Heavily redacted documents from the National Security Agency tell at least part of the story of a final-month rush by the outgoing Obama administration to torpedo the incoming presidency of Donald Trump.
The Daily Signal obtained 217 pages of documents from the NSA through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents reveal that Obama administration officials, from Vice President Joe Biden down to several ambassadors and many officials in the Treasury and Energy departments, gained access to secret information about Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s choice for national security adviser.
The documents obtained by The Daily Signal include raw information on requests and other messages from these Obama administration officials to the National Security Agency in late November 2016 through early January 2017, as well as emails among NSA officials explaining why the information was shared.
Trump, a Republican, took over the presidency from Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2017, after defeating Obama’s former secretary of state, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, in the November election.
In May 2020, then-acting Director of National Intelligence Rick Grenell declassified information and provided Congress with a list of names involved in the Obama administration’s “unmasking” of Flynn, Trump’s original pick for national security adviser. Flynn had directed the Defense Intelligence Agency for two years under Obama.
Senate Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin released the list of Obama administration officials involved in exposing Flynn’s name.
“Unmasking” is the practice of disclosing to political appointees the identities of U.S. citizens referenced or recorded in intelligence surveillance of foreign nationals. Names of citizens typically are redacted, or obscured, from such reports, unless a specific request is made to “unmask” those citizens.
NSA emails about most such requests from Obama officials regarding Flynn bear this message: “The identities of the named U.S. persons and organizations is required for full understanding of the intelligence in the report.”
Several of the NSA documents note Americans’ rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, including the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” The Fourth Amendment also requires warrants “upon probable cause.”
Through the Freedom of Information Act, The Daily Signal sought records of requests by top Obama administration officials to “unmask” Flynn—that is, to disclose that Trump’s incoming national security adviser is a person mentioned in agency reports of foreign surveillance.
Flynn was the American whose phone conversation with the Russian ambassador between Trump’s November 2016 election and January 2017 inauguration had been intercepted by intelligence officials in the Obama administration.
The Daily Signal formally requested the National Security Agency documents in March 2021, two months after Biden’s inauguration as president; the NSA’s response, dated June 22, arrived June 30—more than two years later.
In its response, the NSA said The Daily Signal’s request for public records overlapped with other FOIA requests already being processed because of litigation by other parties.
Three top Obama administration officials who gained access to the Flynn information are now high-ranking officials in the Biden administration.
Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff for his entire second term, is now secretary of veterans affairs under Biden.
Samantha Power, then Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, made numerous requests for information on Flynn. Now, in the Biden administration, Power is administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a deputy secretary at Obama’s Energy Department, has been Biden’s homeland security adviser since he took office.
The Flynn-related requests from Obama officials were all made during late November and December of 2016, just weeks before Trump took office.
Trump chose Flynn to be his first national security adviser. Flynn’s “unmasking” at the request of some of Obama’s outgoing closest advisers set in motion events that led to the Army veteran’s resignation after only 23 days in office during the new Trump administration. His unmasking was also a key factor in the since discredited investigation of Trump-Russia “collusion” to win the 2016 presidential election.
Trump pardoned Flynn in late 2020, and a federal judge soon dropped charges alleging that Flynn made false statements to the FBI in the early days of the Trump administration.
The documents obtained by The Daily Signal also show that at least seven U.S. officials working with NATO were provided with information on Flynn, including then-NATO Ambassador Douglas Lute.
John Tefft, then U.S. ambassador to Russia, as well as several members of his staff whose names were redacted, also sought and got information on Flynn, according to the documents.
Obama’s ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, obtained information on Flynn. NSA’s internal emails say the information was provided to Bass so he could “better understand and assess the foreign intelligence information contained therein.”
The NSA email goes on to say: “No further action may be taken on nor dissemination be made of this information [on Flynn] without prior approval of NSA.”
The FBI investigated Trump’s Russian ties and Flynn had done lobbying work for Turkey, so those circumstances may help explain the involvement of those two ambassadors.
Obama’s ambassador to Italy, John Phillips, also gained access to information about Flynn, as did his top staff.
National security and law enforcement officials in the Obama administration—including FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and National Intelligence Director James Clapper—might be expected to have access to the information.
Others who had access to the intelligence on Flynn are surprising, however.
Sherwood-Randall, then deputy energy secretary, got access. The NSA email on the requests by the Energy Department notes: “This information is crucial, as the deputy secretary of energy continues to oversee the transition of the department to the incoming administration.”
Also privy to the unmasking of Flynn was then-Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, along with other Treasury Department officials including Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Raskin, wife of Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.
In a joint session of Congress in January 2017, Jamie Raskin had voted against certifying Trump’s Electoral College victory. The Maryland Democrat later would lead House lawmakers named as “managers” of Trump’s second Senate impeachment trial in 2021.
One requestor granted access to the Flynn information is listed only as the deputy assistant director of “NEMC.” Although four federal agencies might use this acronym, it seems likely to refer either to the Army’s Network of Enabled Mission Command, since Flynn was an Army lieutenant general, or the National Election Monitoring Committee, since the outgoing Obama administration officials were pushing the narrative of Trump-Russia collusion.
The name of the NEMC deputy assistant director is redacted in the documents provided to The Daily Signal, which would indicate a military affiliation. The NSA’s justification for granting this request was that the records are “to be used to better understand and assess the foreign intelligence information contained therein.”
CNN reported Friday that special counsel Jack Smith, who is investigating Trump’s possession of documents classified Top Secret or Secret after he left the White House, is looking into a December 2020 meeting in the Oval Office.
That meeting, CNN reported, included Flynn, Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne. The topic was challenging Trump’s election loss to Biden.
Participants allegedly discussed options to impose martial law and seize voting machines to prevent Biden’s inauguration as president, CNN reported.
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