WASHINGTON—Former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser said his administration didn’t use intelligence about Donald Trump’s associates for political purposes and said she didn’t leak anything regarding her successor, Mike Flynn.
Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, also described requests to “unmask” the identities of Americans mentioned in intelligence reports as necessary to do her job and entirely different than leaking classified information.
She declined to comment on whether she had made such requests with respect to people associated with Mr. Trump who may have been mentioned in intelligence reports.
“The notion, which some people are trying to suggest, that by asking for the identity of an American person, that is the same as leaking it, is completely false,” Ms. Rice said in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Tuesday. “There’s no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking. The effort to ask for the identity of the American citizen is necessary to understand the importance of an intelligence report in some instances.”
President Donald Trump signaled Sunday that he wasn’t abandoning efforts to dismantle and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Ms. Rice has become the focal point of efforts by Mr. Trump and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) to call attention to what they have said was improper behavior by Obama administration officials in relation to intelligence collection in the final days of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
The House intelligence panel plans to ask Ms. Rice to testify in its ongoing probe, officials said.
Mr. Trump has accused the Obama administration of spying on his associates and called the alleged activity the “real story,” rather than Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election and Russian links to people who worked on his campaign.
Mr. Nunes triggered a controversy in March when he said he viewed documents at the White House showing the Obama administration improperly unmasked the names of American citizens associated with Mr. Trump who were mentioned in U.S. intelligence reports.
In the interview Tuesday, Ms. Rice said the president’s claim a month ago that Mr. Obama was eavesdropping on him in Trump Tower were “absolutely false.” She said there was no such surveillance “on Trump Tower or Trump individuals.”
“It’s important for everyone to understand that the president of the United States, and people in the White House, do not have the ability to order such collection,” Ms. Rice said. “That can only come from the Justice Department through an established process. It never originates in the White House.”
The allegations by Mr. Nunes have led to partisan acrimony on the House Intelligence Committee, with Democratic members saying his actions have jeopardized the independence and credibility of their investigation into alleged Russian interference in the campaign.
His accusations also have spotlighted the process of so-called unmasking. Foreigners who are the targets of U.S. surveillance often speak to U.S. citizens, or may mention U.S. citizens when talking to one another. When an intelligence agency produces a report describing those conversations, it removes the name of the U.S. citizen to protect his or her privacy and replaces the name with a generic designation such as “U.S. Official 1.”
Ms. Rice said a range of top national security officials have the authority to submit a request to the agency that produced the report to learn the name of the U.S. citizen mentioned if they feel it is necessary. The agency then has a process to approve or deny the request, and usually relay the name without broadly disseminating it throughout the national security community, she said.
Ms. Rice cited a hypothetical conversation between two foreigners under surveillance about an American proposing to sell them high-tech bomb making equipment. She said the identity of the American would be critical to assessing the seriousness of the threat.
“Is this some kook sitting in his living room communicating via the internet, offering to sell something he doesn’t have?” she said. “Or is it a serious person or company or entity with the ability to provide that technology, perhaps to an adversary? That would be an example of a case where knowing who the U.S. person was necessary to assess the information.”
Mr. Nunes has alleged the Obama administration improperly unmasked the names of Trump associates who turned up in intelligence reports incidentally, as a result of surveillance on foreign officials.
“There are reasons to unmask names,” Mr. Nunes said last month. “I can tell you without question at least some of what I have seen, I don’t know what that reason would be. Maybe someone has a good reason for it, but not from what I have been able to read.”
Mr. Nunes also has said there was no tapping of Trump Tower, contradicting Mr. Trump’s claims.
Ms. Rice said she couldn’t get into which names were unmasked in specific reports. “I don’t know what Devin Nunes reviewed at the White House,” she said. “What I can say is that there is an established process for senior national security officials to ask for the identity of U.S. persons in these reports.”
She said she didn’t know what reports were being referred to “by those who are putting out this story.”
“I don’t know what time frame they were from, I don’t know the subject matter, and I don’t know who they think was collected upon,” she said.
Ms. Rice also said she didn’t leak the name of Mr. Flynn, who resigned from the White House after misrepresenting his contacts with the Russian ambassador to fellow members of the Trump administration.
“I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would,” Ms. Rice said.
Russia has denied allegations that it meddled in the U.S. election.