Last week amid the revelations of the perjury trap set against retired General and former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell released a list of former Obama officials who sought to “unmask” Flynn’s identity. That list notably included former Vice President Joe Biden. Yet a notable omission on that list suggests an even broader scandal, that even more “unmasking” involves the Intelligence Community spying on the Trump campaign.
When I first heard about the unmasking of Flynn, I was perplexed. Wasn’t the retired general under investigation already? Why would he need to be unmasked in the first place? Indeed, the FBI opened an investigation into Flynn as part of its Crossfire Hurricane investigation on August 16, 2016.
As former U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy pointed out at National Review, “unmasking” is “a term of art for revealing in classified reports the names of Americans who have been ‘incidentally’ monitored by our intelligence agencies.” The FBI may end up surveilling an American who interacts with a person the FBI suspects of being a foreign power’s agent. Under minimization procedures designed to protect the security of Americans, intelligence reports refer to this incidentally surveilled individual as a “U.S. Person,” rather than by his or her name.
Officials can request to know the identity of a “U.S. Person” caught up in such surveillance, claiming it is pertinent to the information on the suspected foreign asset. That’s when unmasking occurs.
The documents Grenell declassified last week spanned from November 8, 2016, to January 31, 2017, but there was no request to unmask Flynn in the encounter for which he would become most notorious: the December 29, 2016 call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. As McCarthy noted, this seems peculiar, since it is known that the Intelligence Community knew of that call and had a transcript.
At the time, Flynn was on vacation in the Dominican Republic, yet Kislyak’s location is unknown. It seems unlikely the Russian ambassador stayed in Washington, D.C. over the Christmas holiday, and New Year’s Day is an important holiday in Russia, where the Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 7.
McCarthy suggested that either the CIA obtained the surveillance of the December 29 call or a friendly foreign intelligence service did (collusion, anyone?). Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded that there is no evidence the FBI “requested or seriously considered FISA surveillance” on Flynn.
Even so, McCarthy argued that the Obama-era Intelligence Community regarded Flynn as a clandestine agent of Russia — therefore not an innocent American whose surveillance was merely incidental. Therefore, when the intelligence about the December 29 call was taken, Flynn likely wasn’t masked at all.
This raises a further question. Did the surveillance of Flynn also involve his colleagues in the Trump campaign? When Flynn, a character high up in the campaign and in the transition, communicated with other Trump campaign officials, were those communications “incidentally” picked up and did Obama officials ask for those speaking with Flynn to be unmasked?
As McCarthy noted, the revelations about unmasking raise questions that go far beyond Flynn. “It is highly irregular for government officials on the political side of the national-security realm to seek the unmasking of Americans. It is eye-opening to learn that Vice President Biden and President Obama’s chief-of-staff [Dennis McDonough] unmasked the incoming Trump administration’s national security advisor.”
Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who had little reason to seek unmasking, reportedly requested 260 unmaskings and told Congress that she did not make the vast majority of requests attributed to her. How many unmaskings, exactly, did the Obama administration request out against Trump campaign officials? Was Donald Trump himself among those unmasked? Just how far does the surveillance on the Trump campaign really go?
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.