OPINION: Masking, unmasking, and assorted distractions

If there is one operative rule in Washington’s left-right paradigm, it is to shift the focus of any conversation that seems at risk of revealing something approximating truth — a game at which the current administration and its media surrogates happen to excel.

Thus, the focus early this week was on the “unmasking” of Trump campaign and transition team members who turned up in surveilled communications with foreigners. This unmasking (the naming of said team members) loosely corresponds to Donald Trump’s claim that President Obama was wiretapping him during the transition.

This back-and-forth history is familiar by now. There was no wiretapping, a James Bond-ish technique by which Trump really meant all forms of surveillance, according to press secretary Sean Spicer. But, as we recently learned, some Trump folks were “incidentally” picked up during the foreign surveillance. We don’t yet know whether these included Russians.

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Maybe they were discussing the high price of kohlrabi, maybe not. Unmasking, it should be noted, is generally not done unless there are serious reasons to think it essential for national security. People captured “incidentally” have their names blacked out in deference to their privacy, such as it remains.

Next we hear allegations that former national security adviser Susan Rice sought to unmask the names of Americans affiliated with Trump’s team who appeared in foreign surveillance intelligence reports. This doesn’t seem to be quite the scandal so many on the right wished it to be. The urgent spin from Trump Quarters was that Rice was conducting a spy operation for political purposes. This would have been intriguing but difficult to pull off unless everyone in the intelligence community were in on the scheme.

First, neither Rice nor any other official has the authority to unmask American citizens out of mere curiosity, as she explained in an MSNBC interview. Rice, as well as other officials, could request an intelligence review to determine whether there were legitimate national security reasons to identify them.

Were they talking cabbage? Or, were they discussing a potential U.S. withdrawal from NATO? Wouldn’t we like to know?

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Some reports said Rice did request a review and receive names, but she adamantly denied leaking any names, saying that this would have constituted releasing classified information. One name unmasked in intelligence reports was Michael Flynn, who resigned after it was revealed that he mischaracterized to Vice President Mike Pence conversations he had with the Russian ambassador. Only later did we learn of Flynn’s $500,000 public-relations job with Turkey.

You see how the focus keeps getting directed away from Russia to the Obama administration or any other handy object. Trump continues to blame poor sportsmanship for all his travails, including any fact-based reporting that contradicts his primary intelligences sources, Fox News and Breitbart News. (And, perhaps, his Magic 8-Ball.) If there’s nothing to see here, why the constant shifting of public attention from the grizzly bear to the kid with a slingshot?

Is there anyone left in America who doesn’t think that Russia’s hacking and interference with the 2016 election don’t deserve a thorough investigation? Yes, there is. On his Fox News show, the formerly bow-tied but still adorable Tucker Carlson is leading a charge that we don’t really know that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and delivered emails to WikiLeaks that were released at just the right moment to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

We onl think we know this, and why? Well, because every American intelligence agency has said so. Moving on.

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Next in the series of “Look Over There!” is a tweet from the president’s son Donald Jr. praising the “reporter” who pointed to Rice as an unmasker. “Congrats to @cernovich for breaking the #SusanRice story,” he tweeted like-father-like-son-ly. “In a long gone time of unbiased journalism he’d win the Pulitzer, but not today!”

Actually, there are several Pulitzers awarded each year, but Mike Cernovich, who has said he became an Alt-Righter when he realized that diversity really meant “white genocide,” isn’t likely to receive one for pointing out that Rice was doing her job.

En fin, the crucial unmasking — Who is that masked man in the White House? — is yet to come. For now, we know that the most important aspect of the Russia-hacking-wire-tapping-spying-Susan-Rice story is that Trump’s transition team was in contact with Russian operatives and others — and it would be nice to know that they were only exploring critical questions related to cabbage.

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