Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power is expected to testify this fall behind closed doors to the House Intelligence Committee as part of its Russia probe, and one of the big unanswered questions will be why, during her final year as chief U.S. envoy to the U.N., she apparently made hundreds of requests for the unmasking in U.S. intelligence intercepts of the identities of American citizens.
Those identities are closely guarded under Fourth Amendment constitutional protection, and one of lawmakers’ chief concerns, according to Jason Chaffetz, former chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (and now a Fox News contributor) “is the overall perceived ramp-up in the number of unmasking requests” during a sensitive election year.
Although Power, 46, also was a member of the administration’s National Security Council, Chaffetz told Fox News, “the U.N. is a highly suspicious perch from which those requests were made.”
No one has accused Power of any wrong-doing. Nonetheless, congressional investigators have been trying to track down how classified information including the unmasked names of U.S. individuals --notably Michael Flynn, later President Trump’s national security adviser -- leaked to the press.
In a statement last month, Power’s lawyer, David Pressman, declared that “Any insinuation that Ambassador Power was involved in leaking classified information is absolutely false.”
Pressman will likely accompany Power to any investigation panel hearing, since he was expressly hired as her attorney for the issue. Interestingly enough, the lawyer was also someone she described last year as “my partner” at the U.S. Mission to the U.N. At the time, Pressman was one of the Mission’s three top diplomats and a fast-rising star in the Obama administration whose job meant he was privy to many of the Mission’s most sensitive concerns.
Pressman was more than a close aide to Power. He served as her alternate on the U.N. Security Council, the U.N.’s most sensitive venue, with the rank of Ambassador for Special Political Affairs. His office on the 12th floor of the U.S. mission building in New York was steps away from hers, part of a suite for Power and her two top deputies. According to a former mission insider, they conferred constantly. He was himself the recipient of daily intelligence briefings similar to those given Power.
When Pressman left the mission and the Obama Administration last November to go into private legal practice, Power praised him not only as having been “my partner” but as “a tremendous leader of our team,” dealing with issues such as North Korea, the Middle East, and “responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond.”
In other words, if there was anyone working alongside Power in the U.S. government who could serve as a cross-check to legislators on Power’s activities and concerns from her top-level U.N. perch, it would be Pressman. But as it now stands, despite his intimate understanding of those things, Pressman won’t be speaking with the committee as a witness.
In response to questions for this article, a spokesperson for Pressman’s law firm, Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, stated that “Outside of his representation of Amb. Power, David Pressman has not been contacted by the House or Senate Intelligence committees because he has never been involved in any way with the issues those Committees are investigating. He has also never been involved in the so-called ‘unmasking’ of political campaign officials. Any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely false.”
For now, congressional investigators are still puzzling over why Power made unmasking requests on what appears to have been an extraordinary scale. (“Unmasking” means filling in the automatically redacted name of a U.S. person in intelligence intercepts. Within the intelligence community, the carefully prescribed practice is also referred to as “deminimizing.”)
In a July 27 letter to Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes explained his broad concern: “we have found evidence that current and former government officials had easy access to U.S. person information, and it is possible that these officials used this information to achieve partisan political purposes, including the selective, anonymous leaking of such information.”
In the letter, Nunes mentioned that “one official, whose position had no apparent intelligence-related function, made hundreds of unmasking requests during the final year of the Obama administration.” He added while there might have been valid reasons for these hundreds of unmasking requests, “only one offered a justification that was not boilerplate.”
That official is understood to be Power, an inference that neither Power nor her attorney, in his carefully crafted statement on her behalf, has denied.
In all, the committee is known to have subpoenaed the unmasking requests of four former Obama administration senior officials, including Power. The others are former National Security Adviser (and former Ambassador to the U.N.) Susan Rice; former Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes; and former CIA director John Brennan.
Power is the only one whose main job involved, as Nunes put it, no clear intelligence function, though Pressman’s statement underlined her other NSC role, “responsible for advising the President on the full range of threats confronting the United States.”
Power’s requests, however, apparently stand out for their sheer volume. A spokesperson for U.S. intelligence authorities declined to provide Fox News with data on the total number of unmasking requests that the National Security Agency received in 2016. But a report released last year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence notes that in 2015 — the year before the period now under congressional scrutiny — the total number of unmasking requests approved came to 645.
By that rough yardstick, Power’s hundreds of requests in 2016 made with “boilerplate” justifications, loom as extremely high.
