By now, Senate Democrats have to wonder just how fast they can get John Ratcliffe confirmed — and Richard Grenell back in Germany. Last week, the acting Director of National Intelligence forced Adam Schiff into releasing transcripts of the House Intelligence Committee Russiagate interviews. Apparently at the same time, Grenell walked a newly declassified list of Obama administration officials that had “unmasked” Michael Flynn after his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, ABC News reported last night:
Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell has declassified a list of former Obama administration officials who were allegedly involved in the so-called “unmasking” of former national security adviser Michael Flynn in his conversations with the former Russian ambassador during the presidential transition, a senior U.S. official tells ABC News. …
His visit indicates his focus on an issue previously highlighted in 2017 by skeptics of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, specifically allegations that former officials improperly unveiled Flynn’s identity from intercepts of his call with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
To refresh everyone’s memory, the conversations between Flynn and Kislyak got picked up through counterintelligence means. Intel agencies are forbidden to conduct surveillance and collect intelligence on US persons inside the US unless specifically authorized by a FISA warrant. Identities of US persons are therefore withheld by the agency that captures them when passing along the information. Those identities are only supposed to be revealed if the material suggests a real threat — which are supposed to be rare occasions, and only by people who need to know that information.
We already know that former national security adviser Susan Rice and CIA director John Brennan have figured into previous “unmasking” requests, but they occupied positions with legitimate authority for those requests. Whether the requests themselves were legitimate have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, but Rice apparently answered for her own requests satisfactorily enough for House Republicans in 2017.
Samantha Power, on the other hand, presents a more curious case. As ambassador to the UN, Power had little authority to conduct counterintelligence or law-enforcement operations. Yet her name is on 260 or so “unmasking” requests, and no one has gotten a good answer as to why Power would need to know this information at all. Power later claimed that someone used her name to make these requests, but that doesn’t make much sense either; if someone wanted to get that information, they would have used the name of an official with actual need-to-know responsibilities and authority, not the UN Ambassador.
So on the one hand, the name(s) of the requester(s) declassified by Grenell will be very interesting indeed. (So is the fact that Grenell has a “list of former Obama administration officials” and not just one name.) But that still leaves another issue to be resolved, which is why that request was granted at all. Flynn was, at the time, the incoming nat-sec adviser to the president-elect, and it was perfectly legitimate for him to have discussions with ambassadors. The conversations in question involved American policy on retaliation for Russian spying, which is also a legitimate area of discussion for a transition team. Even if the requesters all had authority to ask for the unmasking, the question of legitimacy still remains.
If Flynn got unmasked and then targeted without a legitimate predicate, then someone committed a crime. That’s why Grenell walked this list over to William Barr, who will likely pass it directly to John Durham and the investigation into Crossfire Hurricane. And that is why Senate Democrats might be motivated to get Grenell out of a position where he has authority to make these decisions by confirming Ratcliffe ASAP — before Grenell finds anything more to declassify about Operation Crossfire Hurricane.