Washington D.C. – Attorney General (AG) William Barr’s probe into the Obama administration’s handling of intelligence reports also known as unmasking requests, dissolved last week.
Former U.S. Attorney and lead investigator on the probe, John Bash, found no irregularities. This gives birth to real tension between Trump and Barr. Trump wants to convict Obama administration officials who made unmasking requests but Barr is either unwilling or unable to go as far as Trump wants.
Masking vs. Unmasking
Masking and unmasking are terms used by intelligence agencies. Masking refers to shielding the names of individuals mentioned in an intelligence report. Such individuals are not targets of the investigation in question. For example, instead of referring to someone by name, a masked report might refer to “U.S. Person 1.”
Masked individuals are not usually the subjects of an investigation but they may have some information that can help authorities. Masking simply protects their Fourth Amendment rights.
Like solving an investigative puzzle, high-level government officials may need to know the real identity of the masked person in an intelligence report. This is where the concept of unmasking comes into play.
When necessary, authorized officials can ask investigative agencies to reveal to them the identity of a masked person. Unmasking requests must meet at least one of the seven criteria set under the United States Signals Intelligence Directive. One such criterion is that the unmasked information includes evidence of a crime.
So, what led to Barr’s unmasking probe?
In May, Richard Grenell, President Trump’s Acting Director of National Intelligence, released a list of Obama administration officials who made unmasking requests to the National Security Agency November as documented in a November 2016 NSA memorandum.
One of the unmasked individuals is Trump’s former National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn. According to Trump, these requests were made by the Obama administration to sabotage the president’s election campaign. Barr’s investigation links this unmasking request to the FBI investigation into Flynn’s false statements regarding his secret call to the former Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
From a legal standpoint, this connection makes no sense, primarily because the FBI — not the NSA — is investigating Flynn. The NSA’s investigation report masking Flynn has nothing to do with the FBI’s investigation. Flynn’s secret call to Kislyak was allegedly made after the unmasking requests. Further, only the FBI can conduct electronic surveillance of foreign diplomats like Kislyak.
The NSA officials told Current Affairs Times that only the DOJ can explain the valid reasons behind this probe if any. The DOJ refused to comment.
A flawed probe right from the beginning
Democrats are calling this a baseless probe by the DOJ. The purpose of an unmasking request is to merely identify a person. Unmasking cannot be used to investigate or target the masked individual. Officers don’t even know who the masked individual is until their request gets approved.
In the current DOJ probe, the 39 officials including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers and U.S. ambassadors would not know it was Flynn while making an unmasking request. The officials were only reacting to alarming communications. Obviously, this fact is bad news for Trump who is looking at bringing charges of wrongdoing against these officials.
One important point in Grenell’s NSA memorandum is that every single officer that made an unmasking request, was authorized to do so through NSA’s established process. Each of their requests met at least one of the NSA’s seven criteria.
What was Flynn really up to that raised an alarm among officials and why is the probe overlooking what Flynn was really doing?
Thumbnail Credits: CNN
- FBI Press Office
- NSA Press Office