May 13, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Intel chief names Obama officials who requested "unmasking" in Flynn reports

Richard Grenell

Acting DNI Richard Grenell. Photo: Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

Two Republican senators on Wednesday released a declassified list from acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell naming the Obama administration officials who asked to "unmask" the identity of Michael Flynn when he was under government surveillance.

Why it matters: President Trump's allies have long claimed that the Russia investigation was a political hit job by the Obama administration. The presence of Joe Biden on the list is likely to be weaponized by the Trump campaign as an election-year issue, though the document itself does not show any evidence of wrongdoing.

  • The release also comes a day after a federal judge put a hold on the Justice Department's effort to drop its case against Flynn.

The big picture: The names of Americans swept up in wiretaps of foreign officials are generally redacted to prevent any potential for improper domestic surveillance. "Unmasking" requests are routine, but officials must provide a justification for viewing the information — like seeking to better understand the significance of a foreign intercept, per the New York Times.

  • The officials named in the list — released by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — submitted requests to the National Security Agency between November 2016 and January 2017 to learn the identity of Flynn, who had been referred to in a foreign intelligence report.
  • Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
  • Each request came from "an authorized recipient" of the original intelligence report who received approval through the NSA's "standard process," which includes "a review of the justification for the request."

Among the prominent names listed in the declassified report, along with the date of the first request:

  • Nov. 30: U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power
  • Dec. 2: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper
  • Dec. 14: CIA Director John Brennan
  • Dec. 15: FBI Director James Comey
  • Jan. 12: Vice President Joe Biden

Between the lines: The presence of Biden and other top officials revealed by Grenell's unusual move to declassify the list has already been cited by Trump's allies, including his campaign, as evidence of wrongdoing.

  • But there's no evidence to suggest that the senior officials on the list acted improperly in requesting to learn Flynn's identity, which would not have been shown in the intelligence report until the unmasking.
  • The document also notes that it cannot be confirmed that the officials actually saw the information — only that they requested it.
  • Before the list was released, Biden told ABC News on Tuesday that he was aware there was an investigation into Flynn, but insisted "that's all I know about it."

What they're saying: "The officials listed should confirm whether they reviewed this information, why they asked for it and what they did with it, and answer many other questions that have been raised by recent revelations,” Johnson and Grassley said in a statement. "We are making this public because the American people have a right to know what happened."

Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates released the following statement on Wednesday:

"These documents simply indicate the breadth and depth of concern across the American government -- including among career officials -- over intelligence reports of Michael Flynn’s attempts to undermine ongoing American national security policy through discussions with Russian officials or other foreign representatives.  Importantly, none of these individuals could have known Flynn's identity beforehand.  These documents have absolutely nothing to do with any FBI investigation and they confirm that all normal procedures were followed -- any suggestion otherwise is a flat out lie. ... The only people with questions to answer are Grenell, Sen. Grassley, and Sen. Johnson for their gross politicization of the intelligence process."

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