Former Vice President Joe Biden, former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan, and more than a dozen other Obama administration officials all sought the “unmasking” of a person who was on the other end of wiretapped phone calls of then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak between December 2016 and early January 2017, key Republican senators announced on Wednesday.
The announcement is part of a larger plan among GOP legislators to lean into Donald Trump‘s “Obamagate” theory, which maintains that the former president and his top intelligence chiefs sought to entrap incoming Trump officials in legal controversy to kneecap his presidency from the start.
The person on the other end of the phone calls with Mr Kislyak turned out to be incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty — and subsequently revoked that plea — to lying to FBI agents about his contact with the Russian diplomat.
The Justice Department moved to drop its case against Mr Flynn last week.
“Today we received a list of individuals who requested the unmasking of Lt. General Michael Flynn and others who received access to that information,” Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson and Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
“The officials listed should confirm whether they reviewed this information, why they asked for it and what they did with it, and answer many other questions that have been raised by recent revelations. We are making this public because the American people have a right to know what happened. We commend Acting DNI [Richard] Grenell and Attorney General [William] Barr for their transparency and responsiveness,” the senators said.
Several Senate Republicans huddled with Mr Trump at the White House on Tuesday, though most of the reporting of those discussions centred on the ongoing coronavirus response.
Mr Johnson and Mr Grassley lead the same committees that are investigating Mr Biden’s son Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company and whether the former vice president wielded any unethical political influence in the country to abet his son’s personal financial interests.
They have not provided any evidence to substantiate such claims, which have been broadly dismissed by Democrats and officials from countries allied with the US.
The “unmasking” of certain people involved in calls wiretapped by the National Security Agency (NSA) is not an extraordinary step.
Authorised national security officials, including the vice president and other intelligence personnel with top clearances such as FBI and CIA directors, can apply to have the NSA disclose to them the identities of people on wiretapped phone calls.
That’s exactly what Mr Biden, Mr Comey, Mr Brennan, and others did regarding Mr Kislyak’s phone calls with Mr Flynn.
“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 document provided from the office of the DNI to Mr Grassley and Mr Johnson states.
Mr Trump fired Mr Flynn in February 2017 after the White House discovered the national security adviser had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Mr Kislyak.
Mr Obama had previously warned Mr Trump not to hire Mr Flynn.
Mr Trump’s “Obamagate” theory is not exactly new, though he coined the term amid a 126-tweet and retweet storm on Mother’s Day on Sunday and it has since taken off on social media and in right-wing circles.
For more than a year, Republicans have been slamming former top officials at the FBI and Justice Department under former President Barack Obama for using shoddy pretences to launch the 2016 Russia investigation that later led to the special counsel investigation of Robert Mueller.
The DOJ needs to “investigate the investigators,” Mr Trump has declared multiple times since last year.
That’s exactly what the DOJ is doing. In May 2019, Attorney General William Barr tasked US Attorney John Durham to conduct an administrative review of the origins of the Russia investigation to determine whether intelligence officials’ collection of information on the Trump campaign was “lawful and appropriate.”
That administrative review has since become a criminal investigation, though law enforcement has released no evidence to date to suggest criminal conduct by the FBI investigators involved in the 2016 Russia probe.
Republican lawmakers for years have accused the leaders of the FBI’s Russia probe of letting political bias influence their investigation, a position that was not substantiated by a report last year from DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Mr Horowitz’s report does, however, highlight a rash of issues with how the agents conducted the probe, including problems with their Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant applications.