All of the requests involving Flynn were approved through an NSA process, which requires officials to provide justification. And notably, the identity of an unmasked individual is subject to the same classification standards as the initial underlying report—marking a sharp contrast to the concept of an intelligence leak. “Nobody unmasked Michael Flynn. Cleared national security officials request the unmasking of a U.S. person whose name they do not know to better understand an intelligence report. You don’t know who the person is, that is the entire point of unmasking and it is an important and common tool used in intelligence,” Nick Shapiro, the former CIA deputy chief of staff, told me, noting that unmasking requests have spiked under Trump relative to Obama. “The problem here is not unmasking, it’s that the unconfirmed, acting DNI used his position to politicize intelligence to help reelect the president. That’s the problem and it’s an unconscionable abuse of power.”
Former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa posits that to the contrary of the Trumpian line, the volume of unmasking requests related to Flynn’s behavior, is a bad look for him—not the Obama administration. “This does not help Flynn,” she told me. “This is a long list of names of people across disparate areas of government who independently felt that the intelligence reports they were reading were so alarming that they needed to know—without knowing, by the way, who it was beforehand—[who] the person was that was engaging in that communication or activity.” Driving this point home, Rangappa asked of Grenell, “Why not go ahead and disclose the underlying intelligence report?” In other words, if the Trumpian line of attack is that these Obama officials were acting inappropriately and without cause, make that case. Of course, conspiracy theories don’t thrive in context. And transparency has never been the currency of Trumpworld; details be damned.