There is a well-known adage that denial is not a river in Egypt. With the release of a list of names of Obama administration officials who made unmasking requests concerning Michael Flynn, anyone continuing to deny that President Trump’s administration was being targeted by his predecessor would appear more rational were they to claim the ability to reverse the flow of the Nile itself. There are 39 names on that list – ten of them redacted. They appear in chronological order, according to the date on which each of them requested the unmasking of Flynn’s name.
The last name on the list is that of then-Vice President Joe Biden – and that is as good a place as any to start. There are several pivotal questions that, when answered, will expose the Flynn affair and the broader Trump-Russia conspiracy theory to the blinding light of truth.
What is Unmasking?
What is “unmasking” and why is it requested? Certain government officials are authorized to receive written intelligence reports pertaining to ongoing investigations. If an American citizen, caught up in the investigation, is named in the report, his or her name is redacted to prevent such things as politically-motivated retribution. An official may request that the name be revealed to them, but they must provide a compelling reason.
A Trail of Lies
Joe Biden submitted his unmasking request on Jan. 12, 2017, just a week before his time as vice president was to end. What possible reason he could have had for knowing the redacted name – a name he almost certainly already knew – is one of the questions that begs an answer. In a recent interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, the presumed Democratic Party presidential candidate denied having any knowledge of the Flynn investigation.
Samantha Power, who was Barack Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, submitted seven unmasking requests between Nov 30, 2016, and Jan 11, 2017. Power testified under oath that she had made no such requests. James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, requested the unmasking of Flynn’s name twice in Dec 2016 and once in Jan 2017, yet he testified that he had made only one such request.
Former FBI Director James Comey submitted a request on Dec 15, 2016, and there can be little doubt that he also knew the name of the individual he wanted to unmask. The newly-declassified document lists no fewer than 49 unmasking requests between Nov 30, 2016, and Jan 12, 2017. Trump named Flynn as his national security advisor on Nov 18, 2016.
Why was Michael Flynn, the former US Army lieutenant general who Trump tapped as his national security advisor, being investigated in the first place? Federal investigations – particularly those involving national security matters – will often spawn separate but related inquiries as new intelligence is gathered and individuals not previously known to be connected to the original investigation are swept up.
There has been a lot of talk about predication. Did the FBI have sufficient predication to investigate Flynn? The answer to that question depends on whether one is employing reason or following Department of Justice guidelines – and those two things are, at times, mutually exclusive. Predication is, basically, probable cause or a set of facts that point toward the need for something or someone to be investigated.
A reasonable person would conclude that, no, the investigation of Flynn was not sufficiently predicated. The FBI in August of 2016 documented that Flynn “may wittingly or unwittingly be involved in activity on behalf of the Russian Federation which may constitute a federal crime or threat to the national security.” To this day, however, no one from the FBI or the wider U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has explained what “activity” Flynn was involved in that raised concerns.
The same FBI file goes on: “Flynn was an advisor to the Trump campaign, had various ties to state-affiliated entities of Russia, and traveled to Russia in December 2015.” Again, these “various ties” have not been explained, and the mere fact that Flynn went to Russia in 2015 means nothing. Former British spy Christopher Steele spent a lot of time in Russia, and the FBI, at one time, considered him a trusted human intelligence source and even used information he provided to obtain a FISA warrant.
“Flynn was an advisor to the Trump campaign…” appears to be the real predication, here. Once he was tapped for the national security position in the White House, Flynn would have been the primary target for anyone wishing to know what was going on in the new administration.
The Justice Department sets the bar for predication very low, however. One could almost say that, if the FBI decides it wants to investigate someone, it could conjure up predication sufficient to satisfy DOJ standards by having an agent Google the target’s name and jot down some notes.
Unmasking a Scandal
The idea that Flynn speaking with the Russian ambassador by telephone was somehow suspicious is utter nonsense. At that point, the former general was the incoming national security advisor. It should have been a matter of concern, then, if he was not reaching out to foreign powers. Equally ridiculous is the notion that Flynn had violated the anachronistic Logan Act. The very fact that he was weeks away from becoming one of the new president’s key advisors meant that, by definition, Flynn could not possibly be undermining U.S. foreign policy.
Several of the Obama administration officials frantically submitting these unmasking requests almost certainly knew who they were unmasking. What was their urgency, given that a great many of them knew they would hold their positions for only a few more weeks? When will their requests be declassified, so that it may be understood why they felt a compelling need to have Flynn’s name confirmed? How many other people connected to the Trump campaign – or tapped for positions in the incoming administration – were also the subjects of unmasking requests? Whose names have been redacted from this document? Are the American people just now seeing the tip of the iceberg of what may well be the biggest political scandal in U.S. history?
Read more from Graham J. Noble.