Attorney General William Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney to scrutinize episodes of the intelligence practice known as “unmasking” that took place “before and after” the 2016 election as part of the Justice Department’s broader review of the Russia investigation, department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec announced Wednesday.
In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Kupec said John Durham — the U.S. attorney for Connecticut whom Barr tasked last year with probing the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential coordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — “had been looking at the issue of unmasking” as part of his review.
“The attorney general determined that certain aspects of unmasking needed to be reviewed separately as a support to John Durham’s investigation,” Kupec said, “so he tapped John Bash, one of our U.S. attorneys out of Texas, to do just that.”
Bash was nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate in 2017 to serve as the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas. He previously served as a special assistant to the president in the Trump White House and as an associate White House counsel.
Bash’s new investigative role with the Justice Department comes as the president and congressional Republicans have escalated their attacks on former senior officials within President Barack Obama’s administration who might have been involved in efforts that unmasked Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.
Bash will be “looking specifically at episodes both before and after the election,” Kupec said. “The frequency, who was unmasking whom, all of these circumstances and events can shed light and give us a better understanding of what happened with respect to President Trump, his campaign and, of course, what happened after he was elected, as well,” she added.
Trump has claimed those Obama officials were complicit in a vast government conspiracy, which he has dubbed “Obamagate,” to target Flynn and wound his incoming administration during the presidential transition period before he assumed office. But the White House and its conservative allies have struggled to provide any evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the previous administration. Former U.S. officials have said they did nothing wrong, and that it was entirely appropriate to analyze Americans’ conversations with foreign officials.
Requests by national security officials to reveal the identity of individuals involved in conversations subject to government surveillance are common. For example, last year alone, U.S. spy agencies were asked 7,724 times to reveal the identities of Americans mentioned in those intelligence intercepts. In the case of Flynn, former FBI officials have indicated that his conversations with Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador at the time, were caught up in the bureau’s surveillance — not the National Security Agency’s work.
“Obviously, we know that unmasking inherently isn’t wrong, but certainly the frequency, the motivation and the reasoning behind unmasking can be problematic,” Kupec said Wednesday. “And when you’re looking at unmasking as part of a broader investigation like John Durham’s investigation, looking specifically at who was unmasking whom can add a lot to our understanding about motivation and big-picture events.”
Flynn served as national security adviser for just 24 days before he was dismissed in February 2017 for a lack of candor about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition period. He reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials about the details of those talks.
Flynn later became ensnared in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, pleading guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian envoy.
The Justice Department abandoned its prosecution of Flynn earlier this month after the release of FBI records that disclosed details about the origins of the bureau’s criminal case against him and suggested internal deliberation over how to approach the politically explosive investigation. In a motion that was not signed by any career prosecutors, who withdrew from the case, the department argued the Flynn probe lacked an investigative predicate and was therefore invalid.
Barr’s interventions in the Flynn case and the sentencing of Trump’s longtime informal political adviser Roger Stone — as well as his commission of Durham’s review of the Russia probe — have provoked intense criticism from congressional Democrats and former Justice Department officials who charge that the attorney general is abusing his office to settle the president’s partisan vendettas.
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