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Q&A about the ‘unmasking’ and the leaking of confidential information

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., in the middle, flanked by the commission’s ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the left and Rep. Peter King, R-N. Y., listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Monday 20 March 2017, during the preparatory hearing on the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – After FBI Director James Comey publicly acknowledged Monday the existence of an ongoing counterintelligence investigation for possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the White House introduced a new story to push back against the allegations.

“Michael Flynn was umasked and then illegally, his identity was leaked to the media,” the White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday.

Spicer was referring to reports that Flynn, when he was the incoming national security adviser, said the Russian ambassador of the USA in the end of December. It was reported that during the interview, Flynn talked about new sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama administration. Flynn eventually resigned as national security adviser.

The AMERICAN government learned of this conversation by means of the routine supervision of the Russian ambassador in the USA

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Here are some questions and answers on the U.S. surveillance law and the leak of secret information:

WHAT IS “THE UNMASKING?”

When a U.S. intelligence agency, such as the National Security Agency, conducts supervision of a foreigner in the US, and sometimes the supervision will consist of the name of an American who is a stranger to talk to or about. When this happens, intelligence analysts are required to hide or “minimize” the name of the American one, unless knowing the American name is needed for the understanding of the foreign intelligence service described in the report.

“If, for example, an intelligence piece they were about the Russian intelligence assets involved with an operation to the influence of political figures, the identity of the political figure would be needed,” said Todd Hinnen, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division during the Obama administration and the National Security Council staff member under George W. Bush. “Unless you know the answer to that question, you can’t appreciate the meaning and importance of the intelligence.”

WHO CAN UNMASK THE AMERICANS HAVE A NAME?

The answer varies by the AMERICAN intelligence service. On Monday, National Security Agency director Michael Rogers said there are 20 people at the NSA, including himself, who have the authority to reveal the name of an American in a surveillance report.

IT IS ILLEGAL TO EXPOSE AN AMERICAN NAME?

No.

“There is nothing inappropriate about the trial when it is appropriate to unmask,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior Brookings Institution fellow and editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog.

In the context of the Flynn-for example, Wittes said, the US is surveilling a strange goal — in this case, the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak. The goal, Kislyak, is approached by an American who is the incoming national security advisor in the new government — Michael Flynn — and that the U.s. is discussing the future of governance of the policy.

Wittes says it is easy to see where the identify of this American is important to foreign intelligence.

“I don’t think there is anything surprising that it was exposed,” Wittes said.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE MASK AND THE LEAKAGE OF SECRET INFORMATION?

One is legal and the other not.

The “unmasking” of Flynn is the name of the routine, Wittes said. But, he said, the parts of Flynn’s name in the public “is both shocking and inappropriate.”

It is a crime to disclose or “leak” of secret information. The content of the information collected in the framework of the authorities of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, are classified. Flynn conversation with Kislyak was collected in the framework of these authorities and, therefore, classified.

IS IT ILLEGAL TO LEAK SECRET INFORMATION THAT IS INACCURATE?

No.

“If it’s not accurate, then it is not classified,” Wittes said. “You can’t classify things that are not true.”

The Trumpet administration has said reports that Trump employees were in touch with the Kremlin during the campaign are false. But the White House has called for a leak investigation into the case.

“You can’t say, that it is a crime to leak, and that is false,” Wittes said.

THE PRESIDENT MAY, LEAKS OF SECRET INFORMATION?

No, says Wittes.

“The president can declassify anything he wants,” Wittes said. “The mere act of the president to say something is a ‘release.'”

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