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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.

Go deeper

Top Democrats demand intel chief resume election security briefings

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AFP via Getty Images.

Top Democrats in a letter on Tuesday demanded that Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe resume in-person congressional briefings on election security, which he abruptly halted last week, citing leaks of classified material.

Why it matters: Democrats, outraged over Ratcliffe's suspension of the briefings less than three months before the election, threatened to "consider the full range of tools available to compel compliance," which would likely include a subpoena and the withholding of funds to the top intelligence chief's office.

Barr issues new rules on FBI surveillance of political campaigns

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Justice Department on Tuesday announced a series of reforms to ensure oversight and accountability over the FBI's process for applying for warrants to conduct surveillance on elected officials and political campaigns.

The big picture: The changes come months after the DOJ inspector general flagged "significant inaccuracies and omissions" in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) applications used for 2016 Trump campaign official Carter Page during the FBI's Russia investigation.

Updated 25 mins ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.