Attorney General William Barr has tapped an outside prosecutor to investigate allegations of 'unmasking' related to the Russia probe

ssheth@businessinsider.com (Sonam Sheth)
U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

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  • Attorney General William Barr has tapped an outside prosecutor to review "unmasking" issues related to the FBI's Russia investigation, a Justice Department spokesperson announced.
  • Barr has asked US attorney John Bash to look into the matter as part of an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe being conducted by US attorney John Durham.
  • Bash will be tasked with looking at instances of unmasking that occurred before and after the 2016 presidential election, the frequency, and who made the unmasking requests, DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec said.
  • The inquiry "can shed light on and give us a better understanding of what happened with respect to President Trump, his campaign," and "what happened after he was elected as well," Kupec added.
  • Barr's decision comes after President Trump and his allies have doubled down on allegations that Obama administration officials illegally "unmasked" the identity of former national security adviser Michael Flynn in intelligence reports.
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Attorney General William Barr has tapped an outside prosecutor to review "unmasking" issues related to the FBI's Russia investigation, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec announced Wednesday.

"Unmasking" refers to the practice of revealing the identity of a US person whose name is incidentally collected in intelligence reports monitoring the communications of foreign agents.

Barr has asked John Bash, the US attorney for the Western District of Texas, to look into the matter as part of an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe being conducted by John Durham, the US attorney for the District of Connecticut.

Bash will be tasked with looking at instances of unmasking that occurred before and after the 2016 presidential election, the frequency, and who made the unmasking requests, Kupec said. The inquiry "can shed light on and give us a better understanding of what happened with respect to President Trump, his campaign," and "what happened after he was elected as well."

The US intelligence community surveils hundreds of thousands of foreign targets per year, and unmasking is a routine and legal tool officials use to make more sense of the communications they're monitoring. The intelligence community gets thousands of unmasking requests a year.

But President Donald Trump and his allies have accused Obama administration officials of illegally unmasking former national security adviser Michael Flynn's name in intelligence reports in 2016 and 2017 monitoring the communications of Sergey Kislyak, then Russia's ambassador to the US.

The conspiracy theory picked up steam this month when Richard Grenell, then the acting director of national intelligence, declassified a list of Obama administration officials who made unmasking requests that included Flynn's name between November 30, 2016, and January 12, 2017. Former Vice President Joe Biden was among the names on the list.

Trump and his allies seized on the development and said it showed that Biden and others improperly unmasked the former national security adviser's identity.

But a Washington Post report last week debunked that allegation when it revealed that Flynn's name was never "masked" in the first place.

Moreover, the list documented unmasking requests made through the National Security Agency, while transcripts documenting Flynn's conversations with Kislyak were an FBI product, meaning the names on the declassified list Grenell released are unrelated to Flynn's conversations with Kislyak.

The former national security adviser pleaded guilty in December 2017 to one count of lying to the FBI about his communications with Kislyak. But the Justice Department abruptly dropped its case against Flynn this month, arguing that it doesn't believe it can legally prosecute Flynn, even though he pleaded guilty and a federal judge ruled the plea to be admissible.

Late last month, the Justice Department also turned over four pages of records to Flynn's legal team showing how the FBI debated handling his interview in early 2017.

"If we're seen as playing games, WH will be furious," one page of the notes said. "Protect our institution by not playing games."

There was also some deliberation within the bureau about how to phrase questions to Flynn during the interview.

"What is our goal? Truth/admission, or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?" the notes said.

Intelligence veterans said the notes depicted the extraordinarily sensitive nature of an investigation into a newly inaugurated president's highest-profile national security aide. But President Donald Trump and Flynn's other defenders characterized the documents as a smoking gun showing that the FBI tried to trap the former national security adviser into pleading guilty.

Last week, the bureau announced that FBI Director Christopher Wray has ordered an internal review of the Flynn investigation.

The review will examine whether any "current employees engaged in misconduct" while investigating Flynn and identify whether any "improvements" should be made to FBI protocol, the bureau said in a statement.

"Although the FBI does not have the prosecutorial authority to bring a criminal case, the Inspection Division can and will evaluate whether any current onboard employees engaged in actions that might warrant disciplinary measures," the statement said.

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