'Unmaskings' may be common — and that's the problem

'Unmaskings' may be common — and that's the problem
© Greg Nash

There has been one common response to recent news that so many Obama administration figures “unmasked” then-Trump national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn: “There’s nothing wrong with unmaskings. They’re common and routine.”

That’s a bit like saying, “There’s nothing wrong with taking money. It happens all the time.” The reality is that “taking money” in payment for services or goods is entirely different than “taking money” by stealing it from somebody else. The propriety of the action depends on the context.

To understand how sensitive unmaskings are, here’s a simplified explanation.

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First, intel officials initially were barred under our Constitution and laws from capturing communications of innocent Americans during surveillance of foreign officials and terrorists.

Then they said, “Well, we sometimes need to capture those innocent U.S. citizens ‘incidentally’ when they communicate with a target, but we won’t store their information. We’ll protect their American rights.”

Then they said, “Well, we will store the info of the innocent U.S. citizens for just a little while. But we will carefully control access and we will ‘mask’ or hide the identities of the innocent U.S. citizens, even among intelligence officials, so they are not abused for political or nefarious purposes.”

Then they said, “Well, we need to store the names and info of the innocent U.S. citizens longer than we first said. And it will go into a database. But don’t worry, in the rare instance that their names are ‘unmasked,’ it will be a careful, controlled process that only a few can do.”

They added, “Nobody will be able to ‘unmask’ a name simply because they are curious or suspicious; there will have to be extremely important and well-documented reasons directly related to national security. This will be extremely rare.”

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But somehow, we’ve ended up with: “What’s wrong with unmaskings? There are thousands and thousands of them every year.” Defenders of the unmaskings — including some of those who requested them — put out the word, and many in the media dutifully have parroted the narrative without considering the context.

I was told by intel insiders back in 2015 that the process of surveilling and “unmasking” U.S. citizens was being abused. These insiders told me that when bad actors want to monitor a U.S. political figure, journalist or another citizen whom they have no legal justification to wiretap, they would “reverse engineer” a wiretap. In other words, they would look for people around the true target and try to make a legitimate-sounding case to wiretap those secondary figures. The goal was to listen in and accidentally or incidentally capture the true target’s communications. Then, the bad actors would say they needed to “unmask” the real target’s protected name in the intelligence, pretending they had no idea who it was —  when that person was the actual target of the spying all along.

As the documentary evidence has surfaced surrounding the events of 2016 and 2017, it begins to seem like we were watching such an operation in real time. Several red flags have emerged:

  • Assuming the requests to unmask Flynn were not politically motivated, the suspicions of so many Obama administration officials apparently were misplaced. Most of their requests to unmask Flynn were made before he ever had the conversation with FBI agents that resulted in his prosecution. They were unmasking, and invading the privacy, of an innocent U.S. citizen.

The unmasking requests regarding Flynn are just a hint of what we might find if we were to look at other requests and other targets. According to Clapper, the National Security Agency (NSA) maintains records showing who has made unmasking requests, the reasons they gave, and who approved or denied them. Are other presidential candidates and their associates, or are journalists, on the list? Are there abuses and excesses that continue today? What would we find if we could see the record of who requested searches of the NSA database for the names of certain people?

There seems to be little reason to question what Clapper and many in the media have said when they claim unmasking requests have become common and routine. But it’s all about context. Frequency doesn’t mean it’s right. 

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”