Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the contradictions revealed in recent disclosures, including the list of officials seeking to “unmask” the identity of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. There seems a virtual news blackout on these disclosures, including the fact that both former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden followed the investigation. Indeed, Biden’s name is on the unmasking list.
Here is the column:
The declassification of material from the Michael Flynn case has exposed more chilling details of an effort by prosecutors to come up with a crime to use against the former national security adviser. This week, however, a letter revealed another unsettling detail. Among over three dozen Obama administration officials seeking to “unmask” Flynn in the investigation was former Vice President Joe Biden. This revelation came less than a day after Biden denied any involvement in the investigation of Flynn. It also follows a disclosure that President Obama was aware of that investigation.
For three years, many in the media have expressed horror at the notion of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia to influence the 2016 election. We know there was never credible evidence of such collusion. In recently released transcripts, a long list of Obama administration officials admitted they never saw any evidence of such Russian collusion. That included the testimony of Evelyn Farkas, a former White House adviser who was widely quoted by the media with her public plea for Congress to gather all of the evidence that she learned of as part of the Obama administration.
The media covered her concern that this evidence would be lost “if they found out how we knew what we knew” about Trump campaign officials “dealing with Russians.” Yet in her classified testimony under oath, she said she did not know anything. Farkas is now running for Congress in New York and highlighting her role in raising “alarm” over collusion. As much of the media blindly pushed this story, a worrying story unfolded over the use of federal power to investigate political opponents.
There is very little question that the response by the media to such a story would have been overwhelming if George Bush and his administration had targeted the Obama campaign figures with secret surveillance. That story would have been encompassing if it was learned that there was no direct evidence to justify the investigation and that the underlying allegation of Russian collusion was ultimately found to lack a credible basis.
But the motives of Obama administration officials are apparently not to be questioned. Indeed, back when candidate Donald Trump said the Obama administration placed his campaign officials under surveillance, the media universally mocked him. That statement was later proven to be true. The Obama administration used the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to conduct surveillance of Trump campaign officials.
Yet none of this matters as the media remains fully invested in the original false allegations of collusion. If Obama administration officials were to be questioned now, the coverage and judgment of the media may be placed into question. Even this latest disclosure of the unmasking request of Biden will not alter the media narrative.
Unmasking occurs when an official asks an intelligence agency to remove anonymous designations hiding the identity of an individual. This masking is a very important protection of the privacy of American citizens who are caught up in national security surveillance. The importance of this privacy protection is being dismissed by media figures, like Andrea Mitchell, who declared the Biden story to be nothing more than gaslighting.
While unmasking is more routinely requested by intelligence officials, with a reported 10,000 such requests by the National Security Agency last year alone, it is presumably less common for figures like Biden or White House chief of staff Denis McDonough. Seeking unmasking information that was likely to reveal the name of a political opponent and possibly damage the Trump administration raises a concern. More importantly, it adds a detail of the scope of interest and involvement in an investigation that targeted Flynn without any compelling evidence of a crime or collusion.
The media portrayed both Obama and Biden as uninvolved. But now we know they both actively followed the investigation. According to former acting attorney general Sally Yates, she was surprised that Obama knew about the investigation and knew more than she did at the time. Obama called upon former FBI director James Comey to stay after a meeting to discuss the investigation. Comey had mentioned using the Logan Act to charge Flynn, even though the unconstitutional law has never been used successfully in a prosecution since the country was founded.
Biden has repeatedly denied knowledge of the investigation. Just a day before the latest disclosure, George Stephanopoulos asked Biden in an interview what he knew of the Flynn investigation. Biden was adamant that he knew nothing about “those moves” and he called it a diversion. But that is not true if he took the relatively uncommon action for a vice president of demanding the unmasking of Flynn information.
Yet none of this matters. A Democratic administration using a secret court to investigate the opposing political campaign does not matter to many in Congress or in the media. An investigation continuing despite the lack of credible information supporting collusion does not matter. A president and a vice president who take personal interest in the surveillance of their political opponents also does not matter.
There was a time, however, when all of this did matter. There was once a time when this would be viewed as the story of the century, including the unmasking of Biden himself in this investigation. But these are not those times, and this cannot be the story. Russian collusion is the story and, as Biden stressed, the rest is just a diversion. It is up to the public to decide who has been ultimately unmasked by the Flynn investigation.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.