Intel chief releases info on ‘unmasking’ of Flynn to Capitol Hill

Source: Politico | May 13, 2020 | Andrew Desiderio and Betsy Woodruff Swan

The list of names includes former Vice President Joe Biden.

Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell on Wednesday sent top Republican senators a list of former senior Obama administration officials who might have been involved in efforts that “unmasked” former national security adviser Michael Flynn — including former Vice President Joe Biden.

The release comes amid a furious campaign by President Donald Trump and his allies to accuse former President Barack Obama and his top deputies of illegally targeting the Trump campaign and the incoming Trump administration. In recent days, the president has coined the term “Obamagate” to accuse his predecessor of seeking to undermine him and target his top associates — though he has struggled to articulate or prove any specific wrongdoing.

Grenell sent the list, which includes former officials who made “unmasking” requests that might have identified Flynn, to Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) a day after the lawmakers wrote to Grenell and Attorney General William Barr calling on them to release information about efforts by Obama administration officials to “unmask” U.S. citizens who were subject to government surveillance.

The list, obtained by POLITICO, also includes high-level officials such as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director James Comey, and former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Thirty-nine people in total are listed, ranging from White House officials to diplomats and Treasury Department officials. Grenell declassified the list last week.

The unmasking requests came amid the officials’ escalating concerns about the Trump campaign and transition team’s contacts with Russian officials — concerns that would culminate in a special counsel investigation that has consumed much of Trump’s presidency.

National security officials can seek to reveal the identity of individuals involved in conversations subject to government surveillance, a process known as “unmasking.” Such requests are common; for example, last year alone, U.S. spy agencies were asked 7,724 times to reveal the identities of Americans caught up in those intelligence intercepts.

An accompanying memo to Grenell, signed by National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone, notes that each person was “an authorized recipient” of the information and that the unmasking was approved through the agency’s normal protocol.

Johnson and Grassley, who are spearheading an investigation targeting Biden‘s son Hunter, have drawn scrutiny from Democrats who say they are using the Senate to boost Trump’s political fortunes. But the senators say their efforts are intended to seek accountability over alleged wrongdoing surrounding the origins of the Russia investigation.

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The memo authored by Nakasone includes details about the date range of the unmasking requests, though several dates listed for individual unmasking requests were before Flynn’s Dec. 29 phone call with the former Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. The Justice Department dropped its criminal case last week against Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his phone call with Kislyak, but later said he had been railroaded into doing so.

“Per your email request of 3 May 2020, I am providing a revised list of identities of any officials who submitted requests to the National Security Agency at any point between 8 November 2016 and 31 January 2017 to unmask the identity of former National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn (USA-Ret),” Nakasone wrote.

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It also includes a note of caution: “While the principals are identified below, we cannot confirm they saw the unmasked information.”

Biden has denied wrongdoing in connection with the Flynn case.

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Sally Yates, who served as acting attorney general at the beginning of the Trump presidency, previously warned in congressional testimony that Flynn could be subject to blackmail from the Russians as a result of his conversations with Kislyak. It was Yates who expressed those concerns privately to then White House Counsel Don McGahn, leading to Flynn’s firing.

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    The Public Record Claims that Flynn Had No Permission from Trump to Undermine US Policy in Calling Kislyak

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    When Russia did not respond to the December 2016 sanctions, per Jim Comey’s testimony, the Intelligence Community tasked its members to learn why not.

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    Some days later, the FBI provided an answer: because someone had called up Russia and asked them not to escalate, and days later Russia had called up and told the same person that Vladimir Putin had not responded because of his call. Imagine the possible implications of this call without the identity. The call could reflect an amazingly powerful private individual who for some reason had the ability to make Vladimir Putin to take action against his stated interests. Or it could reflect something fairly routine. You had to know who made the call to figure out which it was.

    In his testimony, Comey made it clear that, 1) they did unmask Flynn’s name but 2) the FBI issued no finalized report on this, meaning they were protecting the discovery from wider dissemination.

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    In short, even today, there is no evidence that Flynn had any permission from Trump to make this call. For over three years, Flynn and Trump have insisted he did not, which makes the significance of the intercept very different.

    The public record, over three years later, is that Mike Flynn called up the country that just attacked us and — with no permission from Trump to do so — undermined the foreign policy of the United States.

    So two things happened with this intercept.

    At first, the fact that it was made by the incoming National Security Advisor led top DOJ officials to treat it with deferral. That is, they decided the meaning and the context was that of an incoming NSA calling foreign countries, and therefore fairly routine.

    But ten days later, the transcript would look like something entirely different, the incoming NSA — who had received direct payments from Russia in the years leading up to this action — acting on his own with the Russian Ambassador. The President specifically denied having any role in the calls and fired Flynn (though said he didn’t mind the call). He went to some lengths to create a record to substantiate that he had not spoken to Flynn about it.

    It would take ten months before prosecutors would have testimony (they had call records reflecting calls by March and probably had emails by August 2017) reflecting any consultation on Flynn’s part with any of his colleagues. Until they got that testimony, Flynn would have looked like had gone rogue, and decided to not only undermine Obama’s policy, but to set Trump’s policy, all on his own.

    Either of those situations would justify unmasking someone’s identity. In either one of those situations, the FBI and other national security officials would have an obligation to track who was undermining the punishment for an attack by a hostile government, whether they deferred to it (in the case for the period when it seemed routine outreach) or investigated it (once it became clear the official was lying about it).

    To suggest or even parrot, as Trump’s lackeys are, that this was a partisan decision suggests the United States should ignore when top national security officials appear to go rogue, undermining the current Administration without any evidence of sanction from the incoming one.

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