02 William Barr LEAD IMAGE
CNN  — 

Attorney General William Barr has tasked a US attorney with reviewing instances of “unmasking” done around the 2016 election, adding the weight of a senior federal prosecutor behind an issue that President Donald Trump has seized on in recent weeks to underpin unfounded allegations about his predecessor.

John Bash, the US attorney in San Antonio, will be handling the review in support of the ongoing criminal investigation being led by John Durham, a Connecticut prosecutor, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

“Unmasking inherently isn’t wrong but certainly the frequency, the motivation and the reasoning behind unmasking can be problematic. When you’re looking at unmasking as part of a broader investigation, like John Durham’s investigation, looking specifically at who was unmasking whom can add a lot to our understanding about motivation and big picture events,” Kerri Kupec, the department spokeswoman, said in an interview with Fox News.

Earlier this month, then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell declassified a list of names of former Obama administration officials who allegedly had requested the “unmasking” of the identify of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Senate Republicans later released the list, which named Obama administration officials who “may have received” Flynn’s identity in National Security Agency intelligence reports after requests to unmask Americans.

While US citizens’ names are required to be kept secret in intelligence reports, senior officials have the ability to ask for names to be revealed in certain circumstances to better understand the reports. In the past, some Obama officials have acknowledged requesting that people be identified but have said there were legitimate reasons.

On its own, the list of names does not prove any wrongdoing. Unmasking requests are a routine part of intelligence work, and there’s no evidence that the requests were made for political purposes. The National Security Agency said in its declassified memo disclosing the names that all of the officials had the authority to view the reports and the NSA’s standard procedures had been followed.

The declassified memo is the latest document that Trump and his Republican allies are pointing to as part of their efforts to discredit the Russia investigation and accuse President Barack Obama and his administration of wrongdoing, after the Justice Department moved to drop Flynn’s charges of lying to the FBI earlier this month.

On Fox, Kupec said that Barr had “determined that certain aspects of unmasking needed to be reviewed separately as a support” to the Durham investigation.

Bash will be looking “specifically at episodes both before and after the election,” Kupec said.

Bash is the latest in a string of top prosecutors Barr has assigned to handle politically charged reviews. Durham, the longtime Connecticut prosecutor, was assigned to review the origins of the Russia investigation earlier this month. Jeff Jensen, the US attorney in St. Louis, had scrutinized the handling of the Flynn prosecution and recommended earlier this month that the Justice Department drop the charges.

Barr has said that he has since tasked Jensen with examining other issues, but the department has not said what those issues are.

Overall, the level of unmasking has increased under the Trump administration, in the last three years. There were more than 10,000 unmaskings last year and nearly 17,000 in 2018, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Statistical Transparency reports. There were 9,529 in 2017, Trump’s first year in office.

Under the Obama administration, there were about 9,217 unmaskings in 2016 and only 654 in 2015.