'Unmasking' Of Michael Flynn: Who Did It And Why It Is Important

May 13, 2020
Originally published on May 13, 2020 8:52 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In recent weeks, President Trump has been claiming, without any evidence, that the Obama administration tried to undermine him. Trump says, from the time he won in November 2016 until he was sworn in, the Obama White House was working against him. Trump and his supporters say this included a concerted effort directed at Michael Flynn, who lasted less than a month as national security adviser before stepping down amid controversy. Today, two Republican senators released a list of officials in the Obama administration who requested the unmasking of Michael Flynn on certain intelligence documents. To explain the significance of all of this, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. OK, let's first start by just having you explain, what exactly is unmasking?

MYRE: Well, it's perfectly lawful and routine. U.S. intelligence will be collecting information, often phone calls among foreign people they're targeting. And if they do pick up an American on those calls, when they make a transcript, they will black out the name of this U.S. person. But often a security official trying to make sense of it afterwards requests the identity of that U.S. person. Now, this happens 9,000 times a year. There's a process for it. And we want to make an important distinction here between unmasking - this lawful, legal procedure - and leaking. It is unlawful to leak classified information to the media or the public.

CHANG: OK. So what happened in this specific case of Michael Flynn?

MYRE: So just after the 2016 election, Michael Flynn is named national security adviser. And he calls the Russian ambassador in Washington. The U.S. is listening in to this call because they're quite interested in the Russian ambassador. They're still trying to determine the role of Russian interference in the election. And they hear Flynn. When they print up the document, they redact his name. But officials in the Obama administration request the name of this person, not knowing who it is but then finding out that it's Flynn. The process works. It's approved. The material is sent over to these administration officials.

Now, we don't know exactly who read it and who didn't, but Joe Biden was one of those involved. We do know that. Flynn ultimately lasted less than a month in office. Trump said he lied about his contacts with Russian officials. And and he ultimately pleaded guilty to lying, although his case is still playing out, as we've heard in recent weeks.

CHANG: So is there any sign that something improper was done here?

MYRE: No. We want to be very clear about that. The two senators who released this, Republicans Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Charles Grassley of Iowa - they said that these records they released are one step toward an important effort to get to the bottom of what the Obama administration did. But they're not alleging any wrongdoing at this point. Trump, meanwhile, has been talking about something he calls Obamagate and that there were crimes committed. But he's not making any specific charge. And a lot of critics are saying he's just trying to create an election year controversy but really doesn't have any substance to back it up.

CHANG: Well, speaking of the election, as you said, former Vice President Joe Biden was named here. He is the presumed presidential nominee for Democrats. Has Biden responded to any of this?

MYRE: Yes. He responded right away, put out a statement saying these documents, in his view, just confirm that all the normal procedures were followed. And he calls this the politicizing of intelligence, a criticism we've heard quite a bit recently. And he said these documents simply show how much interest there was in what Michael Flynn was doing in talking to the Russians.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.