WASHINGTON - Attorney General William Barr has tapped an outside federal prosecutor to look into episodes of unmasking involving Obama administration officials - the latest in a series of probes by the Justice Department on issues that matter to President Donald Trump and his allies.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told Fox News host Sean Hannity Wednesday night that Barr has appointed John Bash, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, to look into instances of unmasking before and after the 2016 presidential election.
Unmasking is a common and, until recently, an obscure government practice to reveal the identity of someone who's mentioned in an intelligence report. But it became a hot-button topic among conservatives after the declassification of a document listing the names of government officials who requested to unmask former national security adviser Michael Flynn in the weeks before and after Trump's election. The list includes former Vice President Joe Biden, former Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and several high-ranking intelligence and law enforcement officials.
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Republicans have seized on the issue to raise questions about possible wrongdoing during the Obama administration. In 2017, then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., alleged that the Obama administration may have improperly identified Trump transition officials in classified reports.
The declassified documents state that the officials who requested to unmask Flynn had authority to do so.
Kupec acknowledged that unmasking isn't "inherently wrong" but the reasoning behind such requests can raise questions. "Looking specifically at who was unmasking whom can add a lot to our understanding of motivation," Kupec said.
Current and previous administrations make thousands of unmasking requests every year. The National Security Agency unmasked 9,217 people from September 2015 to August 2016 in response to requests from other agencies. These numbers went up during the Trump administration: 9,529 in 2017; 16,721 in 2018; and 10,012 in 2019.
The appointment of Bash comes a few months after Barr appointed another federal prosecutor, Jeffrey Jensen, to review the criminal case against Flynn. The Justice Department has since sought to drop its prosecution of the former Army general, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his communications with a former Russian ambassador after Trump's election.
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U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan appointed a third party to challenge the Justice Department's bid to drop the prosecution and to examine whether Flynn committed perjury for claiming he's innocent of a crime he had earlier admitted. Flynn is now asking a federal appeals court to intervene by forcing Sullivan to dismiss the case.
Kupec said on Hannity that the Justice Department has the discretion to drop the case. She said Jensen's review revealed that the prosecution of Flynn should not have continued.
Earlier this year, Barr appointed two federal prosecutors to look into unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing in Ukraine based on information provided by Rudy Giuliani.
Last year, Barr tapped the top federal prosecutor in Connecticut to investigate the origins of the Russia probe and the FBI's surveillance activities - while another prosecutor was in the midst of a separate review involving Hillary Clinton.
Trump nominated Bash to the Texas post in 2017. Before that, Bash was an associate White House counsel and spent five years representing the Justice Department before the Supreme Court. He clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia and for Justice Brett Kavanaugh when Kavanaugh was a federal appeals court judge.
Contributing: Kevin Johnson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: DOJ: William Barr taps prosecutor to look into Obama era unmasking