantiated — that President Barack Obama ordered surveillance on Trump Tower.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a Republican, gave fuel to those allegations last month when he said he had viewed intelligence reports with the names of Trump transition figures in them.
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.
"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 the name of that person was important to understand the significance of the intelligence, she would ask her intelligence analysts for more information, she said.
"They would take that question back, they would put it though a process, and the intelligence community would make a determination about whether the identity of that U.S. person could be provided to me," Rice said. "And sometimes in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out, or request the information, as to who the U.S. official was."
She described her requests as similar to that of any other high-ranking national security official.
But White House press secretary Sean Spicer suggested she was changing her story since an interview on PBS last month. "I know nothing about this," she said of Nunes's allegations of unmasking.
"I do think that there is a sharp contrast between a few weeks ago when she was very public in saying she didn’t have any clue what Chairman Nunes was talking about, and yet now we’re finding out that she’s trying to figure out how she can go to some kind of friendly way of discussing this," he told reporters Tuesday. "The more we find out about this the more we learn that there was clearly something there and that there was a lot of activity."
Rice has long been a target of conservative critics, especially after she appeared to downplay the role that terrorism played in the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012. On Monday, Trump used Twitter to promote stories in conservative media outlets alleging — based on anonymous sources — that she ordered intelligence agencies to report on Trump and his associates during the campaign.