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Clapper: 'Routine' to ask to 'unmask' unknown individuals in intelligence reports

Clapper: 'Routine' to ask to 'unmask' unknown individuals in intelligence reports
© Greg Nash

Former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James ClapperJames Robert ClapperThe new marshmallow media in the Biden era Will China get the foreign policy president it wants? Is America ready to return to the Obama-Biden foreign policy? MORE said Thursday it is “routine” to “unmask” American citizens who have been caught up in surveillance of foreign individuals as Republicans spark an uproar over allegations that officials spied on former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

“Over the six and a half almost seven years when I served as DNI I would say perhaps once or twice a week perhaps,” Clapper said on CNN when asked how frequently he would request an American’s identity to be revealed. 

“It’s a routine thing. It’s appropriate and legitimate when you have a valid foreign intelligence target engaging with a U.S. person. Is it, for example, an insider, someone in the government engaging with a foreign adversary? So it’s important from the standpoint of potential jeopardy to national security that you understand what’s going on.” 

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Clapper was one of several Obama-era officials named on Wednesday by the Trump administration and Republican senators who they say asked for documents that led to Flynn being “unmasked” from intelligence reports between the 2016 election and President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE’s inauguration. 

Government officials typically redact the names of American citizens in intelligence reports they receive in order to protect their privacy, though it is common for officials to request that the names be revealed, or “unmasked,” to provide the government with context about the material.

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Clapper maintained that officials do not know the individual who will be unmasked prior to making their request, dismissing claims that the government was working to target Flynn.

“Again, if I’d known that, there wouldn’t have been a need to ask,” he said.

Clapper requested officials “unmask” Flynn three times, though he said he does not recall what prompted his requests. 

Flynn was being scrutinized at the time for discussions he had with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the Obama administration’s sanctions on Moscow. Flynn ultimately pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to federal agents about conversations he had with the Russian diplomat, but he has since sought to withdraw his plea and is in the midst of a closely-watched court battle after the Justice Department announced it was dropping charges. 

“There was general concern about the number of engagements with Russians that we were seeing happening. We may not necessarily have known what the content of these engagements were, but there were numerous engagements by representatives of the Trump camp with Russians. So that was a general concern anyway,” Clapper said, noting he saw no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Still, Republicans have pointed to the list of names released Wednesday as evidence that Flynn was targeted as part of a politically-motivated investigation to try to handicap Trump’s presidency.

“The records are one step forward in an important effort to get to the bottom of what the Obama administration did during the Russia investigation and to Lt. General Flynn,” Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus MORE (R-Wis.) and Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyColorado governor, spouse test positive for COVID-19 McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Iowa) said in a joint statement Wednesday.

Trump on Wednesday weighed in, calling the unmasking “a massive thing.”