Washington – Ever since Michael Flynn resigned as Donald Trump’s national security adviser three years ago, Trump and his allies have taken an interest in the practice of “unmasking.” Now his administration has revealed the names of the Obama officials who learned Flynn’s name in intelligence reports, but the information isn’t a smoking gun.
Unmasking is a practice that allows senior officials to request the names of U.S. citizens caught up in the surveillance of foreign targets. Former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, made dozens of requests during the presidential transition to unmask the identities of U.S. citizens. On Wednesday, the acting director of national intelligence, responding to a request from Sen. Charles Grassley, Ric Grenell, declassified a list of 39 Obama administration officials who made unmasking requests between Nov. 8, 2016, and Jan. 31, 2017, that yielded Flynn’s name in National Security Agency intercepts.
In addition to former Vice President and current presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, it includes a number of ambassadors and Treasury Department officials.
This suggests that more senior government officials can request and receive information from these kinds of intercepts than the public realizes. This should raise concerns that the unmasking process is too permissive and available to too many people in government. At the same time, the list of unmasking requests does very little to advance the public’s understanding of who leaked Flynn’s name to the press during the presidential transition. That was the reason Trump and his supporters took an interest in unmasking in the first place.
Flynn’s name was unmasked in an intercept of his Dec. 29, 2016, call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Former FBI Director James Comey told the House Intelligence Community in 2017 that he ordered the unmasking and shared it with a small group within the intelligence community and Obama administration. That testimony was declassified last week as part of the Justice Department’s motion to drop charges against Flynn for lying to FBI agents in an interview about his call with Kislyak.
In his 2017 testimony, Comey said he informed Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about the Flynn-Kislyak call. It’s likely that Clapper informed Obama himself about it. Recently declassified documents show that Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general during the presidential transition, learned about that call from Obama himself at an Oval Office meeting on Jan. 5, 2017.
Comey said the bureau found the intercept as it was trying to figure out why the Kremlin did not respond to the decision to expel 35 Russian spies using diplomatic cover and impose minor sanctions as payback for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Sure enough, Flynn urged the ambassador not to escalate in response to Obama’s actions in that call. Comey said this was enough to keep the investigation open, even though it was nearly closed Jan. 4.
In its motion to drop charges, the Justice Department says Comey had no good reason to continue the counter-intelligence investigation into Flynn after it was scheduled to close. Flynn’s message to Kislyak, it says, “was consistent with him advocating for, not against, the interests of the United States.”
Details of Flynn’s December 2016 phone conversation were first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on Jan. 12, 2017, causing a major controversy for the incoming administration. When Vice President-elect Mike Pence addressed the column on “Face the Nation” on Jan. 15, he denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions. Less than a month later, Flynn would be fired for lying to Pence — after the FBI had interviewed Flynn and Comey shared the transcripts of the call with the White House.
How a routine phone call between an incoming national security adviser and the Russian ambassador helped launch a 2½-year investigation of a new president remains an important story. But Grenell’s declassification does not help explain it.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.