Trump Restricts ‘Unmasking’ of Citizens Caught in Surveillance

U.S. President Donald Trump walks towards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Jan. 5. 

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

President Donald Trump ordered the Director of National Intelligence to develop new procedures to handle requests from government officials who ask for the identities of U.S. citizens swept up in foreign intelligence surveillance.

The memo, released Tuesday by the White House, requires each branch of the intelligence community to publicly release information about how they plan to respond to requests from government officials to "unmask" U.S. citizens caught up in the sweeps. The directive is intended to improve the efficiency of the unmasking request system and ensure compliance with privacy laws, according to a White House official who requested anonymity to discuss the new policy.

The directive comes after complaints from Republican lawmakers that members of the Obama administration requested and received information about Trump transition team members who were caught by American intelligence services communicating with foreign officials. That included former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying about contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Obama officials have described the requests as routine efforts to understand the travel and actions of foreign officials, while Trump allies have argued the unmasking incidents validate the president’s unsubstantiated claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.

The move also came on the same day that dozens of conservative lawmakers in the House Freedom Caucus said they wouldn’t support a bill extending the government’s ability to spy on foreign communications. Provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, are set to expire on Jan. 19 unless lawmakers act. Critics of the legislation say spy programs can collect the conversations of U.S. citizens if they are speaking with or linked to foreign individuals.

“The House Freedom Caucus is opposed to the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 because it allows the government to collect and search Americans’ communications without a warrant,” the caucus said in a statement.

The White House said Tuesday renewing the FISA authorities was "vital to keeping the nation safe" in a statement released by the Office and Management and Budget.

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