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Memo Names Obama Officials Who May Have Seen Flynn Reports

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 5/13/2020 Chris Strohm and Steven T. Dennis

(Bloomberg) -- Republican senators shared a letter listing the names of government officials in the Obama administration who may have seen intelligence reports from late 2016 revealing the identity of Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser.

Ric Grenell, the new acting director of national intelligence, took the unprecedented and controversial step of releasing the information that was long demanded by the president and his supporters in Congress who say Obama-era officials sought to undermine the incoming Trump administration.

A letter from Grenell and an accompanying memo said that from early November 2016 to the end of January 2017, 16 “authorized individuals” requested that the intelligence community “unmask” Flynn’s name -- which would have normally been redacted -- in classified reports. Former Vice President Joe Biden is among those listed, although his involvement remained unclear.

Trump told reporters at the White House Wednesday that “the unmasking is a massive thing” and that Biden had falsely denied involvement. “How do you know nothing if you’re one of the unmaskers?” he asked.

While Trump seized on the document to suggest Biden did something nefarious, the unmasking of redacted names in classified material isn’t particularly unusual. The memo doesn’t clarify whether the former vice president requested the unmasking or one of his aides did so on his behalf. It also doesn’t say whether Biden ever saw Flynn’s unredacted name.

The unmasking requests came during the transition from the Obama presidency to Trump’s administration. Several of them were made after Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. in late December concerning new American sanctions on Moscow -- a topic that Flynn first denied discussing when questioned later by the FBI.

The letter and memo don’t specify who requested that Flynn’s name be unmasked and whether people who were authorized to see the intelligence reports ever did so. The first request appears to have been made as part of a report on Nov. 30, 2016. Along with Biden, other Obama administration officials listed are Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

‘Cannot Confirm’

“While the principals are identified below, we cannot confirm they saw the unmasked information,” according to the memo, written by National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone. The letter and memo were made public by Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Some Obama administration officials have said they requested that names be unmasked in order to better understand intelligence reports.

“The allegation is that somehow the Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan Rice, said during an interview in April 2017. “That’s absolutely false.”

“There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided, just a U.S. person, and sometimes in that context in order to understand the importance of that report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out or request the information as to who that U.S. official was,” Rice -- whose name is not in the latest memo -- said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, blasted Grenell over politicizing the newly-released list.

“The unconfirmed, acting DNI using his position to criminalize routine intelligence work to help re-elect the president and obscure Russian intervention in our democracy would normally be the scandal here,” Rhodes tweeted on Wednesday.

Flynn’s case has become a political lightning rod and symbol for claims by Trump and his allies that Obama administration officials carried out illegal operations to sabotage his presidency. The former general was dismissed by Trump just weeks into his job and confessed to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador.

But Trump has long defended Flynn, and last week the Justice Department vacated the prosecution of the retired general after court documents were unsealed in April in which FBI officials discussed whether they should try to get Flynn to lie during an interview in January 2017 so that he could be prosecuted or fired from his White House post.

That move was slammed by Democrats, who said it showed that Attorney General William Barr was politicizing decisions to favor Trump. But Trump and Republicans cheered it as vindication for their efforts to brand multiple investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 elections a partisan “witch hunt.”

The move by Grenell to declassify and provide the list of people who may have seen Flynn’s name in the reports to lawmakers will add to the political uproar.

‘Individual 1’

Intelligence reports normally shield the identity of U.S. persons whose communications are swept up in surveillance, referring to them as “Individual 1” or similar nomenclature. U.S. officials can request that actual names of persons be provided when necessary, and that’s not unusual as officials try to understand the import of the information they receive. But unmasking a name isn’t the same as making it public or leaking it to the media, which can be a crime.

Trump accused Obama of committing “the biggest political crime in American history, by far” during a tweet storm on May 10. But the president didn’t provide any specifics when pressed during a May 11 news conference about what he meant. U.S. intelligence had intercepted the Russian envoy’s communications, including his conversation with Flynn. The revelation about Flynn’s conversation with the envoy was then leaked to the media.

Intelligence community records suggest unmasking has become more common under the Trump administration.

The National Security Agency unmasked an American’s identity about 17,000 times in 2018 and 10,000 times in 2019, according to statistics kept by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It was done about 9,500 times in 2017 and 9,200 times in 2016.

(Updates with Biden details, Trump comment starting in the third paragraph.)

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