A list of Obama administration officials who sought to unmask intercepted communications involving former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was declassified and released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) on Wednesday. The list of officials who asked the National Security Agency to unmask Flynn’s name from certain intercepted communications included former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director John Brennan, former DNI James Clapper, former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and former Vice President Joe Biden. The full list was first disclosed online by CBS reporter Catherine Herridge.
“On 8 May 2020 I declassified the enclosed document, which I am providing to you for your situational awareness,” Acting DNI Ric Grenell wrote to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc.
In a memorandum to Grenell, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), wrote, “I am providing a revised list of identities of any officials who submitted requests to the National Security Agency at any point between 8 November 2016 and 31 January 2017, to unmask the identity of former National Security Adviser, Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn (USA-Ret.).”
“The original list was in alphabetical order; the revised list is in chronological order, including the date the request was received,” Nakasone noted.
The declassified list compiled by the NSA includes the names of 16 separate Obama administration officials who asked the NSA to unmask Flynn’s name in intercepted communications. The identities are important because they may shed light on which officials illegally leaked information about Flynn’s calls with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak to journalists at the Washington Post. U.S. Attorney John Durham is reportedly investigating the matter and seeking to determine who was responsible for the illegal leak of classified information.
On January 12, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that a “senior U.S. government official” told him about the Flynn-Kislyak calls. Ignatius then suggested that Flynn’s conversations might run afoul of an unconstitutional and never successfully prosecuted 1799 law that criminalizes certain private speech critical of U.S. foreign policy. Ignatius was the first journalist to publicly confirm the existence and substance of Flynn’s calls and to raise the idea that Flynn should be criminally investigated for them. Fired former Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director James Comey, who sought to unmask Flynn’s name on December 15, 2016, cited the Ignatius article as a reason why the FBI needed to interview Flynn.
Washington Post reporter Adam Entous revealed during an October 2017 conference at Georgetown University that he had received similar leaks from multiple government officials before Ignatius’ column was published.
“[M]y sources start then, my sources start whispering to me that there were all these mysterious communications between Michael Flynn, who was then the National Security Advisor designate for Trump and the Russian ambassador, Kislyak,” Entous said.
According to Entous, the story was spiked by the newsroom, and that’s when the leaks migrated to Ignatius, whom Entous said had a lower standard for reporting because he was a columnist and not a formal reporter.
The majority of the 39 unmasking requests were made between December 14 and December 16, 2016, weeks before the late December calls between Flynn and Kislyak which became the basis of the FBI’s plan to entrap Flynn and “get him fired,” according to the handwritten notes of former FBI counterintelligence director Bill Priestap. A total of eight unmasking requests, however, were made during the period between Flynn’s calls with Kislyak and the Ignatius column about those calls. It is not known whether any of the NSA documents containing Flynn’s name consisted of transcripts or recordings of his late December conversations with Kislyak. Congressional testimony and recent court documents suggest that those conversations may have been recorded, transcribed, and retained by the FBI, which means the NSA may not have been aware of them at the time.
Although Biden, who is currently the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee heading into the 2020 election, claimed earlier this week that he “knew nothing about those moves to investigate Michael Flynn,” his name appears on the list of officials who unmasked Flynn’s identity. According to the declassified list, Biden requested that Flynn’s name be unmasked on January 12, 2017. Jacob Lew, Obama’s outgoing Treasury secretary, submitted an unmasking request on Flynn the same day.
On January 11, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power submitted an unmasking request to the NSA. That request followed six previous attempts to unmask Flynn between November 30 and December 23, 2016. On January 10, 2017, an unnamed CIA official sought Flynn’s unmasking from NSA intercepts.
Former DNI James Clapper, who claimed to Congress that he never briefed President Barack Obama on the calls between Flynn and Kislyak, requested that Flynn’s name be unmasked on January 7. That request came just two days after a pivotal January 5 Oval Office meeting in which Obama, Biden, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Comey personally discussed Flynn’s calls. According to both Yates and Comey, Clapper personally briefed Obama on the calls as part of the DNI’s compilation of a Presidential Daily Briefing, or PDB, detailing the calls between Flynn and Kislyak. Michael Dempsey, Clapper’s deputy, also submitted an unmasking request on Flynn on January 7. Stephanie L. O’Sullivan, another Clapper deputy, submitted an unmasking request on January 7 as well.
Former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough submitted an unmasking request on Flynn on January 5, the same day as that Oval Office meeting. None of the Obama officials whose names appeared on the list of unmaskers has explained publicly why they sought access to Flynn’s communications or whether they illegally leaked the existence or substance of his phone calls to any reporters.