Incidental Collection: What Each Side is Saying About the Unmasking of Michael Flynn

Ty Aravazhi Contributor
Incidental Collection: What Each Side is Saying About the Unmasking of Michael Flynn
Read Time: approx. 2:13

Cover: Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn


Setting the Stage: “In 2016, Obama administration officials received intelligence reports that were concerning, but incomplete,” the AP writes. “Surveillance of Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. revealed he had interacted with an unnamed American who may have been undercutting efforts to pressure Vladimir Putin’s government. Using a common process known as ‘unmasking,’ they asked intelligence agencies to reveal the American’s name. It was Michael Flynn, an adviser to President-elect Donald Trump.”

Fast Forward to Today: “On Wednesday, two Republican senators, Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson, released a declassified list from acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, naming Obama administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, who asked to ‘unmask’ the identity of Michael Flynn when he was under surveillance,” Axios’ Zachary Basu writes.

First of all, what exactly is unmasking? Per the AP: “During routine, legal surveillance of foreign targets, names of Americans occasionally come up in conversations. Foreigners could be talking about a U.S. citizen or U.S. permanent resident by name, or a foreigner could be speaking directly to an American. When an American’s name is swept up in surveillance of foreigners, it is called “incidental collection.” In these cases, the name of the American is masked before the intelligence is distributed to administration officials to avoid invading that person’s privacy.” Here’s why this saga continues to be contentious:

On the Right: Trump and his allies believe that this is further evidence that the president was the victim of “deep-state” espionage and a plot to subvert his incoming administration. In an opinion piece for The Hill, Jonathan Turley expresses that, unlike the “Russia collusion story”, the real conspiracy is “the use of national security power to investigate an opposing political party and opponents.” Turley also criticizes the mainstream media for not bothering to seriously report on what he believes are legitimate allegations of the Obama administration surveilling the Trump campaign. Instead, they focused on the “Russia Hoax.” Furthermore, Trump supporters also believe that the release of these names implies that the Obama administration leaked details about Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak to the Washington Post. The Editorial Board at the Wall Street Journal states, “While unmasking isn’t illegal, leaking intelligence is.” Finally, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz is also calling out the apparent inconsistency of Biden claiming to have no involvement in the Investigation of Flynn, even though his name was included among the other officials.

On the Left: Liberal outlets and voices believe this is an effort by President Trump and his associates to undermine the Russia investigation, and create a revised history of the events. Jeremy Herb and Marshall Cohen at CNN assert that the ultimate objective of this coordinated effort would be to discredit Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Herb and Cohen noted that upon Grenell’s release of the Obama administration officials’ names, the Trump campaign did not take long to attack Biden for being included. Brian Beutler, at Crooked Media, also dubbed Trump’s actions as his “final authoritarian push.” He chastises Attorney General Bill Barr for enabling Trump’s “recent assault on the rule of law” by dropping the charges against Flynn. Under the assumption that the Russian investigation was legitimate, Beutler further argues that “springing Flynn from justice both buys his continued silence and advances the lie that the whole Russia investigation was a deep-state plot to sabotage the Trump campaign and administration.”

Flag This: As the AP outlines, “The memo released by the Republican senators notes that it was approved through the NSA’s standard process, and so far there’s no evidence the unmasking of Flynn was illegal. On one hand, Trump and his base claim the unmasking proves that the Obama administration unfairly — and maybe illegally — targeted Flynn and other Trump associates. Democrats believe this is Trump’s attempt to divert attention away from his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. There are 172 days until the 2020 election. Looks like we better buckle up.