A Justice Department probe found that members of the Obama administration did not seek to reveal the identity of Michael Flynn “for political purposes or other inappropriate reasons,” a newly disclosed report reveals.
The document details the results of a monthslong investigation into the so-called unmasking of Flynn, who briefly served as national security adviser to then-president Donald Trump before he resigned in February 2017 in the wake of the revelation that he had lied about phone conversations he held with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
Republicans later accused officials in the Obama administration of using their positions to reveal anonymized names in classified documents, known in the intelligence community as unmasking, in order to target individuals in Trump’s orbit. In May 2020, Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, ordered an investigation into the practice of unmasking. That review, conducted by John Bash — at the time the US attorney for the Western District of Texas — was finished the following September without finding any evidence of wrongdoing.
Although Bash’s conclusions, including his decision not to prosecute anyone, were first reported in late 2020, the report itself has not previously been seen by the public. The full 52-page document, which had been classified top secret, was obtained by BuzzFeed News in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and is being shared here for the first time in its entirety.
The probe was one of several ordered up by Barr scrutinizing the origins of federal investigations into ties between Trump and the Russian government. On Tuesday, a federal jury acquitted a Democratic lawyer who had been charged with lying to the FBI in one of those probes, overseen by special prosecutor John Durham.
In his case, Bash employed a team of two prosecutors, three FBI agents, and one FBI analyst to review unmasking requests made to the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and the FBI between March 1, 2016, and Jan. 31, 2017, and to conduct interviews with 20 government employees involved in intelligence briefings. He examined whether anyone in the Obama administration had improper motives when seeking to reveal the true identities of US citizens — including Flynn — whose names were not disclosed in classified intelligence reports.
Bash, who left the Justice Department in October 2020, found no such activity.
“My review has uncovered no evidence that senior Executive Branch officials sought the disclosure of” the identities of US individuals “in disseminated intelligence reports for political purposes or other inappropriate reasons during the 2016 presidential-election period or the ensuing presidential-transition period,” Bash’s report says.
A central focus of the probe was the leak showing that Flynn had been in communication with then–Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak prior to Trump’s inauguration, and whether Flynn’s involvement was revealed through an unmasking request from a government official.
But Bash’s review of unmasked intelligence reports about the calls found that the FBI did not in fact disseminate any that contained Flynn’s information, and that a single unmasked report that did contain Flynn’s information did not describe the calls between him and Kislyak. “For that reason, the public disclosure of the communications could not have resulted from an unmasking request,” Bash’s report concludes.
Intriguingly, the prosecutor did find that “the FBI shared transcripts of the relevant communications outside the Bureau without masking General Flynn’s name,” but notes that he did not investigate those incidents any further because “evaluating that dissemination, and determining how the information was provided to the media, is beyond the scope of this review.” Bash's report contains no information about who shared those transcripts and who received them.
Although Bash writes that he had not found a justification to conduct a criminal investigation into anyone who was involved in the unmasking process, he says he was “troubled” by “how easy it is for political appointees of the incumbent administration to obtain nonpublic information about individuals associated with a presidential campaign or a transition team.”
“There exists a significant potential for misuse of such information— misuse that could be difficult to detect,” Bash writes. His report recommends that the intelligence community should consider implementing “certain prophylactic safeguards for unmasking requests that relate to presidential campaigns or transitions, including a more demanding substantive standard for granting those requests, special notification requirements, and a centralized approval process.”