“One crime is certain to have been committed,” wrote conservative journalist John Solomon, “an unmasked conversation between Flynn and Russia’s ambassador to Washington was leaked to at least two media outlets.”
Fox News host Laura Ingraham added that “the practice itself — unmasking — isn’t illegal, but passing the info around for illicit purposes, leaking it to the press — oh, yes, that is illegal. And we know that occurred here.”
In a letter this week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell “why the list released on May 13th did not contain a record showing who unmasked General Flynn’s identity for his phone call with Ambassador Kislyak.”
Turns out there’s a very good reason the list didn’t show who unmasked Flynn’s name in that call: Because it was never masked in the first place. As The Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported Wednesday, it was the FBI, not the National Security Agency, that wiretapped Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s calls — a common and legal practice. And Flynn’s name was never redacted in its report:
“When the FBI circulated [the report], they included Flynn’s name from the beginning” because it was essential to understanding its significance, said a former senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive intelligence. “There were therefore no requests for the unmasking of that information.”
The upshot here is that the unmaskings have not actually been connected to the Flynn-Kislyak calls or to the leaking of information about them to the press.
The most notable leak was to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. On Jan. 12, 2017, Ignatius broke the news of Flynn’s talks with Kislyak and raised the prospect that they had discussed the Obama administration’s recently imposed sanctions -- in potential violation of an unenforced federal law called the Logan Act. The Post eventually reported Flynn and Kislyak had in fact discussed sanctions, but Flynn lied about this to the FBI and pleaded guilty to doing so. (The Justice Department now seeks to drop this prosecution.)
In other words, breathless theories about how the unmaskings prove the Obama White House was involved in the leaks have crumbled — at least based upon what we know now.
To be clear, not everyone who has objected to the unmaskings has tied them to the Kislyak calls like this. More discerning experts and pundits have acknowledged that the list provided to senators by Grenell included no such evidence — and even acknowledged the likelihood that Flynn’s identity was never masked in the first place.
But that didn’t stop the likes of Graham from acting as though it had been. Nor did it stop Trump allies such as the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), from going on Fox News and lumping it all together.
“They were unmasking anyone and everyone so that they could leak information to a press that was willing to take that illegal information to build a fake, phony narrative to set up numerous people on the Trump team — not just General Flynn,” Nunes said a week ago.
Others have suggestively looked at the dates of the unmaskings in an attempt to tie them to Flynn-Kislyak calls or the leak to Ignatius.
“Now, who do you think made the unmasking requests that day?” Ingraham said last week, referring to the date Flynn and Kislyak made contact. “None other than former director of national intelligence James Clapper.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board applied this speculative theory to Biden last week.
“Mr. Biden’s unmasking request was made on Jan. 12, 2017 — the day The Washington Post reported on the Flynn-Russia conversation,” it wrote. “Mr. Biden has some explaining to do.”
Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) echoed this idea:
After the Kislyak-Flynn call, only a few individuals put in requests to unmask Flynn — including Obama Chief of Staff @DenisMcDonough and @JoeBiden.— Rep. Jody Hice (@CongressmanHice) May 15, 2020
Biden made the last on Jan 12.
Also on Jan 12, the *illegally leaked* unmasked call appeared in the WaPo...
Biden seems to have less explaining to do now that we know that Flynn’s name was never masked in the first place.
The revelation comes after, earlier in the week, Attorney General William P. Barr dismissed the idea of a criminal investigation of former president Barack Obama or Biden.
There is much we still don’t know here. But what has been evident from the beginning is that this alleged scandal — “Obamagate,” as Trump has called it — has been built on a whole lot of baseless suggestion and inference. Proponents are exploiting the secretive but entirely common process of unmasking (which is alien to 99.9 percent of Americans) to construct an elaborate but extremely speculative conspiracy theory.
In doing so, they have been aided by the selective release of information by Grenell and GOP senators, which provided just enough for them to inject a whiff of plausibility that this involved the Obama White House or even Biden — but never truly substantiated that allegation in the first place.
It’s always important to be circumspect with this kind of information, acknowledging there is plenty we don’t yet know that has yet to be revealed. But it’s also important not to jump to flimsy conclusions by going beyond the evidence — and rather blatantly so.