Reason Roundup

List of Obama Officials Who Sought Unmasking of Michael Flynn Includes Joe Biden

Plus: Washington, D.C., extends its lockdown and U.S. COVID-19 cases might finally be declining.


Republican senators have obtained a list of top Obama administration officials who sought the "unmasking" of General Michael Flynn.

Unmasking is "a routine practice used to identify a U.S. person who is anonymously referred to in an intelligence document—in this case, the intercepted conversations of Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador, who was a target of U.S. surveillance," according to The Washington Post.

Flynn was chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as national security advisor but was then fired and arrested during the course of the FBI's investigation into Russian election interference. Flynn had conversations with the Russian ambassador in which he asked the Russian government not to retaliate against sanctions placed on the country by the Obama administration; he then lied to Justice Department investigators about those conversations. The Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr has moved to drop the case, arguing that the lies Flynn told to FBI agents were immaterial to the investigation.

Richard Grenell, acting director of national intelligence and ambassador to Germany, declassified the list of Obama officials who had sought Flynn's unmasking earlier this week. It includes Biden, former FBI director James Comey, and other key intelligence officials, according to Fox News:

The roster features top-ranking figures including then Vice President Joe Biden—a detail already being raised by the Trump campaign in the bare-knuckle 2020 presidential race where Biden is now the Democrats' presumptive nominee.

The list also includes then-FBI Director James Comey, then-CIA Director John Brennan, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Obama's then-chief of staff Denis McDonough.

Biden has countered that unmasking requests are perfectly normal, and do not on their own reflect any ill intent.

"These documents have absolutely nothing to do with any FBI investigation and they confirm that all normal procedures were followed—any suggestion otherwise is a flat out lie," said the Biden campaign in a statement.

Even so, conservatives have seized on this development as a means of tying Biden to the Flynn investigation, which they have portrayed as a partisan witch hunt that was intended to damage Trump's presidency before it had even begun.

Flynn eventually pled guilty to lying to FBI agents, but this says little about whether he behaved in a way most of us would consider criminal. It is quite common for the subjects of law enforcement investigations to make mistakes during questioning that give the government cause to charge them with procedural crimes—perjury, obstruction of justice, etc.—rather than the underlying crime for which the subjects were being questioned. In this narrow sense, Republicans are correct that that's essentially what happened with Flynn. Many Republicans also believe his prosecution was part of a broader Justice Department effort to undermine Trump. Paradoxically, the fact that law enforcement agents attempt to induce all kinds of defendants to lie undermines that theory, while the fact that they seldom do that to people of Flynn's stature supports it.

"Yes, federal law enforcement routinely interviews people hoping they will confess (and get prosecuted) or lie (and get prosecuted)," noted Reason contributing editor Ken White. "Yes, they plan that in advance of the interview. That's how it works. That's how it has worked for a very long time. If people really cared about it, thought it was an unacceptable tactic, you could get Congress to change the materiality element of 18 USC 1001, the false statement to the feds statute."

Unfortunately, Congress has no intention of making it more difficult for federal authorities to harass American citizens in the abstract. (See the Senate's vote on Wednesday to reject an amendment to the Patriot Act that would have prohibited warrantless searches of people's web browser history.)

Healthy outrage over the treatment of Flynn would mean a concerted effort to actually rein in the feds, not a one-off lament that the incredible punitive power of law enforcement was exercised against someone Trump likes.


  • U.S. unemployment figures for the last two months have now exceeded 36 million.
  • Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser extended the city's stay-at-home orders for another three weeks, even though neighboring states—Virginia and Maryland—are beginning to reopen.
  • The conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected attempts by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to extend that state's lockdown.
  • Doctors see a link between coronavirus and an outbreak of an inflammatory disease among children. This condition, termed "Kawasaki-like," is serious but thought to be quite treatable if detected early enough.
  • U.S. COVID-19 cases appear to finally be declining.