Justice Dept. ‘unmasking’ review finds no irregularities and is given to Durham
By Katie Benner and Julian E. Barnes
For years, President Donald Trump has accused national security officials in the Obama administration of wrongdoing for making routine classified information requests called unmaskings, falsely portraying them as part of a plot to undermine him.
“The big story is the ‘unmasking and surveillance’ of people that took place during the Obama Administration,” he posted on Twitter in 2017.
But John Bash, a U.S. attorney appointed by Attorney General William Barr to vet the issue, found no irregularities in those unmasking requests, which revealed that the president’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn had appeared in intelligence reports, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the matter.
The Justice Department has portrayed Bash’s work as a review, not a criminal investigation. His findings were given to John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut, who is conducting a criminal investigation into the roots of the Russia inquiry, the officials said.
Bash, who stepped down last week as the U.S. attorney in the Western District of Texas for a job in the private sector, was inclined to recommend changes to the unmasking process, one official said. Barr replaced him with Gregg Sofer, a veteran of the U.S. attorney’s office in the district’s Austin division, who was most recently a counselor to Barr.
“Without commenting on any specific investigation, any matters that John Bash was overseeing will be assumed by Gregg Sofer,” said Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman. She declined to comment on any aspect of Bash’s work. The Washington Post earlier reported his conclusions.
The revelation about Bash’s findings is a blow to Trump’s push to portray the Russia investigation and related matters as an election issue and the Justice Department’s scrutiny of them as certain to reveal a “deep state” plot against him.
Barr has told associates that the Durham investigation is unlikely to yield any revelations that can be shared with the public before the election in November; Bash’s findings seem to have knocked down one of the president’s key allegations against his foes.
News that Bash did not find serious wrongdoing by any Obama-era official infuriated Trump. “Personally, I think it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. It’s a disgrace,” he said in an interview with Newsmax on Wednesday. “They actually said no indictments before the election,” he added, in an apparent reference to the larger Durham investigation.
For the past few days, Trump has publicly excoriated Barr and accused him of failing to deliver on charges against the president’s perceived enemies.
“Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win,” Trump told Fox Business last week.
He said he had asked the Justice Department to charge former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic opponent in the election next month, extraordinary requests by a sitting president to wield the power of federal law enforcement against political foes. The attorney general said this spring that neither was likely to even be investigated.
The president also said he was determined to find out why Durham was not ready to release a report. “He’s got so much stuff,” Trump said.
National security officials routinely make unmasking requests as they read and try to understand intelligence reports and other classified communications; for privacy reasons, names of Americans in the reports are blacked out, but officials can ask to see them to better understand the documents.
Such requests made by Obama administration officials during the presidential transition revealed conversations involving Flynn. For the past year, Trump and his allies have placed increasing pressure on the Justice Department to address those requests.
In May, Republicans released a list of names of Obama administration officials who had inquired in late 2016 and early 2017 about the identity of an American in National Security Agency intelligence reports that turned out to be Flynn, then Trump’s incoming national security adviser. They included John Brennan, the CIA director; Samantha Power, the ambassador to the United Nations; James Clapper, the director of national intelligence; James Comey, the FBI director; and Douglas Lute, the U.S. ambassador to NATO.
But the list did not say what the intelligence reports were about, or whether they included surveillance of foreign officials talking about Flynn or of intelligence targets talking to him.
After the list was released, the Justice Department said that Barr had asked Bash to review whether the requests were irregular or improper, and then give his research to Durham.
“Unmasking inherently isn’t wrong, but certainly the frequency, the motivation and the reasoning behind unmasking can be problematic,” Kupec said in an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News when she announced Bash’s review.