The name of Michael Flynn wasn’t masked to protect his identity in transcripts of his calls with a Russian ambassador that were distributed or revealed to President Barack Obama and a number of top officials in his administration, recently released documents indicate.
Information about the calls, including Flynn’s name, was leaked to the media within days, setting off a series of events that cost the retired Army lieutenant general his job as national security adviser, millions of dollars in legal fees, and several years of his life.
In addition, Obama administration officials made dozens of unmasking requests for intelligence reports that involved Flynn’s identity between the 2016 election day and the first days of President Donald Trump’s administration, the documents (pdf) show.
The practice of masking refers to replacing the names of Americans in foreign intelligence reports with generic standing to protect their identity. Senior officials involved in intelligence and national security have the power to request that the National Security Agency (NSA) reveal the masked names for various reasons, such as when it’s necessary to understand the intelligence.
Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, released on May 13 a list of officials who made unmasking requests between Nov. 8, 2016, and Jan. 31, 2017, that may have revealed Flynn’s identity.
There were 49 such requests, but none of them occurred between Dec. 29, 2016, and Jan. 4, 2017.
Those dates are important, because it was on Dec. 29, 2016, that Flynn spoke over the phone with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and asked for Moscow to not escalate the situation after Obama had imposed new sanctions on Russia.
While Jan. 4 was the date the FBI was to shutter its counterintelligence investigation of Flynn because it established no “derogatory” information about him, then-FBI head of counterintelligence operations Peter Strzok scrambled that day to keep the probe open. Then-FBI Director James Comey later told the House Intelligence Committee that the probe was kept open after the FBI obtained Flynn’s calls with Kislyak regarding the sanctions.
“Our people judged was appropriate, for reasons that I hope are obvious, to have Mr. Flynn’s name unmasked [in the transcripts],” he said (pdf).
Comey said the calls were “turned up … at the end of December, beginning of January.”
Then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper requested copies from Comey and then briefed Obama, his Vice President Joe Biden, and Obama’s senior staff about the calls, Comey said.
Clapper, during congressional testimony, denied briefing Obama about the calls, but then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told the FBI that Obama brought up the calls during a meeting on Jan. 5. She said she didn’t know at the time how Obama learned about the calls (pdf).
Since no unmasking requests involving Flynn were made between the time the Kislyak calls took place and when the FBI had the transcripts with Flynn’s name unmasked, it appears his name was never masked to begin with.
That would align with Comey’s comment that “we did not disseminate this [redacted] in any finished intelligence.”
If no intelligence report was produced based on the Kislyak calls, it would suggest the FBI distributed the raw intercepts—likely in transcript form.
The staffer quoted from the prior Comey testimony, “We did not disseminate this take in any finished intelligence” and added that Comey “was referring to those specific tech cuts.”
“So no transcript or summary of conversations with Kislyak that were ever masked, and therefore, there were no unmasking requests that could have been made for these nonexistent reports,” the staffer said, while describing the issue.
“I think your description is accurate,” McCabe ultimately responded.
As McCabe described the origin of the transcripts, “They came up—we found them through an effort—without getting into too long of an explanation—in an effort to respond to a tasking from [redacted] and so the results of what we found were communicated to the Agency, who I think had the pen on that response.”
Flynn was accused of lying to the FBI agents during a Jan. 24, 2017, interview. He pleaded guilty, but later disavowed the plea and asked the court to allow him to withdraw it. The Department of Justice moved to drop the case on May 7, saying the FBI interview wasn’t based on a properly predicated investigation and “seems to have been undertaken only to elicit those very false statements and thereby criminalize Mr. Flynn.”
Update: The language of the article was updated for clarity.