Yesterday, Attorney General William Barr testified before the House Judiciary Committee on a wide range of topics spanning from the violent riots in Portland to the Supreme Court’s illegal immigrants decision. However, beyond the fact that Democrat members of the House Judiciary Committee had rehearsed pushing the “I reclaim my time” parliamentary mute button, Americans learned scant new information from Barr’s Tuesday testimony.
The rare exception came during an exchange with the ranking Republican on the committee, Jim Jordan, when Barr told the Ohio Republican he had tasked U.S. Attorney John Bash of Texas with investigating the high number of unmasking requests that took place during the Obama administration.
Jordan, who along with Republican Devin Nunes has long pushed for answers to the SpyGate scandal, queried the attorney general about the unmasking of Michael Flynn by some 39 officials in the Obama administration from November 8, 2016 to January 31, 2017. Former Acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell made public the names of those officials two months ago when he declassified a memorandum identifying them. That list included “former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director John Brennan, former DNI James Clapper, former White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and former Vice President Joe Biden.”
Would 39 separate individuals seeking to unmask the identity of Flynn between Trump’s election and the end of January be a “normal number?” Jordan asked. “Historically, that seems to be a high number,” Barr noted, adding “the other question you have to ask is why was this after the election.”
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Jordan continued by noting that of those 39 Obama officials, seven people at the Treasury Department unmasked Flynn’s name. Is this an issue Durham is looking into, the ranking member asked, referring to Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, whom Barr has tasked with investigating the targeting of the Trump campaign.
“I asked another U.S. attorney to look into the issue of unmasking because of the high number of unmaskings and some that do not readily appear to have been in the line of normal business,” Barr replied, identifying Texas-based U.S. Attorney John Bash as leading that probe.
While in late May Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec had revealed during an interview with Fox New’s Sean Hannity that Barr had assigned Bash the job of investigating the unmasking, Barr’s testimony added an interesting new texture to that prior announcement. Given Grennell’s declassification of the list of Flynn’s unmaskers from November 8, 2016 to January 31, 2017, one might have reasonably assumed any investigation would be limited to the propriety of those unmasking requests.
But when Jordan asked for clarification that Bash was investigating the unmasking requests during the presidential transition period, Barr responded that the Texas U.S. attorney’s investigation was “actually” focused on “a much longer period of time.”
This response, coupled with Barr’s comment that some of the requests “do not readily appear to have been in the line of normal business,” suggests the possibility of another brewing Obama-Biden scandal—separate and apart from SpyGate. Barr’s comment seems also to confirm Jordan’s concern that several individuals in the Treasury Department sought to unmask Flynn.
“For what possible reason could the Treasury Department need to unmask Flynn?” Jordan left unsaid. Likewise, the extensive unmasking by Obama United Nations Ambassador Samantha Powers, or those working for her, suggests the Obama administration cared little for the civil liberties of those whose conversations were innocently caught in the surveillance of foreign targets.
Of course, unmasking is not inherently improper. Government officials may need to know the identity of a U.S. citizen who is speaking with a foreign target to assess the intercepted information. And high-level officials needing that information for legitimate purposes may request the names that go with the “U.S. Person #1” used in the transcripts.
But Barr’s comments indicate there were many situations where there did not appear to be a legitimate purpose for the unmasking, and that this problem pre-dated Trump’s election, leaving one to wonder if unmasking served as another mechanism for spying on the Trump campaign. In addition, that Barr assigned the unmasking investigation to Bash, and not Durham or Missouri-based U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen, who oversaw the investigation into the prosecution of Flynn, suggests the problem is big enough to require the involvement of another U.S. attorney’s office.
That the DOJ’s spokesperson, and now Barr, are discussing this separate investigation publicly may also indicate the probe is winding down, because news broke of the Jensen appointment not too long before Jensen began handing exculpatory evidence to Flynn’s attorney. But while answers on whether the Obama administration abused the unmasking protocols will prove gratifying, what the publicly desperately needs is a conclusion of the Durham investigation—followed by a chance for Barr to be heard, and not just seen.