Another Justice Department Fail: The Flynn Unmasking

Barack Obama’s crusade to destroy Lt. General Michael Flynn began months before Election Day in 2016. Flynn resigned as Obama’s Defense Intelligence Agency director in 2014 amid clashes with his boss at the time, James Clapper, over the administration’s approach to the war on terror. In early 2016, Flynn, who had become an outspoken critic of Obama’s foreign policy, joined the Trump presidential campaign; a few months later, Obama’s FBI opened a counterintelligence probe into Flynn and three other campaign associates.

After Trump won, Team Obama accelerated its targeting of Flynn. Obama warned Trump during an Oval Office meeting shortly after Election Day not to hire Flynn, advice Trump promptly rejected. So, Obama set out to make Trump pay for his defiance.

The alleged details of discussions between Flynn, slated to serve as Trump’s national security advisor, and the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions against the Kremlin for “interfering” in the presidential election were leaked to the Washington Post a week before Trump’s inauguration.

Columnist David Ignatius first planted the idea that Flynn might have broken federal law by talking about sanctions in numerous phone calls. 

“According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking,” Ignatius wrote on January 12, 2017.  “What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about ‘disputes’ with the United States. Was its spirit violated?”

Ignatius’ column—posted just a few days after CNN reported that Obama intelligence officials presented “classified documents” to Trump during a private briefing on January 6, 2017 to warn the incoming president that the Russians had compromising material on him—sent Trump’s transition team into full-blown crisis mode.

Both reports cast a dark shadow over the new administration. With the new White House under siege by the media and congressional Democrats, the Post published another bombshell: “National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials,” Post reporters Greg Miller, Adam Entous, and Ellen Nakishima wrote on February 9, 2017. The accusation was sourced by “nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, [and] spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.”

Flynn resigned a few days later. In May 2017, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate Trump-Russia collusion; Mueller charged Flynn with lying to the FBI related to the Kislyak calls.

It was obvious at the time that insiders tied to Obama had leaked classified, sensitive information to the media to delegitimize Trump’s presidency. How else could reporters have accessed the secret behind-the-scenes activity of Team Trump? Further, transcripts of the calls released three years later debunked the accusation Flynn discussed sanctions with Kislyak. He did not.

In May 2020, the Trump Administration finally released the names of Obama officials who requested the “unmasking” of Flynn’s identity in intelligence reports, presumably to share with reporters. The list is a “Who’s Who” of Trump foes, including Clapper, Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and Vice President Joe Biden. To determine whether the unmasking requests were unlawful or politically motivated, Attorney General William Barr appointed U.S. Attorney John Bash to investigate unmasking requests between March 2016 and January 31, 2017.

Bash finished his review three months later. “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 wrote in a September 2020 report obtained this week by BuzzFeed News

“Some unmasking requests made during the transition period sought the identities of individuals who may have been associated with President Trump’s transition team,” Bash continued. “In many instances, however, the relevant reports merely recounted the views of other individuals about possible transition officials or described foreigners’ plans to engage with transition officials. But the content of those reports does not support an inference that the identities were unmasked for improper purposes.”

Citing the Ignatius column, Bash concluded the article was not the result of any unmasked intelligence report and instead suggested transcripts shared by the FBI “outside the Bureau without masking General Flynn’s name” might have been Ignatius’ source. But Bash insisted any further inquiry was “beyond the scope of this review.”

Conveniently, Bash’s timeline stopped at the end of January 2017 so his investigation did not address the Post’s follow-up coverage in February 2017 about Flynn’s alleged conversations with Kislyak. Nor did Bash evaluate whether the leaked reports led to Flynn’s ouster, a clear political victory for Team Obama. 

Bash also inexplicably overlooked how the unmasked information, either gleaned from reports or the FBI transcript, justified Comey’s ambush of Flynn in the White House on January 24, 2017, a stunt Comey later bragged violated the FBIs normal procedures for interviewing top presidential aides. The public is expected to believe this was all a crazy coincidence that just happened to take out a sworn enemy of Barack Obama.

While Bash glossed-over flagrant evidence of how secret information about Flynn was politically weaponized with great success, he appears to be correct that there is no evidence the unmasking requests were improper. Why? Because Obama and his intelligence advisors did not need to make requests. According to Bash’s report, it was standard protocol during the Obama years for aides to unmask the names of U.S. citizens in intelligence reports without any official request to do so. Bash writes:

Consistent with the widespread practice at the time—which likely originated before the Obama administration—[President’s Daily Brief] briefers or their associates would anticipatorily unmask [names] before incorporating an intelligence report into an official’s morning briefing book. Some briefers sought [names] for every report provided in the morning briefing as a matter of protocol. That group included the briefers for the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, FBI Director, CIA Director, CIA Deputy Director, and Director of National Intelligence. In all events, briefers and other intelligence professionals whom I interviewed told me that the practice of routinely unmasking [names] in anticipation of a briefing was ubiquitous at the time.

Bash did not evaluate Obama’s unmasking activity, determining it was “inappropriate” and possibly unconstitutional. Executive privilege applies to all former presidents except Trump, apparently.

Intelligence aides routinely unmasking the names of U.S. citizens in classified reports without specific requests likely violated federal laws restricting government surveillance of Americans and any dissemination of that information. In a statement to American Greatness on Thursday evening, former U.S. Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who helped expose the Russia collusion hoax as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said: “If the Bash findings are true, then the intelligence agencies systematically undermined the entire rationale of unmasking procedures, which is to protect the civil liberties and privacy of Americans who are not the targets of an investigation.” 

“There is no justification for the exorbitant number of times Michael Flynn’s name was unmasked, briefed to senior Obama officials, and even spread outside the FBI in unmasked form. The Flynn leak was a major crime, yet even after this investigation, no one was held accountable,” Nunes added.

Nonetheless, Obama loyalists and media hacks took a victory lap, claiming another Trump-fueled “conspiracy theory” bit the dust. Ben Rhodes whined on Twitter that he was harassed by right-wing conspiracy nuts and Congressional Republicans, “Even though the people who started this knew it was BS.”

But Bash’s punt on the matter doesn’t change the fact that classified information was leaked to the media by several Obama intelligence officials to destroy a three-star general, sabotage the Trump White House, and justify the destructive special counsel investigation that undermined the first half of Trump’s term. And the public, more than five years later, still doesn’t know who did the leaking.

Another massive Justice Department failure.

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