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Opinion The only culprit in the Flynn ‘unmasking’ scandal is the Trump administration

Michael Flynn in September 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

There was no wrongdoing on the part of Obama administration officials who, during the presidential transition in 2016 and 2017, “unmasked” the identity of Michael Flynn, who was set to become national security adviser. Indeed, the only wrongdoing is by the Trump administration, which, in releasing last week a list of officials who made the unmasking requests, has yet again politicized the intelligence community.

The Trump administration released the list to promote its claim that officials in the outgoing administration attempted to discredit Flynn and others associated with the incoming administration. But this claim makes absolutely no sense.

To understand why, we need some background on the unmasking procedure. In the course of doing its job to gather information critical to our national security, the intelligence community might discover that a foreign intelligence target has talked about or even to an American. The intelligence community is only interested in the foreign side of the information collected and, in reporting it, will only make reference to the American if it is important to understanding the intelligence. Even then, to protect the privacy of that American, they would refer to him or her simply as “a U.S. person.” This isn’t required by the Constitution, but it has been a long-established protection.

Most recipients of the reports don’t care about the identities of U.S. persons. There are, however, cases in which, to do his or her duty, the official receiving the report does need to know the identity. For example, if a report says that foreign intelligence officers were considering recruiting a U.S. person, it would be irresponsible for the FBI not to ask for the identity of that American, if only to warn them about the recruiting attempt.

That being the case, intelligence rules allow certain recipients of these reports to ask the intelligence community for the true name of a U.S. person. But the rules are clear that the intelligence community can unmask the name only if the requester needs to know it to do their job. If approved, the true name only goes to that requester.

The process of unmasking has been routine under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Indeed, last year, there were about 7,700 requests made, with most — but not all — approved. I don’t know of a single case when this process has been abused. Only a specially trained group is authorized to do the unmaskings, and their work is closely monitored and audited.

There are four things to note about the unmasking requests related to Flynn: First, there’s nothing suspicious about the fact that Flynn’s name appeared with some frequency in intelligence reports. As incoming national security adviser, he must have had multiple conversations a day with senior foreign officials. Perhaps some of those conversations were collected. But, even more likely, the foreign officials who had a conversation with Flynn, in turn, had conversations with others in their own governments about their discussion with Flynn, which were collected and reported, with Flynn identified only as a U.S. person. Doing this would be in accordance with procedure.

Second, some have speculated that these unmasking requests must mean that the requesters were hunting for — and knew they were unmasking — Flynn. This is nonsense. The whole reason for making an unmasking request is to reveal a name that an official doesn’t know and needs to know to do their job. Indeed, there’s no way of even knowing whether the unmasking requests were “aimed” at the U.S. person who was Flynn, since many requests are to unmask all the names in a given report — and Flynn’s might have just turned up in the report along with others.

Third, the idea that the requesters in the Obama administration were seeking to highlight ties between Flynn and Russia is belied by the breadth of the intelligence reports that were the subject of these unmaskings. The wide range of responsibilities of the mostly nonpolitical civil servants from various departments in the federal government who are on the released list shows that the reporting covered issues apparently ranging from Russia and Turkey to counterterrorism and the Middle East.

Finally, the fact that a senior official’s name appeared on the list doesn’t necessarily mean that the official actually made the request. In many cases, unmasking requests are made by a senior official’s daily intelligence briefer so they could be prepared to answer any questions the official might raise. The intelligence community nonetheless records that as a request by the senior official.

The simple fact is that the list of individuals making completely legitimate unmasking requests is not news. The only news here is the continuing politicization of the intelligence community. This public release of requesters’ names is unprecedented, and there was no particular reason for it to be done now, or ever. Seeking the list in the first place, declassifying it and providing it only to Republican members of Congress — who immediately handed it to the media — strongly suggests that the intent was to create a political spectacle. We cannot allow that to happen.

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