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The Big New DC Controversy: 'Unmasking' of Michael Flynn

A big abuse of power or a routine request by government officials?
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted May 14, 2020 12:25 PM CDT

(Newser) – Michael Flynn has been making a lot of headlines lately, and the new ones generally have the word "unmasking" in them. Details on the term and controversy:

  • The start: Back in 2016, officials in the Obama administration received intelligence reports about the surveillance of Russia's ambassador to the US, explains the AP. The reports revealed he had been talking with an American—unnamed in the reports—about how the Kremlin would respond to sanctions imposed by the Obama White House.
  • Unmasking: Several White House officials—including, most notably, VP Joe Biden—requested that the American be identified. It turned out to be Flynn, who was working on the Trump transition to the White House. This type of "unmasking" request is relatively routine: The Wall Street Journal reports it is made thousands of times a year by US officials who are looking for more context to intelligence reports. In fact, such unmasking requests have been used more often by the Trump administration than by the Obama administration.
  • The difference: Unmasking may be routine, but it is has become highly controversial in this case. "Conservatives have long seized on Flynn’s unmasking to imply that he was treated unfairly by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials," per the Washington Post. What's more, President Trump and his allies say it shows that the Russian investigation was politically motivated.

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  • Declassified: The nation's intelligence chief, Richard Grenell, recently declassified the list of Obama officials who sought the unmasking, which the New York Times reports is a "highly unusual" move. He provided the list to Sens. Charles Grassley, Ron Johnson, and Rand Paul, who made it public.
  • Competing narratives: "Buckle up! Wow! Huge, massive developments in the biggest abuse-of-power, corruption scandal in American history" is how Sean Hannity began his Fox show Wednesday night, notes Axios. Trump is calling all this "Obamagate" and "the greatest political crime in the history of our country.” In a statement, Biden's camp said "these documents ... confirm that all normal procedures were followed—any suggestion otherwise is a flat out lie." It adds that "importantly, none of these individuals could have known Flynn’s identity beforehand."
  • Big picture: This is all "part of the struggle over who controls the narrative of the investigation of the 2016 election,” Steven Aftergood, an expert on government classification at the Federation of American Scientists, tells the Times. "It is putting the spotlight on the investigators rather than the investigated. It is saying what is irregular here is not the extraordinary contacts with the Russian government but the attempt to understand them."
  • Q&A: The story has endless narratives, and NPR has an all-encompassing Q&A about it. One tidbit: It reiterates that the "unmasking" itself was routine and perfectly legal. "What may have been illegal was when an official in the White House, reviewing these reports and having unmasked Flynn, revealed some of what information to The Washington Post's David Ignatius for a column published Jan. 12, 2017. That sparked the series of events that led to Flynn's defenestration."
(Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI over his talks with the ambassador, but the outcome of his case remains very much up in the air.)

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