“Unmasking” is quickly becoming the word of the week, after allegations published by Bloomberg News and Fox News that former President Barack Obama’s national-security adviser, Susan Rice, requested that the names of Donald Trump associates caught up in incidental surveillance collection be unmasked.
The word itself is defined by Merriam-Webster as to reveal the true nature of or expose, and to remove a mask from. Its first known was in 1562. And much of that traditional definition carries over into the current context.
Alongside a deeper discussion of unmasking of the sort Rice has since been reported to have requested, a story on the website Inverse, coming in the wake of a House Intelligence Committee hearing with FBI chief James Comey and the head of the NSA, Adm. Mike Rogers, advanced a more specialized explanation:
‘Masking and unmasking in this context are the set of rules governing how agencies like the FBI or NSA will treat the information of a U.S. citizen if they come across said citizen in the course of surveilling a foreign adversary, and only a foreign adversary. Collections of this nature are done with a warrant from a foreign intelligence surveillance court, as created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (hence the nickname, FISA Court), which does not directly target U.S. citizens.’
There’s a bit more to this. The unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens, which would more typically be redacted in documents pertaining to such surveillance, requires fulfillment of two criteria, according to testimony from Rogers.
Per Rogers: first, a ”valid need to know,” and, second, an affirmative answer to the question: “Is the identification necessary to truly understand the intelligence value the report is designed to generate?”