The vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee joined a growing chorus of Democrats calling for the transcripts of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s 2016 conversations with a Russian ambassador to be declassified and made public.
Sen. Mark Warner sent a two-page letter, obtained by the Washington Examiner, to acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell on Wednesday, asking the spy chief overseeing the U.S. intelligence community’s 17 spy agencies to release a host of documents related to Flynn and the present unmasking controversy. The Virginia Democrat also sent a copy of his letter to the Director of the National Security Agency General Paul Nakasone.
“In order to more fully and properly inform the American people of the events surrounding the unmasking of Lt. Gen. Flynn (ret.), I further request that you declassify and make publicly available any intelligence report concerning conversations between Lt. Gen. Flynn (ret.) and Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak,” Warner said. “These calls have been the topic of multiple investigations, trials, and plea agreements concerning General Flynn and merit being in the public domain.”
Last week, Grenell declassified an NSA document containing a list of Obama administration officials, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who were the authorized recipients of information in response to “unmasking” requests that revealed Flynn’s identity in surveillance intercepts.
“I ask that you provide the committee with the underlying intelligence reports in which the identity of the identical was ‘unmasked’ to be Flynn,” Warner said. He also asked Grenell to “provide the rationale for declassifying these unmasking reports, given the potential compromise to sources and methods.” Warner said, “Selective declassification for political purposes undermines the integrity of our system for protecting classified information.”
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.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sent a letter to Grenell and Attorney General William Barr on Tuesday, asking them to declassify any unmasking requests made between Trump’s November 2016 victory and his January 2017 inauguration, which unmasked anyone in Trump’s orbit. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told Grenell they had expanded the scope of their “unmasking” investigation requests to include information as early as January 2016.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to investigators about his December 2016 conversations with Kislyak. The U.S. government intercepted Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak, after which former FBI agent Peter Strzok and another agent, Joseph Pientka, interviewed him on Jan. 24, 2017, about the contents of the discussion. FBI Director James Comey admitted in 2018 that he took advantage of the chaos in the early days of Trump’s administration when he sent the FBI agents.
After changing legal teams, Flynn said at the start of this year he was “innocent of this crime” and sought to withdraw his guilty plea. The Justice Department moved to dismiss the charges against him last week after new evidence was unearthed, but the judge presiding over the case has resisted immediately doing so, inviting outside opinions last week and appointing a retired judge to argue against the motion to dismiss and to explore whether Flynn should be held in contempt for perjury.
On Tuesday, a fully declassified version of an email that Obama national security adviser Susan Rice sent herself on the last day of the Obama administration about an early January 2017 Oval Office meeting was released to the public.
Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told Robert Mueller’s special counsel team she first learned the U.S. government had intercepted conversations between Flynn and Kislyak from President Barack Obama himself, following a White House meeting about the Intelligence Community assessment attended by Yates, Rice, Comey, Biden, then-CIA Director John Brennan, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and others. Obama asked Yates and Comey to stay behind with Rice and Biden when that meeting concluded to talk more about Flynn.
After the release of her full email, Rice called for the Flynn-Kislyak call transcripts to be made public.
“In the interest of transparency, Ambassador Rice again calls upon the Director of National Intelligence to release the unreacted transcripts of all Kislyak-Flynn calls,” Rice’s spokesperson, Erin Pelton, said in a statement. “The American people deserve the full transcripts so they can judge for themselves Michael Flynn’s conduct.”
John Gleeson, a retired judge controversially picked by Flynn case Judge Emmet Sullivan to argue against the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss the case, argued in the Washington Post earlier this month that the court should release the conversations between Flynn and Kislyak.
“The court could compel the department to reveal the one thing it has thus far refused to show — the actual evidence underlying the prosecution,” Gleeson said, adding, “By ordering disclosure of the transcripts, the court can empower the American public to judge for itself — and assess why the department is trying to walk away from this important case.”
Flynn’s lawyers have touted recently released FBI records as being exculpatory evidence that was concealed from the defense team. The documents suggest that now-fired FBI agent Peter Strzok and the FBI’s “7th floor” leadership stopped the bureau from closing its investigation into Flynn in early January 2017, even though investigators had uncovered “no derogatory information,” after intercepts of Flynn’s communications with the Russian envoy emerged. Emails from later that month show Strzok, along with then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page and several others, sought out ways to continue investigating Flynn, including by deploying the Logan Act.