Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell has declassified a list of the names of Obama administration officials who allegedly requested the "unmasking" of former national security adviser Michael Flynn in intelligence reports documenting his 2016 conversations with former Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, an official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed Tuesday. The official declined to elaborate on the list's contents or whether or when it might be released.
Flynn, who resigned his post early in the Trump administration after it emerged that he had lied to Vice President Pence about his conversations with Kislyak, later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those conversations. He agreed for a time to cooperate in the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of a plea deal, but moved to withdraw his guilty plea in January.
The Justice Department, led by Attorney General Bill Barr, moved to drop the case against Flynn last week, citing improper conduct by the FBI. The decision was widely criticized by former prosecutors who questioned the Department's legal justification but was celebrated by President Trump and his allies, who have said Flynn was unfairly targeted by Obama administration officials aiming to "take down" Mr. Trump.
In an interview with CBS News' Catherine Herridge, Barr said he was "not President Trump's, and of Flynn's plea, Barr argued that "people sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes."
Vice President Pence said in a recent interview that it had become clear that Flynn did not intentionally mislead him, and that he would be "happy" if Flynn returned to government.
As acting DNI, Grenell is broadly authorized to declassify intelligence and can opt to make declassified items public. Last May, President Trump also gave Barr similar, sweeping authorities to unilaterally declassify documents related to the Justice Department's ongoing review of the investigation of Mr. Trump's campaigns ties to Russia. That review is being led by John Durham, a U.S. attorney in Connecticut, and is said to focus in part on Flynn's unmasking and subsequent leaks to the media.
A Justice Department official told CBS News it did not plan to release the list of names.
President Trump appeared to welcome the news of the declassification on Tuesday, tweeting a link to a report of the development and writing, "Big news!" ABC News first reported the move by Grenell, who, officials confirmed to CBS News, hand-delivered records to the Justice Department last week.
U.S. intelligence agencies typically conceal the names of U.S. persons whose identities are included in the intercepted communications of foreign officials, which are routinely collected. Senior government officials are able to request that those identities be revealed, or "unmasked," in order to better understand a piece of intelligence; those requests are then approved or denied. Requesting that the identity of an individual be revealed is not a crime, and in fact happens often – but disclosing an identity publicly or disseminating it for political purposes can be.
According to the annual Statistical Transparency Report released by ODNI last month, the number of U.S. person identities unmasked by the NSA in response to a specific request in 2019 was 10,012. It was 16,721 in 2018, 9,529 in 2017 and 9,217 in 2016.
Flynn's conversations with Kislyak – now known to have focused in part on sanctions issued by the Obama administration in December for Moscow's efforts to undermine the 2016 election –were leaked to the press before the start of the Trump administration. Once their contents became public, officials grew concerned that the Russian government, which was assumed to have likewise taped the exchange, could use that information to compromise Flynn by trapping him in a public lie.
Former Obama administration officials, including former national security adviser Susan Rice, have previously acknowledged making unmasking requests, but have forcefully denied leaking any classified information or otherwise using unmasked identities for political gain.
According interview transcripts released last week by the House Intelligence Committee, Rice told congressional investigators she had "no idea what the hell a political unmasking" was.
"I've been accused of all sorts of things in the public domain over the last many months, including being a criminal, which I don't appreciate. And I have no idea what the hell a political unmasking is," Rice testified. "[W]hat I did in the conduct of my job in order to ensure that I was acting on the information I was provided and doing so responsibly was to be sure I understood what I was reading and, to the extent that I understood it, that I was putting in process the actions that were necessary to protect our national interests and our national security."
"That's the only reason, ever, that I asked for the identity of the U.S. person," she said. "I don't know how one would use that information for a political purpose."
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who was a part of President Obama's national security team, also testified that she had made unmasking requests, citing a "significant appetite for intelligence," but said she did not recall making a request related to Flynn.
"Any time a U.S. person or entity's name came to me disclosed or annotated or where I requested it and it came back, I never discussed it with another member of the human race," Power said. "I have no recollection of making a request related to General Flynn."
Power also denied ever leaking information to the press. "I have never leaked classified information. I have never leaked names that have come back to me in this highly compartmented process. I have, in fact, never leaked, even unclassified information," she said.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in public testimony to Congress in 2017, also denied being aware of the circumstances of Flynn's name being unmasked or having any involvement in leaks to the press.
President Trump, whose approval ratings have fluctuated over his administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has in recent weeks made public statements and retweeted press accounts that allege wrongdoing in the Flynn case on the part of President Obama and Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to face Trump in the November election.