Michael Flynn 'unmasking' explained: How Trump is trying to link Joe Biden to 'Obamagate' conspiracy

Documents, testimony from ex-Obama officials, and at least one inspector general's report have not shown any evidence to merit that unmasking of Mr Flynn was improper

Griffin Connolly
Thursday 14 May 2020 21:44 BST
Lindsey Graham on Trump's Obama tweet: 'I think it would be a bad precedent to compel a former president to come before the Congress'

A pair of Senate Republican chairmen earlier this week released a document about the "unmasking" of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn that they says raises questions about whether Obama administration officials, including former Vice President Joe Biden, sought to "entrap" Mr Flynn and other incoming Trump administration officials in 2016 and 2017.

The National Security Agency (NSA) document released by Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson and Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley is part of a broader effort by the GOP to push their "Obamagate" narrative, a phrase popularised by Donald Trump encompassing a wide range of theories that Mr Obama and a cabal of "deep state" intelligence officials sought to kneecap Mr Trump's presidency by targeting his aides, such as Mr Flynn, with criminal probes.

Documents, testimony from ex-Obama officials, and at least one inspector general's report have not shown any evidence to merit the Obamagate theory.

Yet Mr Trump, congressional Republicans, and Fox News have sought to make Obamagate and the unmasking document a defining issue of the 2020 presidential race between Mr Trump and Mr Biden.

What is 'unmasking'?

"Unmasking" is the NSA's term for revealing a previously undisclosed person's identity to authorised national security and intelligence community officials.

The NSA frequently conducts surveillance on the communications of foreign diplomats and people believed to have ties to foreign governments, but redacts identifying information about the person on the other end of phone calls, emails, and other correspondence.

However, some national security officials can request unredacted reports that effectively reveal the identities of those on the other end of communications with the person who is under surveillance.

National security officials seeking such information must provide a written justification for their unmasking request, which is reviewed by NSA agents before any release.

Officials cannot ask intelligence agencies to comb their files for a person's name in order to unmask them.

Was Mr Flynn's unmasking related to his previous guilty pleas for lying to the FBI?

That's actually unclear, despite the insinuations of Mr Grassley, Mr Johnson, and others in the GOP.

In December of 2017, Mr Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI on 24 January 2017 at the White House about his contact with former Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak just weeks before. At the time, the FBI was probing possible links between Mr Trump's campaign and transition teams and Russia.

Mr Flynn later revoked his guilty plea, arguing he was unfairly targeted by law enforcement. On 7 May 2020, at the direction of Mr Trump's attorney general, William Barr, the Justice Department moved to drop the case against Mr Flynn, saying his alleged lie to FBI agents about his contact with Mr Kislyak on 29 December 2016 and in early January 2017 was not "material" to the FBI's Russia probe.

What the NSA document released by Republican senators earlier this week shows is that Mr Biden, former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan, and more than a dozen other intelligence officials received access to NSA intelligence reports between 8 November 2016 and 31 January 2017 that unmasked Mr Flynn as the person on the other side of various communications with people whom the agency was surveilling.

The document does not say whether any of those communications recorded by the NSA were Mr Flynn's conversations with Mr Kislyak.

National security and legal experts have speculated since the NSA document release on Wednesday that most — if not all — of the surveillance reports with Mr Flynn's unmasked identity are not related to his contacts with Mr Kislyak.

First, most of the NSA reports on the document pre-date Mr Flynn's phone calls with Mr Kislyak.

And second, multiple FBI officials overseeing the 2016 Russia investigation have testified that the transcripts of Mr Flynn's phone calls with Mr Kislyak emanated from the FBI, not the NSA.

How common is unmasking?

In a word: very.

And the Trump administration has filed unmasking requests at a far higher rate than the Obama administration did, according to figures provided by Mr Trump's own Acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell.

In 2016, the Obama administration filed roughly 9,200 unmasking requests. In 2017, when Mr Trump took over from Mr Obama, that number crept up to about 9,500. It leaped to roughly 17,000 in 2019 before coming back down to around 10,000 last year.

How does unmasking tie into Obamagate?

Obamagate is Mr Trump's catch-all term for the web of beliefs that Mr Obama was part of a vast network of conspirators who sought to undermine the 2016 Trump campaign by pursuing legal cases against individuals such as Mr Flynn and intentionally beset his presidency with a sham Russia investigation.

The theory maintains that a corrupt cabal of Never-Trump top US intelligence officials — such as Mr Comey and FBI agent Peter Strzok — colluded with the international intelligence community, Ukraine, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and others to create a pretext to investigate the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia by entrapping former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos in a sting operation by providing fake dirt purportedly from Russia on Hillary Clinton.

The FBI's questioning of Mr Flynn on 24 January 2017 over his communications with Mr Kislyak, which led to the criminal charges against him, was just a continuation of that alleged conspiracy, Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials are arguing.

Again, the NSA document released this week does not necessarily suggest a connection between the unmasking of Mr Flynn and his conversations with Mr Kislyak.

What are the political parties saying about Mr Flynn's unmasking and Obamagate?

Democrats and the Biden campaign have dismissed the NSA's unmasking document and the broader Obamagate theory as an attempt by Mr Trump to gaslight voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election and distract them from his administration's response to the coronavirus crisis.

It's been a mixed bag among Republicans, though most have lent at least some support to Mr Trump's theories.

Mr Trump is publicly urging Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham to call Mr Obama to testify on what he knew about the 2016 Russia investigation and whether he unfairly targeted Mr Flynn and other officials.

"If I were a Senator or Congressman, the first person I would call to testify about the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA, by FAR, is former President Obama. He knew EVERYTHING," Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday. "Do it... just do it. No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more talk!" he wrote, tagging Mr Graham's Twitter account.

But the South Carolina Republican has dismissed the idea of calling Mr Obama to testify, saying that while "no president is above the law," he is "greatly concerned about the precedent that would be set by calling a former president for oversight."

Mr Graham also noted potential complications over Mr Obama's executive privilege powers as a former president.

Mr Grassley has suggested that “maybe there should be people prosecuted” over the treatment of Mr Flynn and others.

Who is probing unmasking and Obamagate theory?

Mr Barr, the leader of the DOJ, has tasked US Attorney John Durham with probing the origins of the 2016 Russia probe and whether it was conducted legally.

That probe began as an administrative review but has since become a criminal investigation. No charges have been filed, and very little information has leaked to the press about Mr Durham's findings so far.

Mr Graham announced on Thursday that his Judiciary panel will begin holding "in-depth congressional hearings" in early June on Mr Flynn's unmasking and the origins of the 2016 Russia investigation.

Mr Graham is breaking his investigation down into three phases: an exploration of the Obama administration's unmasking requests; alleged abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by FBI agents over the course of their 2016 investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia; and whether special counsel Robert Mueller should have been appointed to continue the Russian election interference probe.

Mr Graham and other Republican lawmakers for years have accused the leaders of the FBI’s Russia probe of letting political bias influence their investigation, a position that was not substantiated by a report last year from DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

Mr Horowitz’s report does, however, highlight a rash of issues with how the agents conducted the probe, including problems with their FISA warrant applications.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in