WASHINGTON — Susan Rice, Barack Obama's national security adviser and the latest target for Donald Trump's embattled defenders, firmly denies that she or other Obama officials used secret intelligence reports to spy on Trump associates for political purposes.
"Absolutely false," Rice declared Tuesday.
The White House has seized on the idea that the Obama administration improperly surveilled the Republican during and after the November election — an accusation Democrats say is just another red herring thrown out to distract attention from investigations of Russian interference in the campaign on behalf of Trump.
Presidential spokesman Sean Spicer cast Rice's handling of intelligence in the waning days of Obama's term as suspicious, although he did not detail what he found to be inappropriate.
"The more we find out about this, the more we learn there was something there," Spicer said.
According to a U.S. official, Rice asked spy agencies to give her the names of Trump associates who surfaced in intelligence reports she was regularly briefed on. Rice's official role would have given her the ability to make those requests for national security purposes.
Rice, in an interview with MSNBC, acknowledged that she sometimes asked for the names of Americans referenced in reports. She would not say whether she saw intelligence related to Trump associates or whether she asked for their identities, though she did say that reports related to Russia increased in the final months of the presidential election.
The Trump White House has been particularly incensed that intercepted conversations between national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia's ambassador to the U.S. surfaced in news reports before the inauguration. Flynn was fired after it became clear that he misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about the content of those discussions.
Rice denied that she had leaked details about Flynn's call, saying, "I leaked nothing to nobody."
The U.S. official said Rice's Trump-related requests were discovered as part of a National Security Council review of the government's policy on "unmasking" — the intelligence community's term for revealing Americans' identities that would otherwise be hidden in classified reports. The review was prompted by a belief that there were inefficiencies in the current procedures and concerns over a policy change made in the closing days of the Obama administration, according to the official, who insisted on anonymity in order to disclose the sensitive information.
In January, the Justice Department and intelligence officials agreed on new rules giving more U.S. agencies access to raw information picked up abroad by the National Security Agency. Privacy advocates have raised concerns that the new rules — which are yet to be fully implemented — would lead to the information being shared too broadly.
The unmasking review was led by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC's senior director of intelligence. Cohen-Watnick has clashed with the CIA and was on the verge of being moved out of his job until Trump political advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner stepped in to keep him in the role.
Cohen-Watnick raised his findings about Rice with the White House counsel's office, according to the official. The counsel's office ordered him to stand down because the lawyers did not want the White House to be running an independent investigation into the prior administration.
Still, the White House has appeared to find other ways to promote the idea that Obama officials were conducting improper surveillance of Trump's team.
In mid-March, House intelligence committee chairman Devin Nunes abruptly announced he had seen "troubling" information about spy agencies widely spreading the identities of Trump associates. The president's advisers quickly embraced Nunes' revelations, but did not acknowledge at the time that the congressman had viewed the information at the White House with the help of White House officials.
It's unclear if the information Nunes received is the same as the materials involving Rice.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, has called on Nunes to recuse himself from the panel's Russia investigation. Schiff now has seen the same intelligence information as his Republican counterpart and has said nothing in it "justifies such duplicitous conduct" on the White House's behalf.
The U.S. routinely monitors the communications of foreigners. The identities of Americans who talk with those foreigners, or who are discussed in conversations between two non-U.S. persons, are masked in intelligence reports.
Rice became a favorite target of conservatives after the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, when she was sent out to do television interviews with talking points about the attacks that later proved to be incorrect. Even Republicans who have been critical of White House efforts to muddy the Russia investigations have said it is imperative to get to the bottom of her handling of Trump-related intelligence.
"When it comes to Susan Rice, you need to verify, not trust," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
AP writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.