Attorney General William Barr has asked U.S. Attorney John Bash to review unmasking instances that occurred both before and after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 to see if there was any wrongdoing that took place, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec confirmed to Fox News Wednesday.
The matter was previously being investigated as a part of U.S. Attorney John Durham’s review of the origins of the 2016 Russia probe, but Barr recently determined that the unmasking practices warranted further review, and so he assigned Bash to the job.
Speculation that the Obama administration abused the federal government’s surveillance powers to spy on members of Trump’s incoming administration intensified after unsealed documents revealed that several top-tier Obama officials submitted unmasking requests for former Trump national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn.
Among the officials who requested Flynn’s identity be revealed were then-Vice President Joe Biden, then-FBI Director James Comey, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Obama’s chief of staff at the time, Denis McDonough.
“Unmasking inherently isn’t wrong, but certainly, the frequency, the motivation and the reasoning behind unmasking can be problematic,” Kupec said. “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.”
Unmasking, which is the revelation of an American citizen’s identity after he or she is incidentally picked up in the U.S. government’s surveillance of foreign officials, is not an unusual process. In fact, Politico reported that there were nearly 8,000 unmasking requests submitted last year.
But, as Kupec pointed out, that doesn’t mean the practice can’t be abused as a means to service illegal or improper ends. In this case, Republicans have become suspicious that the Obama administration may have been singling out members of the Trump campaign and Trump administration.
During Kupec’s interview with Sean Hannity, the Fox News anchor suggested that the number of unmasking requests by the Obama administration in his second term tripled and that perhaps members of Trump’s family and the media have been unmasked. Kupec did not confirm the claims specifically but said “that’s why the attorney general determined it was appropriate” to have Bash look into unmasking.
Earlier this month, Senate Republicans demanded that former Obama officials — including Biden — testify under oath regarding their participation in the Flynn unmasking.