Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell has declassified a list of former Obama administration officials who allegedly were involved in the “unmasking” of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn in his communications with the former Russian ambassador during President Donald Trump’s transition period, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) confirmed to The Epoch Times.
The revelation was first reported by ABC News, which cited an unnamed senior U.S. official who said Grenell had brought the list to the Justice Department (DOJ) last week. Another unnamed source familiar with the intelligence told Fox News that the move to declassify the list is part of a larger plan to declassify several pieces of intelligence information in stages.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal, also citing an unnamed source, reported that names on that list may be released at any time.
The ODNI directed The Epoch Times to the DOJ regarding inquiries about the release of the list; the DOJ didn’t immediately respond.
The release of the list would likely renew a partisan debate regarding whether “unmasking” requests made by Obama administration officials—of identities of members of the Trump campaign in intelligence reports—were made for legitimate or for political purposes.
In the course of monitoring communications with foreign officials, the conversations of U.S. citizens are at times incidentally collected by intelligence agencies. The identity of these people is usually redacted in transcripts or intelligence reports if they’re not the subject of surveillance. “Unmasking” refers to the process of revealing the name of the U.S. citizen.
Data from the ODNI shows that the National Security Agency had unmasked the identities of U.S. persons in response to requests by another agency about 9,200 times in 2016, 9,500 in 2017, 16,700 in 2018, and 10,000 in 2019 (pdf).
Obama administration officials have previously acknowledged that they requested the unmasking of the identities of Americans in intelligence reports.
In 2017, Susan Rice, the national security adviser under former President Barack Obama, had made dozens of unmasking requests for the identities of members in Trump’s election campaign, collected from intercepted communications. They began in July 2016 and increased following the election. Those requests raised concerns over the possibility that the information was used for political purposes, an accusation Rice has denied.
The decision to declassify the names of the officials comes days after the DOJ dropped its criminal case against Flynn.
Flynn’s conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December were subject to unmasking requests and were illegally leaked to the media. The leak is believed to have eventually triggered the controversy that led to Flynn’s dismissal as Trump’s former national security adviser.
Flynn was accused of lying to investigators, claiming he didn’t discuss Russian sanctions during a call he had with Kislyak before Trump took office. It was revealed in intercepted transcripts from the Obama administration that Flynn did discuss sanctions.
In December 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying in the FBI interview about his call with Kislyak but afterward sought to withdraw that plea. Flynn’s lawyers argued that he had been entrapped by the FBI in the interview.
Recent documents pertaining to the Flynn case released by the DOJ included handwritten notes that revealed top officials in the agency had questioned whether the goal of questioning Flynn was to “get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
The documents also revealed that Peter Strzok, the FBI’s then-deputy assistant director for counterintelligence operations, urgently reached out to agents handling the Flynn case to advise them not to close the case after the agents determined there were no more leads to follow in the Flynn probe.
In the DOJ’s court filing to dismiss the case, Timothy Shea, interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, argued that “the interview of Mr. Flynn was untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn—a no longer justifiably predicated investigation that the FBI had, in the Bureau’s own words, prepared to close because it had yielded an ‘absence of any derogatory information.’”
Shea added that since the government wasn’t “persuaded” that the FBI interviewed Flynn with “a legitimate investigative basis,” Flynn’s guilty plea was irrelevant. He said to be a crime, a lie needs to be “material,” which means it has to have “probative weight” on the investigated matter.
Attorney General William Barr has received backlash for the decision to drop the case, with about 2,000 former DOJ officials calling for his resignation.
Barr defended the department’s decision to drop the case against Flynn in an interview with CBS on May 7, saying that the decision was a good one because it “upheld the rule of law.”
The attorney general said that he was committed to restoring an equal standard of justice in the United States and that that standard requires the department to dismiss the case against Flynn.
“I wanted to make sure that we restore confidence in the system. There’s only one standard of justice,” he said.
Joshua Philipp and Petr Svab contributed to this report.