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Intel chief reveals Obama officials who requested "unmasking" of Michael Flynn

Obama admin. ordered Flynn "unmasking"
Obama admin. ordered Flynn "unmasking" 12:10

Washington — The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) gave lawmakers a list of names of Obama administration officials who requested intelligence reports that "unmasked" Michael Flynn's identity in 2016 and 2017, a revelation that comes as the Justice Department seeks to drop charges against the former national security adviser.

Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, declassified the list of names prepared by the National Security Agency (NSA) and provided it to Republican Senators Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley on Wednesday. The document includes a total of 39 senior officials who requested to see the unmasked reports, or whose aides submitted requests on their behalf. Twelve of those names were redacted in the document.

"We are making this public because the American people have a right to know what happened," Johnson and Grassley said in a statement.

The document, first obtained by CBS News' Catherine Herridge, notes that each person listed was "an authorized recipient of the original report and the unmasking was approved through NSA's standard process, which includes a review of the justification for the request."

The NSA intercepted several conversations between Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late 2016, and prepared intelligence reports based on their contents. Those conversations included, in part, discussion about harsh sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia in December 2016 in response to Moscow's interference in the presidential election.

The fact that Flynn had spoken with Kislyak on the same day the U.S. imposed sanctions was revealed publicly in a column in The Washington Post one week before President Trump's inauguration. Flynn was fired as national security adviser after just three weeks for denying to Vice President Mike Pence that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. He twice pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents, but last week, in an extraordinary move, the Justice Department asked a judge to throw out his guilty plea, arguing that Flynn's questioning was "unjustified" and done without a legitimate basis.

The names of U.S. citizens who are caught on intercepts of foreign officials' communications are typically concealed in intelligence reports, but certain senior officials can request to learn their identities to better understand the information, a process known as "unmasking." According to an annual transparency report released by ODNI in April, the identities of 10,012 U.S. persons were unmasked by the NSA in response to specific requests in 2019.

The list released Wednesday names officials who may have learned of Flynn's identity in the reports between November 8, 2016 — Election Day — and January 31, 2017. Among the officials who requested the unmasked information were:

  • Samantha Power, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations
  • James Clapper, the director of national intelligence
  • CIA Director John Brennan
  • FBI Director James Comey
  • Vice President Joe Biden

The NSA document cautioned that the agency cannot confirm that the individuals listed actually saw the unmasked information, only that they requested it.

Many of the requests predate Flynn's pivotal December 29 conversations with Kislyak and came from a broad range of administration officials, including senior officials from the Treasury and Energy Departments and the ambassadors to Turkey and Italy, an indication that Flynn's name surfaced in intelligence reports involving foreign intercepts potentially unrelated to Russia.

In an interview on "Good Morning America" on Tuesday, Biden acknowledged he was aware that "they asked for an investigation" into Flynn while he was vice president, but said renewed discussion over the matter "is all about diverting attention" from the Trump administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Look, think about this — can you imagine any other president of the United States focusing on this at a moment when the country is absolutely considered about their health of their children, the health of their families?" he said. "This is all about diverting attention. Focus on what is in front of us."

In a statement on Wednesday, Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said the release of the list was an "attempt at dishonest media manipulation to distract from his response to the worst public health crisis in 100 years."

"These documents simply indicate the breadth and depth of concern across the American government — including among career officials — over intelligence reports of Michael Flynn's attempts to undermine ongoing American national security policy through discussions with Russian officials or other foreign representatives," Bates said. "The only people with questions to answer are Grenell, Sen. Grassley, and Sen. Johnson for their gross politicization of the intelligence process."

Some officials included on the list have previously acknowledged requesting unmasked intelligence, saying the information was necessary to understand the intelligence regarding Russia's intentions.

In transcripts of testimony released by the House Intelligence Committee last week, Power said she didn't recall specifically requesting the unmasking of Flynn's name, but defended the practice in general, and said she never leaked classified information to the media.

"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 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."

Catherine Herridge, Bo Erickson, Olivia Gazis and Stephen Sanchez contributed to this report.

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