What Does Unmasking Mean? Michael Flynn Unmasking by Obama Officials Takes Center Stage

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn is back in the spotlight this month following several bombshell developments in his legal saga.

First, the Department of Justice abruptly moved last week to drop the case against Flynn—who had pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian officials before President Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017.

Then this week, it was revealed that several high-profile officials from former President Barack Obama's administration had requested Flynn's name be "unmasked" from intelligence reports during the transition period between the two presidential administrations.

The Trump campaign has accused Obama officials of improperly using the unmasking process to target Flynn as part of their "witch hunt" against him. During an interview with Fox Business on Thursday morning, the president deemed it the "greatest political crime in the history of our country." He has recently begun calling the alleged plot "Obamagate."

Here's everything you need to know about the latest Flynn developments.

What is Unmasking?

"Unmasking" refers to revealing the identity of someone on a monitored communication from U.S. intelligence agencies.

When intelligence officials conduct legal surveillance of foreign targets, sometimes an American citizen will surface in the phone conversations. When that happens, officials are obligated to "mask" the identity of the American if there is no wrongdoing suspected in their involvement in order to protect their privacy. In any intelligence reports or briefings on the foreign target, the transcript will usually identify the masked citizen as "Person 1" or "Person 2."

In Flynn's case, his name was picked up during surveillance calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak shortly after the 2016 election. His name was redacted from the reports on the monitored communication. Later on, U.S. officials requested to find out who the redacted person was amid concerns about the Trump campaign and the presidential transition team's contact with Russian officials.

Is it Legal?

Unmasking itself is not illegal. In fact, unmasking American identities in intelligence reports occurs thousands of times a year, according to data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. But officials usually need a good national security reason to do so.

According to a memo from National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone, the unmasking requests in the Flynn case were approved through the agency's "standard process." That process includes a review of the justification for the request. But the memo doesn't explain the reasons behind the unmasking requests.

While unmasking is a common practice, leaking an unmasked name to the media or the public is illegal.

michael flynn unmasking DOJ
President Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse on June 24, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Flynn, who was President Trump's first national security adviser before resigning and pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, has had the charged against him dropped by the Justice Department. Alex Wroblewski/Getty

Who Was Involved?

The National Security Agency received requests from dozens of Obama administration officials, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, to unmask Flynn's name from classified intelligence reports. The full list includes 39 people, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director James Comey, Obama's White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.

According to an intelligence memo made public Wednesday, the requests were made between Trump's election in November 2016 and his inauguration in January 2017. The memo was released by Republican Senators Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley.

The Trump campaign has jumped on Biden's involvement. In a statement earlier this week, his team accused the presumptive Democratic nominee of being part of the "setup of General Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax."

Biden has denied wrongdoing in the unmasking saga. He told ABC's Good Morning America that he knew nothing about the motives to investigate Flynn. He also accused Trump of using Flynn as a "diversion."

In a statement, Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said the information underscores that "breadth and depth of concern" across the government about Flynn's conversations with Russian nationals.