Barr appoints US attorney to investigate ‘unmasking’ requests by Obama officials

Attorney General William Barr appointed U.S. Attorney John Bash to conduct an investigation into the “unmasking” saga during the waning days of the Obama administration with a specific focus on the time period just before and right after President Trump’s election in November 2016.

DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec announced the move by Barr during a Wednesday night appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, saying the attorney general selected Bash, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, to carry out a deep dive into unmaskings to assist the ongoing investigation of the Trump-Russia investigators being conducted by U.S. Attorney John Durham.

“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. “So he tapped John Bash, one of our U.S. attorneys out of Texas, to do just that.”

“Obviously we know that unmasking inherently isn’t wrong, but certainly the frequency, the motivation, and the reasoning behind unmasking can be problematic,” she added. “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.”

Durham was selected by Barr last year to look into whether there was any misconduct by intelligence and national security officials as they investigated ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Barr recently said that Durham will likely not conduct a criminal investigation into former President Barack Obama or former Vice President Joe Biden, who is the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee.

Earlier this month, former 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 retired Lt. Gen. Michael 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 Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition period.

Hannity told Kupec his sources told him there had been a “threefold” increase in unmaskings during Obama’s second term, claiming that “even members of Donald Trump’s family have been unmasked” and “maybe members of the media have been unmasked.”

“Well that’s why 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 said. “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 last week, 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. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia asked for the intelligence reports related to Flynn’s conversations to be declassified.

It is now up to newly sworn-in Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe to decide what to make public.

Bash, a Harvard Law School graduate who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, recently led the Justice Department’s first major effort back in March to shut down coronavirus-related scams, but is likely better known for his handling of the federal case against the El Paso mass shooting suspect accused of killing 22 people and wounding 23 others at a Texas Walmart last August.

At a press conference the day after the killings, Bash said the Justice Department was treating the El Paso attack as domestic terrorism. “We’re gonna do what we do to terrorists in this country, which is deliver swift and certain justice,” Bash promised the assembled reporters.

The 90-count federal indictment against Crusius in February charged the shooter with 22 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, 23 hate crimes involving an attempt to kill, and 45 counts of discharging a firearm in relation to the hate crimes. Crucius, 21 at the time, pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face life imprisonment or the death penalty.

Crusius posted a racist four-page “manifesto” on 8chan prior to the shooting, where the shooter said he wanted to stop the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and claimed that he drew inspiration from the March 2019 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 and injured 49.

“We all share same goal here — to achieve justice for the families of the victims,” Bash said earlier this year, adding, “We’re firing on all cylinders to stop this. We’re going to stop hate crimes.”

Bash will now be tasked with getting to the bottom of the unmasking controversy that has become the center of “Obamagate,” which is under-girded by allegations by Trump and his allies that the Obama administration abused the government’s surveillance powers to target the Trump team.

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.

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

Earlier in her interview with Hannity, Kupec confirmed that the FBI is investigating the death of George Floyd, who died Monday after a Minneapolis police office knelt on his throat during an arrest.

She also said the Justice Department will accept the invitation from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to weigh in on the Flynn team’s petition asking the higher court to order Judge Emmet Sullivan to approve the agency’s motion to dismiss the case to proceed.

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