Susan Rice, in her first public comments on claims she sought to ‘unmask’ the names of Trump associates caught up in surveillance, acknowledged Tuesday that she asked for the identities of U.S. citizens in intelligence reports – but defended the requests as routine and denied leaking any Trump-related information.
"I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have," the former Obama national security adviser told MSNBC.
She said she never sought to unmask the names of Trump associates in intelligence reports "for any political purposes" or spying purposes.
"This is not anything political as has been alleged," Rice said. "The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That is absolutely false."
"I leaked nothing to nobody, and never have."
- Susan Rice
Rather, Rice said she sometimes sought the names of people in intelligence reports, as part of her job.
"The intelligence community made the determination whether the identity of that American individual could be provided to me," Rice said.
The Tuesday interview with MSNBC occurred after sources told Fox News that Rice had sought to unmask the names of Trump team members caught up in incidental surveillance of foreign targets. Those names were then widely disseminated.
Rice on Tuesday flatly denied leaking the identity of President Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and also batted down Trump's claim in early March that the Obama administration had "wiretapped" Trump Tower.
Rice spoke in generalities about the unmasking process, emphasizing that intelligence reports were first brought to her and that she did not "solicit reports."
"I receive those reports, as did each of those other officials, and there were occasions when I would receive a report when a U.S. person was referred to. Name not provided, just U.S. person," Rice said. "And sometimes in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report and understand its significance, it was necessary to find out who that U.S. person was."
Many of Rice's defenders contend that unmasking was a normal and routine task for a national security adviser, but others who have been directly involved in intelligence collection say that's not the case.
"From my direct experience dealing at this level, that is never done," retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer told Fox News. "The national security adviser is a manager position, not an analyst position. You have analysts in the intelligence community whose job is to sort through who is doing what with what. Susan Rice is a senior manager looking over the entire intelligence community. She should not have time to be unmasking individuals having conversations.”
After the Rice interview, Trump's director of social media, Dan Scavino, tweeted from his personal account that "Lyin', leakin' Susan Rice stammered through her soft ball interview with Dem PR person Andrea Mitchell."
As some GOP lawmakers now call on Rice to testify, he added: "Rice won't agree to testify because she won't get away with lying to Congress like she did with Benghazi?"
Rice on Tuesday also said unmasked intelligence reports were not passed around.
"That would come back only to the person who requested it, and it would be brought back to them directly," Rice said.
She never explicitly stated Trump associates were unmasked in the reports, saying to talk about specifics would be to reveal "classified information." Rice did, however, allow that it was "possible" some Trump associates could have been caught up in incidental collection.
She drew a strong distinction between those who had been leaking details from the reports to newspapers -- leaks that largely benefited the outgoing Obama administration or wounded the incoming Trump administration -- and her actions.
"There's no equivalence between so-called 'unmasking' and leaking," Rice said.
While Rice spoke, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff released a statement explaining incidental collection and echoing Rice's words that unmasking is typically done to understand context and value of intelligence.