Michael Flynn was never 'masked' in transcript of calls with Russian ambassador, reports say




  • In Politics
  • 2020-05-21 20:31:53Z
  • By USA TODAY
 

WASHINGTON - Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's identity was never "masked" in a report on his communication with the Russian ambassador, according to The Washington Post and Fox News.

President Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies on Capitol Hill have pointed to the "unmasking" of Flynn, and subsequent leaking of his name to the news media, as evidence of a campaign by top members of former President Barack Obama's White House to undermine the incoming administration.

But unnamed sources told Fox News and The Post that Flynn's name was given to reporters from an unredacted transcript of his communication with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.

When a conversation by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident with a foreign individual who is being monitored is incidentally captured by an intelligence agency - usually the FBI or National Security Agency - their identity is normally kept hidden, or masked. If an official thinks the identity of the U.S. citizen is important or relevant to the intelligence, he or she can request to have that person "unmasked."

On May 13, in response to a request from Republican senators, acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell declassified a list of Obama-era officials who asked to unmask Flynn, who was referred to an "NSA intelligence report," between Nov. 8, 2016, and Jan. 31, 2017. The list included former DNI chief James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, Obama's Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and former Vice President Joe Biden.

'Dishonest accusations': Susan Rice responds to allegations after email about Obama meeting on Flynn declassified

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sent a letter to Grenell and Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday asking if unmasking requests were made for other members of Trump's campaign or transition team. And Graham asked for "an explanation as to why the list" didn't "contain a record showing who unmasked General Flynn's phone call with Ambassador Kislyak."

Flynn's Dec. 29, 2016 phone calls with Kislyak first became public in a Jan. 12, 2017, column by The Washington Post's David Ignatius, who cited a "senior U.S. government official." Those conversations took place just after the Obama administration announced sanctions and the expulsion of Russian officials in retaliation for Russian election interference.

Then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence told CBS News three days later that Flynn assured him the sanctions were not discussed and the timing of the call "was strictly coincidental." But on Feb. 9, The Post reported that Flynn had discussed the sanctions with Kislyak, and Flynn resigned on Feb. 13, saying he had "inadvertently briefed" Pence "with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador." The next day, the White House said Trump had asked for Flynn's resignation after losing trust in him.

Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the phone call, though he later tried to withdraw that guilty plea. The Justice Department under Barr has argued the FBI did not have "a legitimate investigative basis" to interview Flynn in the first place and asked for the case to be dismissed.

Most of those requests to unmask Flynn were made before the Dec. 29, 2016, calls between Flynn and Kislyak, meaning they were likely in response to other intelligence reports in which Flynn's identity was masked. The officials making the unmasking requests may not have known Flynn was the unidentified individual in those reports.

Trump has long accused Obama of unspecified crimes related to unsubstantiated allegations he "spied" on Trump's campaign and opened the Russia investigation, which he calls a "hoax," in order to weaken and discredit his administration. He has revived those claims in recent weeks, decrying what he refers to as "Obamagate" following Biden's rise as his presumptive 2020 Democratic opponent and Obama's increasing public criticisms of Trump.

But former Obama administration officials insist the investigation was conducted properly and that there was were legitimate reasons for concern that the Trump campaign might be colluding with Russians meddling in the 2016 election.

The FBI began its counterintelligence investigation into potential links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in July 2016. On Oct. 7, 2016, the U.S. intelligence community said in a statement that it was confident the Russian government was behind the theft and dissemination of Democratic National Committee emails with the intent to "interfere with the US election process."

The investigation was later handed to special counsel Robert Mueller whose team did not find evidence of a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, though it did find "numerous links between the Russian government" and the campaign, which "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

Timeline: The events that led to the inspector general's report on the origins of the Russia probe

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent Grenell a letter Wednesday requesting he explain why it was necessary to release the list of unmasking requests "given the potential compromise to sources and methods." He also asked Grenell to give the Intelligence Committee the reports in which Flynn was masked and to make public any report on his conversations with Kislyak.

"Selective declassification for political purposes undermines the integrity of our system for protecting classified information, undermines the Intelligence Community's credibility, and erodes public trust in institutions critical to protecting the nation," Warner told Grenell.

Warner said unmasking was routine, with thousands of requests normally made every year. This was no different during the Trump administration, he said. In 2017, 9,529 identities were unmasked, jumping to 16,721 in 2018 and 10,012 in 2019, according to tWarner .

On Wednesday, interim Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told Fox News it is "really important that stuff" like Flynn's conversation with Kisltyak "not be put out in the public domain to further political narratives."

"At the end of the day, elements of a phone call between Mr. Flynn and the Ambassador from Russia at the time were leaked to the press," Rubio said. "Someone broke the law. Someone took that information, gave it to members of the press and broke the law."

Barr appointed Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham in May 2019 to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation. On Monday, Barr said Obama and Biden were not under investigation.

"Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others," Barr said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michael Flynn not 'masked' in report on call with Kislyak: reports

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