National Security

Ex-acting CIA chief: GOP probe into Flynn ‘unmasking’ an effort ‘to create a political spectacle’

Aaron Schwartz

Former deputy CIA director Michael Morell said Republican calls for an investigation into the “unmasking” of former national security adviser Michael Flynn was likely an attempt to “create a political spectacle” in a Sunday op-ed for the Washington Post.

In the op-ed, Morell, who served as deputy director from 2010 to 2013 and twice served as acting director during the same period, wrote that former officials in the Obama administration who sought to “unmask” Flynn were doing nothing wrong. He noted the intelligence community typically conceals the identities of Americans in conversation with foreign nationals, but that it would be “irresponsible” to conceal those identities in certain cases, such as a foreign intelligence officer attempting to recruit an American national.

“That being the case, intelligence rules allow certain recipients of these reports to ask the intelligence community for the true name of a U.S. person. But the rules are clear that the intelligence community can unmask the name only if the requester needs to know it to do their job. If approved, the true name only goes to that requester,” he wrote.

“The process of unmasking has been routine under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Indeed, last year, there were about 7,700 requests made, with most — but not all — approved. I don’t know of a single case when this process has been abused. Only a specially trained group is authorized to do the unmaskings, and their work is closely monitored and audited,” he added.

Morell also said that by definition, those requesting Flynn’s unmasking could not have been targeting Flynn, as the process involves determining unknown identities.  

He wrote that the public release of such requesters’ names has not been done before, concluding that “[s]eeking the list in the first place, declassifying it and providing it only to Republican members of Congress — who immediately handed it to the media — strongly suggests that the intent was to create a political spectacle.”

Two Senate committees have announced probes into a declassified National Security Agency document that shows 39 former Obama administration officials, including former Vice President Joe Biden, requested the unmasking of an American who frequently came up in intelligence briefings based on conversations with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, later revealed to be Flynn.

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