What is unmasking, and did Susan Rice do anything wrong?

Ken Dilanian
Susan Rice, former White House National Security Advisor.
Getty Images

It doesn't have the ring of "Benghazi," or "Whitewater," but Republicans are seizing upon what they see as a new scandal: "Improper unmasking."

The issue: Did President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, do something wrong when she requested that the identities of some Trump aides be "unmasked," or revealed to a small group of cleared government officials, after those names turned up in surveillance reports of foreigners in the waning days of the last administration?

"Now we know that someone in the Obama administration was eavesdropping and specifically searching a databank looking for the Trump (people)," Sen. Rand Paul proclaimed Tuesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

More from NBC News:
See what your state is doing to close the gender pay gap
Trump administration floats compromise on health care
Dems Hit Gorsuch Filibuster Threshold, Moving GOP Closer to 'Nuclear Option'

In fact, there is no evidence of that.

Senior Obama administration officials don't dispute that Rice requested the "unmasking" of certain Americans whose names appeared in intelligence reports resulting from eavesdropping on foreigners — meaning the foreigners were discussing the Americans or talking to them. Usually, those names are blacked out. But the blackout can be lifted if doing so is necessary to help understand the intelligence.

Requesting that is a routine thing for national security advisers to do, according to former senior officials, including Keith Alexander, who directed the National Security Agency.

Rice didn't and couldn't "order" the unmasking of any American, current and former officials say. The agencies that hold the raw surveillance transcripts — usually the NSA or the FBI — make that decision. It's a process subject to rules and reviewed by lawyers, and it has to be justified by an intelligence purpose.

Rice's role was first discussed by Mike Cernovich, who is also known for promoting a false story that a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor was a nest of pedophiles connected to Hillary Clinton. Unmasking was then the subject of a story by Eli Lake, a conservative columnist for Bloomberg View.

It's hard to imagine FBI Director James Comey or NSA Director Mike Rogers participating with Obama officials in "political" surveillance of the Trump transition, which is the allegation some Republicans are making. Rogers, after all, has acknowledged that he met with Trump about a job in his administration. Comey has been criticized for how he handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and for actions that polls show helped Trump.

Alexander told NBC News he routinely turned down requests for unmasking by senior officials in the Bush and Obama administrations.

At the end of the Obama administration, the FBI and the NSA were sifting through intelligence reports on Russian hacking. One goal of their investigation, FBI Director James Comey has made clear, was to learn whether any Trump associates colluded with the Russian effort to interfere in the election on Trump's behalf.

If Russians under surveillance were talking about or to Trump associates, the names of those people would have been relevant.

Likewise, if two Chinese officials were talking about business relationships with an incoming government official, that person's identity also might be relevant.

These are hypotheticals. That's all we have at the moment, because all the surveillance reports are classified and nobody is talking in detail about them.

That brings up another point: "unmasked" does not equal made public. The surveillance reports containing the names of Trump and his aides were still highly classified and viewable by a limited number of cleared individuals.