President Donald Trump’s clamor over an alleged scandal he calls “Obamagate”—a conspiracy theory buoyed up by Republican senators, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and even the acting director of national intelligence—is, in fact, a big pile of hooey, and anyone familiar with national security secrets knows it.
It is true—and undisputed—that, in the weeks between the 2016 election and Trump’s inauguration, several top Obama administration officials asked the National Security Agency to reveal the identity of an American citizen overheard on phone taps speaking with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak—a request known as “unmasking.” The citizen turned out to be retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, who later lied to the FBI about the phone calls. This lie led to his indictment, guilty plea, and prosecution, which Attorney General William Barr reversed last week.
Trump and his allies claim that the “unmasking” proves his longtime accusation that Obama was “spying” on his campaign and his transition team—a crime “worse than Watergate.” In fact, the claim is but Trump’s latest attempt to distract attention from his declining poll numbers, to feed red meat to his conspiracy-crazed base, and to place blame for his various problems on his political opponents. Brad Parscale, the chairman of Trump’s reelection campaign, released a statement on Wednesday condemning “Biden’s involvement in the setup of Gen. Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax.”
This charge is nothing new. Trump and his allies last tried to make a big deal of it in April 2017, when suspicions were stirring over possible collusion between Trump’s election campaign and the Kremlin. Then, as now, the fuss was a baseless distraction.
Yet the campaign has been revived, despite its thorough debunking three years ago, in part because the issues it raises are so obscure and confusing. So let us wade into the muck once again.
The National Security Agency routinely taps into phone conversations of foreign officials, especially officials from adversaries such as Russia. So when the NSA sent top Obama officials a transcript of a phone call between the Russian ambassador and someone identified only as “U.S. Person,” the officials were rightly concerned. (The law forbids the NSA from naming U.S. citizens in such documents.) As we now know, the person—Flynn—was talking about sanctions that Obama had recently imposed on Russia in response to the Kremlin’s interference in the presidential election. The transcript revealed that he advised Kislyak that the Russian government should not react to the sanctions, saying that once Trump was in office, they would be reexamined. (Putin took the advice, to the puzzlement of everyone unfamiliar with the phone call.) Senior U.S. policymakers wanted to know who this person was. If he was someone inside the Obama administration, he was undermining policy; if it was someone inside Trump’s camp, the incoming president should be aware of the loose cannon. (In their later sit-down together, Obama did advise Trump not to hire Flynn.)
And so Obama officials asked the NSA to “unmask” the individual’s identity. This week, Trump’s acting national intelligence director, Richard Grenell, declassified the list of those who made the request and provided it to Congress. The list included 16 Obama administration officials, including National Intelligence Director James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, FBI Director James Comey, NATO Ambassador Douglas Lute, and, yes, Vice President Joseph Biden. (It is not known whether the NSA provided the name to all 16 officials.)
Trump and others are painting this as proof of a massive conspiracy to frame Flynn or sabotage Trump’s presidency. But in fact, these are precisely the people who wanted to know if there was a traitor in their midst—or in the midst of the incoming president. (It is also worth noting that, at the time they made the request, Obama’s officials couldn’t have known that the masked American was Flynn or, for that matter, anyone else associated with Trump.)
In 2017, when the issue first arose, I asked retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, whether it was unlawful or unusual for a senior national security official to ask for a name to be unmasked.* He replied, in an email, “Absolutely lawful. Even somewhat routine.” He also said, “The request to unmask would not be automatically granted. NSA would adjudicate that.”
A former National Security Council official told me, “There is a well-established, well-used process for requesting that such information be revealed. You have to have a reason beyond simple curiosity that is tied to some legitimate national security or law enforcement purpose.” The intelligence agencies, the ex-official added in an email, “take this requirement VERY seriously.”
As we now know, the reason for the request that unmasked Flynn—to see who was talking with the Russian ambassador in a way that undermined U.S. policy—was perfectly reasonable.
It is ironic that Trump is trying to make a crime out of Obama’s unmasking requests. According to official public data recited in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Trump’s own officials have asked the NSA to unmask the identities of U.S. citizens a staggering number of times—about 10,000 his first year in office, 17,000 in his second year, and 10,000 in his third year. It is not known why the requests were made or how many times the NSA honored the request.
This is not a scandal, or even a controversy, and those who claim otherwise are chumps or con men.
For more of Slate’s politics coverage, listen to The Political Gabfest.
Correction, May 14, 2020: This piece originally misstated Hayden’s rank. He retired as a general, not a lieutenant general.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.