By contrast, former diplomat John Bolton told Fox News that during four years dealing with ultrasensitive nonproliferation issues in the State Department from 2001 to 2005, he made 10 unmasking requests. During 16 months as ambassador to the UN, from 2005 to 2006, he added, “I may have asked for one or two names to be deminimized, but that was about it.” (Bolton is also a Fox News contributor).
It’s unclear how Power’s role on Obama’s NSC tied in to her primary responsibility as a U.S. Ambassador, for which she was confirmed by the Senate in 2013. The archived Obama White House web site lists a dozen high-level government posts whose occupants routinely attended, or were invited to attend, NSC meetings. The position of U.S. Ambassador to the UN is not among them.
Power did, however, have longstanding, close connections to the Obama White House, where during Barack Obama’s first term she worked as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the national security staff. Prior to that, she was an early and active Obama supporter who, in 2008, famously referred to his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, as a “monster.”
As it happens, in her White House role, one of her close associates was the same David Pressman who later became her alternate to the UN, and is now her lawyer.
Like Power, Pressman joined the Obama administration in 2009. After a brief spell as a counselor at the Department of Homeland Security, he was detailed to the NSC from 2010 to 2011, as Director for War Crimes and Atrocities, working shoulder-to-shoulder with Power.
In 2011, the duo coauthored an article, published on the White House web site, discussing “atrocity prevention measures.” This was an accompaniment to Obama’s creation under the umbrella of the NSC of the Atrocities Prevention Board, chaired by Power, on which Pressman also served.
So if congressional investigators are seeking context on Power and the nexus between the concerns of the U.S. mission to the U.N. and the Obama NSC, as well as national security matters in general, Pressman’s resume encompasses it all.
In response to a question from Fox News, a spokesperson for Pressman’s law firm underlined that “he did not have access to the same classified material as a Principal on the National Security Council," although that assertion does not necessarily cover the material on the basis of which unmasking requests were made.
Pressman’s career, like Power’s, was built on an even earlier involvement in politics and human rights advocacy. According to his law firm’s website, he worked as an aide to the Clinton administration’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright; her tenure ended in 2001. He graduated from New York University’s law school in 2004, worked on the ill-starred John Kerry presidential campaign, and over the next four years did stints with the American Civil Liberties Union in Chicago and the controversial, left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center.
He also clerked for the Supreme Court of Rwanda and worked with high-profile leftist lawyer Ron Kuby, among other things assisting in advocating on behalf of Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist sentenced to life in prison for shooting two FBI agents.
By 2006 Pressman had also formed a high-profile relationship with movie star George Clooney, a relationship so close that a 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times referred to Pressman as Clooney’s “consiglieri,” and reported that Clooney referred to Pressman as “Cuz.”
Pressman accompanied Clooney on a 2006 trip to Darfur, and co-founded with Clooney an advocacy organization called Not On Our Watch, which was joined by Hollywood celebrities Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.
Hired in 2009 into the nascent Obama administration, Pressman worked initially at the Department of Homeland Security as a counselor for Deputy Secretary Jane Holl Lute, whose previous job had been at the UN, as Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support.
He then worked with Power on the NSC from 2010-2011, before returning to Homeland Security from 2011-2013 as Assistant Secretary for Policy Development — a post that would necessarily have entailed familiarity with matters of national security as well as the handling of classified information.
In 2013, shortly after Power took up her post as ambassador to the UN, Pressman became her counselor at the U.S. Mission. In 2014, Obama nominated Pressman to serve as Power’s alternate with the rank of ambassador, a post to which Pressman was confirmed on Sept. 17, 2014, and in which he served until he left the administration on Nov. 3, 2016, the week before the presidential election.
Now in private practice, Pressman is also serving as the executive director of the newly established Clooney Foundation for Justice—which among other things has partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center and provided $1 million in funding, according to the foundation’s website, “to immediately expand the Center’s efforts to combat hate groups in the United States.”
As it happens, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s methods and tactics have come under harsh criticism from political conservatives and moderates in past weeks, for tarring Christian groups that oppose gay marriage and advocate for religious freedom as “hate groups” and stigmatizing critics of Islam, like the human rights activist and feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as “extremists.”
Back in 2006, in an NYU alumnus interview, Pressman described the essence of his job as a civil rights lawyer and political strategist as “trying to render the invisible, visible.”
But when and if Samantha Power appears before congressional committee members in their probe, he is going to be a singularly well-qualified presence operating in the shadows of their current legal relationship.