OPINION | The Flynn unmaskers unmasked

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WHEN news stories appeared in early 2017 about Michael Flynn’s conversation with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., these columns wondered how Mr. Flynn’s call was so widely known.

The names of private U.S. citizens caught on tape by U.S. intelligence are supposed to be “masked” so their privacy is protected.

Well, now we know. GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson on Wednesday last week released a declassified list of Obama administration officials who in their waning days in power “unmasked” the conversations of Mr. Flynn, who was set to become President Trump’s National Security Adviser. It seems everyone but the night janitor wanted to know who Mr. Flynn was talking to.

A stunning 39 separate officials snooped on Mr. Flynn’s conversations with foreign actors, lodging nearly 50 unmasking demands between Nov. 30, 2016 and Jan. 12, 2017. Our sources say the nearly dozen redacted names on the list are likely intelligence types — who might have a legitimate interest in knowing who their foreign targets were speaking to in the U.S. But most of the rest are partisan officials who had no business spying on their successors.

The list includes then White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, then Vice President Joe Biden, and then Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew. Ambassador to the U.N. and Obama confidante Samantha Power made no fewer than seven requests, though she told Congress she had no recollection of unmasking Mr. Flynn.

Mr. Flynn was unmasked by at least four U.S. ambassadors, six Treasury officials, and people connected to the Energy and Justice departments and NATO, among others. Then FBI Director James Comey, then CIA Director John Brennan and then Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also made the list. This means they had access to the transcripts of any phone conversations Mr. Flynn had with foreign sources as he prepared to take power.

The media cordon sanitaire that protects Democrats will say this is no big deal because unmasking is routine and legal. But if the masking rule means nothing in practice, why pretend it exists? The Flynn unmasking is important because it occurred amid a media frenzy over supposed Trump campaign collusion with Russia. Leaks to the Washington Post about the conversations between the Russian ambassador and both Mr. Flynn and soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions were played up as central to the collusion scandal. They caused Mr. Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia probe and Mr. Flynn to be fired. While unmasking isn’t illegal, leaking intelligence is.

There are other dots to connect. Documents released last week show that former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates first learned about the Flynn wiretapping from no less than President Barack Obama in a Jan. 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting. At least one of the unmaskers must have told Mr. Obama.

The dates of the unmaskings raise further questions. The FBI’s interest in Mr. Flynn was supposedly triggered by conversations starting Dec. 29, 2016. Yet Mr. Flynn was first unmasked a month earlier —shortly after Mr. Trump named him security adviser.

The McDonough unmasking takes place on Jan. 5, 2017 — the day of the Oval Office meeting at which Mr. Flynn was discussed. Mr. Biden’s unmasking request was made on Jan. 12, 2017 —  the day the Washington Post reported on the Flynn-Russia conversation. Mr. Biden has some explaining to do.

All of this is fodder for U.S. Attorney John Durham as he tries to unmask the origins of the Russia collusion political ambush. The Flynn unmaskings, and the timely media leaks, take the story into the Obama White House. The peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of American democracy, or at least it used to be. It isn’t supposed to be an opportunity for the Administration that lost the election to cripple its successors as they take power.

 

 

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