May 27, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The Michael Flynn "unmasking" controversy unmasked

Trump and Obama.
Former President Obama and President Trump. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump and his allies have made a lot of noise about purported Obama administration wrongdoing via the “unmasking” of then-incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn’s identity in reports of intercepted conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016–17 presidential transition.

The big picture: This is, at bottom, a manufactured controversy. Neither the interception of Kislyak’s calls nor the requests by senior U.S. officials to know whom he was speaking with about sanctions relief were unusual in and of themselves, though the context — the Russian election interference scheme in 2016 — certainly was.

Yes, but: What is unusual is the declassification of this request log by former acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell.

  • Its motivation appears political: to muddy the waters about what transpired in 2016 and to tar 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who was among the U.S. officials who at the time requested an “unmasking” of Flynn’s identity. (Indeed, according to the Washington Post, Flynn’s name wasn’t actually even masked on FBI documents related to the call.)

How it works: Unmasking is a routine operation in the U.S. security bureaucracy.

  • All over the world, U.S. citizens and U.S. officials bump up against legal and legitimate targets of surveillance under U.S. law, often under entirely benign circumstances.
  • “If I, in standing requirements, am targeting Putin’s or Erdogan’s inner circle, you’re going to collect [intelligence] incidentally” on U.S. officials, says a former U.S. intelligence official.
  • Indeed, if you’re a U.S. diplomat, it’s your job to be interacting with these folks. You’re going to get picked up on U.S. surveillance. (And almost certainly the surveillance of other countries as well.)
  • The process for reporting on U.S. persons whose communications are collected “incidentally” (that is, not as the intended target of surveillance) in conversations with an intelligence target is to “mask” them — to hide their names for privacy reasons.
  • But sometimes U.S. officials can request that these hidden identities be “unmasked” — that is, revealed — to better understand the context or import of the conversation.

There were more than 10,000 such requests in 2019.

  • There are just some reports that “you know when you write it, you’re going to get an unmasking request,” said the same former official.

Our thought bubble: These conversations involved U.S. sanctions relief and the larger policies of the incoming Trump administration toward Russia — policies about which there was great concern, as Russia had just executed a successful influence campaign to help elect Donald Trump president. It would have been a scandal if U.S. counterintelligence officials weren’t alarmed.

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