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US attorney said Flynn’s name was not masked before leak, sought to absolve unmaskers

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The U.S. attorney tasked with investigating the “unmasking” saga concluded that retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn’s name had never been hidden to begin with when the FBI shared information with the Obama administration.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were leaked to the media in early 2017. However, the prosecutor said he did not find politically motivated wrongdoing related to the requests by officials that unmasked associates of Donald Trump during the transition period after his 2016 win.

U.S. Attorney John Bash, who was tasked in May 2020 by Attorney General William Barr with investigating “unmasking” requests by Obama administration officials, penned his conclusions in a September 2020 report. Bash resigned in October 2020. The 52-page, lightly redacted report was released by BuzzFeed through the Freedom of Information Act on Tuesday.

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“I determined that those communications were not described in an intelligence report in which General Flynn’s identity was masked that was disseminated before President Trump’s inauguration,” Bash concluded. “Accordingly, they could not have been the subject of an unmasking request during the transition period. … During the transition period the FBI shared transcripts of the relevant communications with officials outside of the Bureau without masking General Flynn’s name.”

Bash said, “Evaluating that dissemination, and determining how the information was provided to the media, is beyond the scope of this review.”

A Washington Post column on Jan. 12, 2017, contained classified details that set off a media frenzy. Citing a “senior U.S. government official,” it said Flynn and Kislyak spoke on the phone on Dec. 29, 2016, the day former President Barack Obama announced sanctions on Russia, and suggested Flynn violated the archaic Logan Act.

A follow-up article by the Washington Post on Feb. 9, 2017, revealed classified details from Flynn’s monitored calls with Kislyak, citing “nine current and former officials” in “senior positions at multiple agencies.”

The U.S. attorney said that “the FBI had transcripts of some of those communications” and that he “examined whether any senior officials had obtained General Flynn’s identity in connection with those communications through an unmasking request made during the transition period.” He said that “the answer is no.”

Bash also concluded, “I did not find any basis to conclude that the requests were made for improper reasons. Most critically, all but one of the requests that listed a senior official as an authorized recipient of General Flynn’s identity were made by an intelligence professional to prepare for a briefing of the official.”

He added, “I find no basis to conclude that the unmaskings of General Flynn’s identity during the transition period were politically motivated or were otherwise sought for inappropriate reasons.”

Bash said Barr tasked him in May 2020 with reviewing the disclosure of “U.S. person identity information in disseminated intelligence reports,” dubbed “unmasking,” and said he reviewed unmasking requests from the start of March 2016 through the end of January 2017.

When intelligence reporting is shared across the government, the names of U.S. citizens are typically concealed to protect their identities. The names can be unmasked, however, when authorized U.S. officials make the request.

Then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell released a declassified National Security Agency document in May 2020 containing a list of dozens of Obama administration officials, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, who were authorized recipients of information in response to “unmasking” requests that revealed Flynn’s identity in intercepts.

Grenell tweeted in response to the release of Bash’s report, writing that “briefers can’t share unmasked names with anyone — every person must specifically ask for the unmasking” and that “it’s illegal for briefers to share the name without a request.” He argued that “the principals HAD to make the request.”

Flynn resigned in 2017 and later pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI regarding his calls with Kislyak. The Justice Department dropped its charges against Flynn in May 2020 following the release of previously concealed documents, including those showing that now-fired FBI agent Peter Strzok and the FBI’s “seventh floor” leadership stopped the bureau from closing its investigation into Flynn in early January 2017, in spite of the fact that investigators had uncovered “no derogatory information” on Flynn.

Bash sought to absolve officials of any wrongdoing related to broader unmasking during the 2016 election and presidential transition.

“I have not found evidence that senior U.S. officials unmasked the identities of U.S. persons contained in intelligence reports for political purposes or other inappropriate reasons during the 2016 election period or the ensuing transition period,” Bash concluded. “Most significantly, the substantial majority of relevant unmasking requests were sought by intelligence professionals in anticipation of daily briefings of senior officials.”

Bash said, “I have found no unmasking requests made before Election Day that sought the identity of an apparent associate of the Trump campaign.” But he also said that “some unmasking requests made during the transition period sought the identities of individuals who may have been associated with President Trump’s transition team” and that some reports subject to unmasking requests “did describe the communications of transition officials, albeit vaguely and without quotations.”

He also said that he found unmasking requests “in which it would have appeared at least possible” that the requester could have predicted the masked people “corresponded to Trump transition officials.”

The U.S. attorney said some requests “sought the identity of one or two of the presidential candidates” but that “those involved only references to the candidates by foreign individuals.”

Bash claimed, “I do not see a plausible way in which such information, even if it had related to persons or entities associated with the Trump campaign or Republican political organizations, could have been weaponized politically.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. attorney emphasized, “I am troubled by how easy it is for political appointees of the incumbent administration to obtain nonpublic information about individuals associated with a presidential campaign or a transition team. There exists a significant potential for misuse of such information — misuse that could be difficult to detect.”

Bash said he found only one “transition-related unmasking request” made by a senior U.S. official and that “that request sought the identity of a person described as a ‘senior’ member of the transition team.” He said, “It is not clear to me from the face of the report why the senior U.S. official needed to know the identity of the transition official.”

The U.S. attorney also said, “I did identify an arguable, nontrivial discrepancy between the testimony of one former senior official and the recollection of that official’s intelligence briefer. But that discrepancy is unrelated to the question of whether the official sought unmaskings for an improper purpose, and I do not believe that sufficient grounds exist to conduct a perjury investigation.”

A list of officials who received information in response to unmasking requests showed that 16 individuals made 49 unmasking requests related to Flynn between Election Day 2016 and Jan. 31, 2017. The NSA document showed 39 Obama officials who received the unmasking intelligence. Former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former FBI Director James Comey were all on the list.

An unmasking request with Biden as the authorized recipient was either made or received on Jan. 12, 2017.

There is clear evidence Biden heard about the FBI’s interest in Flynn during a Jan. 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting with Obama, Brennan, Comey, Clapper, then-national security adviser Susan Rice, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and others.

Biden said in May 2020, “I was never a part or had any knowledge of any criminal investigation into Flynn while I was in office. Period.” But he also said, “I was aware that there was, that they asked for an investigation, but that’s all I know about it.”

Michael Sherwin, then the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, reportedly signed off on closing DOJ’s “Operation Echo” inquiry into the classified disclosure of the Flynn-Kislyak calls to the media.

Then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe testified to the House Intelligence Committee on Dec. 19, 2017, about the matter. “I do not believe that that summary was ever masked. I’m also not familiar with any requests that we received to unmask anything. I’m not — I’m not aware that if we got one, it would strike me as unnecessary if nothing was masked,” he said.

Months earlier, Comey told the same panel March 2, 2017, that the bureau was “tasked” with sharing any information it had about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak with the rest of the intelligence community. Comey said he gave copies of this information to Clapper, who then “briefed the President and the Vice President and then President Obama’s senior team.” He added that “our people judged it was appropriate, for reasons that I hope are obvious, to have Mr. Flynn’s name unmasked.”


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