The Susan Rice situation is murky, but one thing that’s crystal clear is that she’s changing her story.
And that is raising a whole lot of questions about the tangled allegations that the Obama administration “unmasked” Donald Trump or his associates when they were picked up on foreign intercepts.
When Rice was asked about this by PBS’s Judy Woodruff a couple of weeks ago, the former national security adviser said she knew nothing about it and was just learning about it from news reports.
But in the wake of reports by Fox News and Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that Rice had done the unmasking, she broke her silence yesterday on MSNBC.
“It was not uncommon” to make these requests and “necessary” to do her job, Rice told Andrea Mitchell. She needed to know the names of the Americans picked up on the intercepts, but it’s “absolutely false” to say this was done “for political purposes.”
So she’s now gone from professed ignorance to nothing improper.
In fairness to Rice, it may turn out that what she did was perfectly legal. But there are now a whole host of troubling questions.
Did she seek the identities of Trump folks solely for intelligence reasons, or did she have political motivations?
Who did she share the information with?
Did she leak any of the findings, or cause them to be leaked? Rice denied leaking anything to do with her successor, Michael Flynn, whose false denials about contacts with the Russian ambassador led President Trump to fire him. “I leaked nothing to nobody and never have and never would,” she said.
This brings us to the role of the media.
Since the allegations were minimized yesterday by the Washington Post and New York Times (with the Times depicting them as something bouncing around conservative media), some critics on the right say they are covering for Rice. ABC and NBC didn't cover them on Monday's evening newscasts, while the "CBS Evening News" quoted a former official as saying Rice did "nothing improper or political."
I’d suggest the situation is complicated. It looks to me that many news outlets were unable to confirm the allegations, which raises the dilemma of whether you publish something based on other outlets citing unnamed sources when your own reporters can’t verify it.
Of course, some of these same outlets have run with stories, also involving anonymous sources, about alleged collusion between Trump associates and Russia.
It’s fair to say they are more enthusiastic about that story.
But there’s a difference between not confirming publishing allegations and denigrating them, which is what some at CNN have been doing.
Anchor Don Lemon told viewers “we will not insult your intelligence” by suggesting the Trump team was spied on illegally, “nor will we aid and abet the people who are trying to misinform you, the American people, by creating a diversion.”
How does Lemon know it’s a diversion? Shouldn’t he want to know all the facts? It’s true that the latest story does not confirm Trump’s original charge that the previous administration targeted him for wiretapping, but that doesn’t mean other surveillance was properly handled.
CNN’s national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, was equally condescending, saying the Bloomberg scoop on Rice was “largely ginned up, partly as a distraction from this larger investigation.”
Not only is Sciutto dismissing legitimate questions, he worked for the Obama State Department as a diplomat from 2011 to 2013. I think the better course would have been to recuse himself.
Right now the media are on two different planets: Those more interested in proving a Russia/Trump conspiracy and those more interested in proving an Obama surveillance conspiracy. Hard facts are hard to come by, but it would be nice if the same standards were applied to both parts of this bizarre story.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.