Thursday, May 14, 2020

Unmask This

Opening of Grenell's list, via Adam L. Silverman/Balloon Juice.
"The fact that Vice President Biden and all of the president's inner circle, President Obama's inner circle, individually requested to unmask Gen. Flynn is very troubling," he said. "Unmasking involves revealing the identity of an American's private phone conversation without a constitutional warrant to eavesdrop on that conversation." (Senator Rand Paul, quoted on Fox News)
Q: Dad, what's unmasking?

A: I thought you'd never ask. I found out around the beginning of the Republican attempt to discredit the case against Michael Flynn, in April 2017, and first wrote about it then. Actually I sort of found out earlier than that, during the days of High Greenwaldianism following the Snowden leaks of 2013, but didn't pay the same kind of attention.

The National Security Agency, which is responsible for the collection of signals intelligence (sigint as opposed to humint), eavesdrops on foreigners, such as the Russian ambassador, and records their phone calls, with and only with permission from the Foreign Intelligence Special Court obtained under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. It is not allowed to eavesdrop on US persons (unless with a special warrant based on a finding of probable cause to suspect the person of espionage or similar crimes), and if a US person accidentally turns up in a recording, such as any random American who happens to be chatting with the Russian ambassador about establishing a secret communications channel with the Kremlin, NSA is required to "minimize" the identification of that person so that NSA's clients in the CIA, FBI, state and justice departments, and other agencies can't tell who it is.

So if somebody with a top security clearance is looking at a transcript and wonders, "Who is that person chatting with the Russian ambassador about establishing a secret communications channel with the Kremlin?" they can ask for the identity to be "unmasked", and if the request is deemed to be legitimate by the relevant authorities, they can get an answer.

That is what unmasking is, and Paul has it idiotically wrong: nobody "requested to unmask General Flynn". They asked to be told the identity of the American interlocutor in a Russian ambassador's telephone conversations, which the NSA unquestionably was authorized to listen to. I'll add that one thing I got out of looking at this stuff back in early 2017 was a sense that the NSA was far more scrupulous in following the rules than we'd been led by Snowden and Greenwald to believe, at least since Scowcroft came to liberate poor W from the lawless Cheney and Rumsfeld in 2006.

The first thing we learn with certainty from the document released yesterday by acting DNI (and worst ambassador to Germany in history) Richard Grenell is about who asked for the unmasking of the guy who advised Ambassador Kislyak not to retaliate against the sanctions announced by President Obama on 29 December, who turned out as you know to be Michael Flynn:
  • on 5 January Obama's chief of staff Denis McDonough;
  • on 7 January, DNI James Clapper, and his deputies Michael Dempsey and Stephanie O'Sullivan;
  • on 10 January a person from CIA whose name remains classified;
  • on 11 January UN Ambassador Samantha Power; and 
  • on 12 January Vice President Biden
And another thing Denis McDonough probably did on 5 January was to attend a meeting with Obama, Comey, Sally Yates, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice that featured, as Rice later wrote,
an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
The unmistakable implication being that the Flynn-Kislyak conversations of 29-30 December are what prompted the meeting, probably after McDonough got wind of them from whomever. It was Yates who was particularly freaked out by the David Ignatius column published on the 12th, so she and Biden are the least likely suspects on the list of who might have leaked it to Ignatius.

And the second thing is who asked for the unmasking of the guy who entreated Ambassador Kislyak in calls of 22 and 23 December 2016 to have Russia vote against, or delay, a Security Council resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank that the Obama administration had decided to abstain on, who also turned out to be Michael Flynn:
  • on 23 December, UN Ambassador Samantha Power; and
  • on 28 December, maybe Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and ambassador to Turkey John Bass
But it's quite likely the unmaskings on the 28th were both about something different, Flynn's equally problematic relations with the the Turkish government, for which he was working. at the same time as he served the Trump campaign; only I don't have any kind of timeline for that, or how much the US government in general was aware of it. In any case, the call on the Security Council resolution was obviously in Power's wheelhouse.

The other requests in the Grenell document were all presumably related to the stuff reported by Reuters on 18 May 2017: 18 previously unreported contacts (calls and emails) between Flynn and other campaign advisors with Russian officials in April-November 2016, including six calls with Kislyak. None of them, the sources said, was regarded as "evidence of wrongdoing or collusion" but they were "focused on mending U.S.-Russian economic relations strained by sanctions imposed on Moscow, cooperating in fighting Islamic State in Syria and containing a more assertive China", and moreover
Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations, four current U.S. officials said.
That would be material in Flynn's FBI file as Crossfire Razor in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation which was about to close on 4 January 2017 when the new Kislyak matter erupted into the White House consciousness.

Though Flynn's weird associations with Russia went back long before the famous RT dinner where he shared a table with Jill Stein and President Putin (and brought home an illegal $65,000 emolument from the television station) to the time when he was still running the Defense Intelligence Agency, from which he was more or less fired by Clapper in April 2014:
In June 2013, Michael Flynn became the first U.S. officer to be allowed inside the Russian military intelligence (GRU) headquarters in Moscow, where he arrived at the invitation of the GRU chief General Igor Sergun[38] [which is when he met Sergey Kislyak for the first time]. His follow-up trip to visit the GRU HQ as Director of DIA was not allowed.[39]
Stefan Halper, who worked for three Republican presidents and was a longtime informant for the American intelligence community, had a February 2014 encounter with Flynn at a London intelligence conference. Halper became so alarmed by Flynn's close association with a Russian woman that a Halper associate expressed concerns to American authorities that Flynn may have been compromised by Russian intelligence.[40] (Wikipedia)
That last incident is mentioned in the Crossfire Razor document:

(Can't find any speculation as to which oligarch's daughter that might have been.)

That wasn't why Clapper wanted him out of DIA, at least not officially, and there were plenty of more publicly available reasons, such as Flynn's chaotic management style, opposition to Obama policy, abuse of staff, and "loose relationship with the truth". But I'm getting this sense of Clapper as the person who did have his eyes on Flynn as someone the Russians could turn at any moment or might have turned already the whole time; perhaps in opposition to the fussy FBI perpetually being terrified of getting criticized by Republicans. And that if Clapper had had an opportunity to look at the masked transcripts, he'd have known the American was Flynn.

Grenell carefully limits his listing to that period of about 6 weeks from 30 November to 12 January because he wants us to forget about the six Kislyak calls from before 30 November, dwelling on the secret communications channel, in particular, in addition to all that other stuff adverted to in the Reuters story from almost exactly three years ago cited above, and who knows how much besides going back to 2013. Or Trump's relentless effort to stop the investigation of Flynn even after Flynn was fired, one the main facets of the obstruction delineated in the Mueller Report, which culminated in the firing of Comey in May 2017.

But a close look at the timeline of the material he provides makes it all the clearer that Comey, McCabe, and Strzok were at fault if anything for failing or refusing to recognize how overwhelmingly suspicious Flynn's behavior was, and in the light of what we've learned since then from the Mueller and Senate Intelligence investigations it's hard not to feel that the new material just buttresses the idea of a conspiracy in which Flynn and Trump himself played central roles. As well as Grenell's effort to cover up its significance (among other things with the Barr technique of giving the rightwing noise machine 24 hours to frame the conversation before unveiling the document itself). 

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