Former Vice President Joe Biden and other top Obama officials received information in response to “unmasking” requests targeting retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn in the final weeks of the previous administration, according to a memo declassified by acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.
The list, obtained by the Washington Examiner on Wednesday, shows Biden received information at least once in response to such an unmasking request on Jan. 12, 2017, but it is not clear whether he made the request or even looked at the information. Biden is now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in the 2020 contest for the White House.
The newly declassified records show that 16 individuals made unmasking requests related to the incoming Trump national security adviser and the list shows which officials received that sensitive information. It was not immediately clear which individuals made the requests, but those who received the unmasking information were laid out chronologically.
Former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough, and former FBI Director James Comey are all on the list.
Republicans have alleged since 2017 that Obama-era officials improperly unmasked associates of then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign during the Russian investigation. Democrats have defended the intelligence-gathering process, arguing that the collection of identifying information is inevitable.
Unmasking occurs when U.S. intelligence agencies eavesdropping on foreigners sweep up communications with U.S. citizens in what is known as an incidental collection. When intelligence reporting is shared across the government, the names of U.S. citizens are typically concealed or masked to protect their identities. The names can be unmasked, however, if U.S. officials make the request.
In an interview earlier this week, after first denying he knew anything about the FBI investigation into Michael Flynn, Biden corrected himself when pressed on it by journalist George Stephanopoulos, who noted his presence at a high-profile Oval Office meeting in the final days of the Obama administration on Jan. 5, 2017. After that meeting, documents show Comey discussed with Obama and Biden intercepted contacts between Michael Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
Biden audibly sighed on ABC’s Good Morning America as Stephanopoulos asked what the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee knew about an early 2017 investigation into Michael Flynn and whether there was anything improper done by the Obama administration.
“I know nothing about those moves to investigate Michael Flynn,” Biden said. “This is all about diversion. This is a game this guy plays all the time. The country is in crisis. … He should stop trying to always divert attention from the real concerns of the American people.”
But after Stephanopoulos followed up, noting that the former vice president was said to be in attendance at the early January 2017 meeting, Biden corrected himself.
“I thought you asked me whether or not I had anything to do with him being prosecuted,” Biden replied, after fidgeting with his earpiece. “I was aware that there was, that they asked for an investigation, but that’s all I know about it.”
The new unmasking information was unearthed earlier this May by Gen. Paul Nakasone of the National Security Agency in response to a request from Grenell. The details were released by the top spy chief following requests by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
“The officials listed should confirm whether they reviewed this information, why they asked for it and what they did with it, and answer any other questions that have been raised by recent revelations,” Johnson and Grassley said in a joint statement. “We are making this public because the American people have a right to know what happened.”
The new NSA document sheds some light on the murky unmasking process.
“Below is a list of recipients who may have received Lt. Gen. Flynn’s identity in response to a request processed between 8 November 2016 and 31 January 2017 to unmask an identity that had been generically referred to in an NSA foreign intelligence report,” the NSA said. “Each individual was an authorized recipient of the original report and the unmasking was approved through NSA’s standard process, which includes a review of the justification for the request.”
The NSA further noted: “Only certain personnel are authorized to submit unmasking requests into the NSA system. In this case, 16 authorized individuals requested unmaskings for [REDACTED] different NSA intelligence reports for select identified principals. While the principals are identified below, we cannot confirm they saw the unmasked information. This response does not include any requests outside of the specified time-frame.”
The declassified list covers the time period from Election Day on Nov. 8, 2016, through the Trump presidential transition period and Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 2017, to the end of that month.
Power was the authorized recipient of information from unmasking requests made on Nov. 30, Dec. 2, Dec. 7, twice on Dec. 14, Dec. 23, and Jan. 11; Clapper on Dec. 2, Dec. 28, and Jan. 7; Brennan on Dec. 14 and Dec. 15; McDonough on Jan. 5; and Comey on Dec. 15.
Numerous other top Obama national security officials are named as having received Flynn unmasking intelligence too, although the names of a dozen recipients remain redacted.
“We commend Acting DNI Grenell and Attorney General Barr for their transparency and responsiveness,” Johnson and Grassley said in a statement. “Our investigation of these matters has been ongoing for years, and as information finally comes to light, our focus on these issues is even more important now.”
“The records are one step forward in an important effort to get to the bottom of what the Obama administration did during the Russia investigation and to Michael Flynn,” the senators said. “We will continue to review this information and push for additional relevant disclosures until we are satisfied that the American people know the full truth.”