What’s the story?
- Numerous Obama administration officials ― including Vice President Joe Biden, FBI Director James Comey, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough ― are on a list of individuals who may have unmasked Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s identity in redacted call transcripts gathered through NSA surveillance according to declassified documents released Wednesday.
- The documents reveal unmasking requests made by Obama administration officials during the presidential transition period from November 8, 2016 (when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton) to January 31, 2017 (11 days after Trump’s inauguration).
- At the request of Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) & Ron Johnson (R-WI), the documents were released by Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell after he consulted with NSA Director General Paul Nakasone & Attorney General William Barr.
Notable Unmaskers Revealed
- The following high-level Obama administration officials were identified as making unmasking requests on the following dates during the 11/8/2016 to 1/31/2017 period:
- Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power: 11/30/2016, 12/2/2016, 12/7/2016, 12/14/2016 (two requests), 12/23/2016, and 1/11/2017
- Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: 12/2/2016, 12/28/2016, and 1/7/2017
- CIA Director John Brennan: 12/14/2016 and 12/15/2016
- Treasury Secretary Jack Lew: 12/14/2016 and 1/12/2017
- FBI Director James Comey: 12/15/2016
- Chief of Staff to the President of the U.S. Denis McDonough: 1/5/2017
- Vice President Joe Biden: 1/12/2017
What does it mean?
- While the Obama officials on the list had legal authority to request the unmasking and it’s unclear if or when they reviewed the documents, Flynn’s identity was leaked and published by The Washington Post on January 12, 2017. It is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to leak the contents of classified U.S. intelligence, and an investigation of the Flynn leak is part of an ongoing probe by U.S. Attorney John Durham.
- It’s also unclear whether the officials themselves did the unmasking or whether it was done by a subordinate using their boss’s authority. For example, Obama era UN Ambassador Samantha Power is listed as requesting Flynn’s identity to be unmasked seven times during this period and has been associated with the unmasking of hundreds of other people but testified under oath to Congress that she didn’t personally make many of the requests attributed to her.
- During the period detailed in the documents, Flynn was investigated for Russian collusion stemming from his surveilled call with the Russian ambassador. The FBI found “no derogatory information” to support that allegation but nonetheless held an interview with Flynn in which he lied & later prompted his resignation. Flynn eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of lying to investigators, which the Justice Dept. is attempting to drop.
What is unmasking?
- When U.S. intelligence agencies like the NSA conduct surveillance of foreign targets and an American citizen’s communications are collected in that process, their identity is “masked” in call transcripts and other related government documents to protect their privacy.
- This “masking” is done to comply with “minimization” standards that are required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
- There are dozens of officials at intelligence agencies with unmasking authority. Each agency has its own procedures for minimization & unmasking.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Biden & McDonough in the Oval Office - Obama White House via Flickr / Public Domain)
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