This week’s news that at least 39 Obama officials had unmasked Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s private conversations during the last month of their administration seemed a little shocking. Today, major media outlets are telling readers and viewers that the practice is “routine.”
A CNN headline told readers, “Trump pushes ‘Obamagate’ conspiracy based on routine intel activity.”
Yahoo News told its readers unmaskings are “routine.”
New York Times reporter Charlie Savage tweeted the practice is so “routine” that under President Trump, the National Security Agency handled 10,000 unmasking requests last year and 17,000 requests in 2018 – an average of 37 per day over the two years.
The frequency of such unmaskings – which violate the privacy of Americans in the name of national security – may be common knowledge in Washington. But that was not the impression given in 2017 when news first broke that Flynn’s identity had been unmasked in conversations he had with the Russian ambassador, and then illegally leaked to David Ignatius of the Washington Post. The message then was that Flynn’s behavior was so grave that extraordinary steps had to be taken.
Is media concern about unmaskings a conditional thing, depending on whose behavior is at issue — whether that of a potential traitor serving a President considered an interloper or civil servants presumed to be diligently defending the realm against subversion?
In an interview with Andrea Mitchell on April 4, 2017, one of the top people in the need-to-know loop, Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice, suggested that the practice was rare and subject to rigorous scrutiny. “There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a U.S. person was referred to, name not provided,” Rice said. If she felt it was essential to identify that person, she would have her intelligence analysts “take that question back, they would put it through a process, and the intelligence community would make a determination about whether the identity of that U.S. person could be provided to me.”