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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's national intelligence director next month will tighten rules for providing government officials the names of Americans whose identities are blacked out in classified spy reports.
The new policy aims to stiffen existing safeguards to ensure that names aren't disclosed for political reasons, especially during presidential transitions. Republicans have alleged that Obama administration officials improperly shared the identities of members of Trump's presidential transition team who were mentioned in intelligence reports.
Democrats insist there already are tough rules in place to guide the process known as "unmasking." They say there is no evidence that any identities of Trump transition officials were improperly revealed.
National Intelligence Director Dan Coats told lawmakers about the forthcoming policy last week in a letter. The letter, obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, was first reported by Reuters.
When a U.S. intelligence agency, such as the National Security Agency, conducts surveillance of a foreigner, sometimes that surveillance picks up the name of an American. Intelligence analysts are obligated to hide the name, but government officials with proper security clearances can ask for the intelligence agency to disclose the person's identity.
This doesn't mean that the American's name becomes public. Unmasking is typically done internally, on a case-by-case basis, because the official is requesting the name to understand the full context of the classified report. Records are kept of each request.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House intelligence committee, wrote a letter to Coats in July saying that senior government officials in the Obama administration had "easy access" to the names of Americans omitted from intelligence reports and sometimes provided little justification for requesting their identities.
"We have found that the intelligence community's U.S. person unmasking policies are inadequate to prevent abuse, such as political spying," Nunes wrote.
Nunes attached provisions to strengthen unmasking procedures to a bill reauthorizing a key foreign intelligence collection program known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Democrats called it a political stunt and voted against the measure, but it still passed the committee.
"We've uncovered not a scintilla of evidence that there was ever any improper unmasking of anything in the 702 program," Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat, said when the bill passed the committee on Dec. 1.
There are several versions for reauthorizing the foreign surveillance program floating around Congress. Some people tracking the progress suggested on Friday that Coats' upcoming policy might result in the unmasking provisions being stripped from the House intelligence committee version to make it more acceptable to Democrats.
In his letter to Congress, Coats said his new policy requires each intelligence agency to have procedures for responding to any request for identifying a U.S. person in an intelligence report. The procedures must require adequate justifications for the requests, he said.
The procedures will further clarify existing rules, making clear that intelligence agencies cannot engage in any intelligence activity, including dissemination of U.S. person identities, to the White House for the purpose of influencing the U.S. political process, he wrote.
"In addition, this policy will require heightened levels of approval for requests made during a presidential transition when these requests relate to known members of a president-elect's transition team," Coats wrote.
Intelligence agencies say that in 2016, government officials requested to know the identities of more than 1,900 Americans whose information was swept up in National Security Agency surveillance programs last year. The identities of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents were found in 3,914 intelligence reports the NSA distributed last year. In 2015, government officials requested the unmasking of 2,232 identities.