U.S. attorney's investigation into Obama-era ‘unmasking’ saga ends: Report

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The U.S. attorney who led the Justice Department’s investigation into “unmasking” requests by Obama administration officials reportedly concluded his inquiry into possible wrongdoing.

U.S. Attorney John Bash, who was tasked in May by Attorney General William Barr to investigate the “unmasking” saga and whether Obama-era officials wrongly gained access to the hidden identities of individuals in President Trump’s orbit and who resigned from his post last week to take a job in the private sector, “completed his work without finding any substantive wrongdoing,” according to “people familiar with the matter” cited by the Washington Post on Tuesday.

The results of Bash’s inquiry have not been made public, but the article claimed that “the findings ultimately turned over to Barr fell short of what Trump and others might have hoped.” The outlet noted it was “unable to review the full results of what Bash found” and that information has not been released, so it is not yet known what Bash unearthed.

Bash, a Harvard Law School graduate who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and who has served as the United States attorney for the Western District of Texas after being appointed by Trump in December 2017, said Oct. 5 that he had accepted a private sector job. The Texas prosecutor, who also handled the federal case against the El Paso mass shooting suspect accused of killing 22 people and wounding 23 others at a Texas Walmart in August 2019, noted that Barr appointed Gregg Sofer, who had been a counselor to the attorney general, to be his successor in Texas.

When asked about the status of the unmasking investigation last week, DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told the Washington Examiner that “without commenting on any specific investigation, any matters that John Bash was overseeing will be assumed by Gregg Sofer.”

The Justice Department declined to comment on the Washington Examiner’s questions on Tuesday, and the U.S. attorney’s office did not immediately respond.

Unmasking occurs after U.S. intelligence agencies eavesdropping on foreigners sweep up communications with or about U.S. citizens in what is known as incidental collection. When intelligence reporting is shared across the government, the names of U.S. citizens are typically concealed to protect their identities. The names can be unmasked, however, when authorized U.S. officials make the request.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to FBI investigators about his December 2016 conversations with a Russian envoy, details of which were leaked to the press and generated the controversy that ended his tenure as Trump’s national security adviser in the first several weeks of Trump’s presidency.

After changing legal teams, Flynn claimed he was innocent and had been set up by the FBI.

Barr appointed U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jensen to review the Flynn case, after which a host of documents deemed exculpatory by Flynn’s lawyers were discovered and Jensen said he “concluded the proper and just course was to dismiss the case.” The Justice Department has moved to dismiss the case but has met resistance from the presiding judge.

In May, then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell released a declassified National Security Agency document containing a list of dozens of Obama administration officials, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who were authorized recipients of information in response to “unmasking” requests that revealed Flynn’s identity in surveillance intercepts. The former Trump national security adviser’s name was reportedly not masked in the FBI reports on his conversations with a Russian ambassador during the presidential transition period.

Kupec had previously announced Bash’s role leading an unmasking deep-dive during a Fox News appearance in May, saying Bash would be helping U.S. Attorney John Durham’s inquiry into the Russia investigation.

“So, John Durham, as part of his investigation, had been looking at the issue of unmasking, and the attorney general determined that certain aspects of unmasking needed to be reviewed separately as a support to John Durham’s investigation,” Kupec said earlier in 2020. “So, he tapped John Bash, one of our U.S. attorneys out of Texas, to do just that.”

Republicans have alleged since 2017 that Obama-era officials improperly unmasked associates of then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign during the Russia investigation. Democrats have defended the intelligence-gathering process, arguing that the collection of identifying information is inevitable.

“Obviously, we know that unmasking inherently isn’t wrong. But certainly, the frequency, the motivation, and the reasoning behind unmasking can be problematic,” Kupec said in May. “And when you’re looking at unmasking as part of a broader investigation like John Durham’s investigation, looking specifically at who was unmasking whom can add a lot to our understanding about motivation and big picture events.”

“The attorney general determined that it was appropriate to look at unmasking as a support to John Durham’s investigation and looking specifically at episodes both before and after the election,” Kupec added. “And like I said, you know, the frequency, who was unmasking whom, all of these circumstances and events can shed light and give us a better understanding of what happened with respect to President Trump, his campaign, and then, of course, what happened after he was elected as well.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sent a letter to Grenell in May, asking him to declassify any unmasking requests made between Trump’s November 2016 victory and his January 2017 inauguration that revealed the identity of anyone in Trump’s orbit.

Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told Grenell they were expanding the scope of their “unmasking” investigation requests to include information as early as January 2016. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked for the intelligence reports related to Flynn’s conversations to be declassified.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who assumed the office in late May, could now be involved in deciding what more to make public.

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