Warner asks intel chief to fork over underlying 'unmasking' intel on Michael Flynn
It’s not clear whether Republicans will endorse any aspects of Warner’s request, though the Senate intel panel has operated on a relatively bipartisan basis.
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee has requested that the acting director of national intelligence hand over the underlying intelligence reports at the center of the so-called unmasking controversy.
In a letter sent Wednesday and obtained by POLITICO, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) raised concerns with Richard Grenell about the intel chief’s decision last week to declassify the names of Obama administration officials involved in unmasking the name in intelligence reports of a U.S. person later determined to be Michael Flynn, the incoming national security adviser.
“Selectively declassifying intelligence solely for political purposes undermines the Intelligence Community’s credibility, and erodes public trust in institutions critical to protecting the nation,” Warner wrote. He requested that Grenell “provide the Committee with the underlying intelligence reports in which the identity of the individual was ‘unmasked’” to be Flynn.
As the committee’s top Democrat, Warner has no power to compel Grenell to comply. It’s not clear whether Republicans will endorse any aspects of Warner’s request, though the Senate intel panel has operated on a more bipartisan basis than its more raucous House counterpart. The incoming chairman, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), recently replaced Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who stepped aside amid a probe of his financial dealings.
Critics have seized on the declassified list, which includes former Vice President Joe Biden, as evidence that Flynn was spied on by the Obama administration, which picked up Flynn speaking with the former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during routine surveillance of foreign officials. Flynn suggested in the calls that the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration to punish Russian election interference might be overturned by Trump and urged the Russians not to retaliate, FBI officials have said.
But the declassified list, which was provided by the National Security Agency, appears to have nothing to do with the Flynn-Kislyak calls, which were discovered by the FBI. According to The Washington Post, Flynn’s name was not masked — or “minimized,” in FBI parlance — in those records.
National security experts and former officials have also noted that the “unmaskers” wouldn’t have known whom they were trying to get more information about — and that the frequency with which Flynn’s name showed up in intercepted calls with foreign officials before entering the administration, and the corresponding swell of unmasking requests, is evidence only that the Obama administration was alarmed by the content of the conversations and sought to find out more.
“There are thousands of such requests each year, each subject to the same process before it is approved,” Warner wrote of unmasking requests, noting that under the Trump administration the number of unmasked identities jumped from 9,529 in 2017 to 16,721 in 2018.
Grenell has been on a declassification tear in recent days as he prepares to hand the office over to his successor. In the past week he has declassified not only the list of Obama administration officials involved in the unmasking, but also an email that former national security adviser Susan Rice sent herself in January 2017 memorializing a meeting with Obama, former FBI Director James Comey and others in which concerns were expressed over Flynn’s calls with Kisylak.
Now, Warner is asking that Grenell “declassify and make publicly available any intelligence report concerning conversations between Lt. Gen. Flynn (ret.) and Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak,” in order “to more fully and properly inform the American people of the events surrounding the unmasking of” Flynn.
“These calls have been the topic of the multiple investigations, trials, and plea agreements concerning General Flynn and merit being in the public domain,” Warner wrote, citing a 2009 executive order governing classified national security information that calls for information to be declassified “in some exceptional cases, [where] the need to protect such information may be outweighed by the public interest in disclosure of the information.”
Grenell is on the verge of being replaced by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), who was just cleared as the permanent director of national intelligence by the Senate Intelligence Committee and is expected to pass the final hurdle — a full Senate vote — later this week.
But pressure is mounting on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify more information about the Flynn-Kislyak calls, including the transcripts of the calls themselves. The Justice Department recently moved to dismiss the case against Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the content of those calls in January 2017.
On Tuesday, Rice also called for the DNI to release the unredacted transcripts.
“In the interest of transparency, Ambassador Rice again calls upon the Director of National Intelligence to release the unredacted transcripts of all Kislyak-Flynn calls,” Rice’s spokesperson said in a statement. “The American people deserve the full transcripts so they can judge for themselves Michael Flynn’s conduct.”
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.