US attorney investigating 'unmasking' requests by Obama officials announces resignation

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U.S. Attorney John Bash, who was tasked in May by Attorney General William Barr to investigate “unmasking” requests by Obama administration officials, announced his resignation effective Friday.

Bash, a Harvard Law School graduate who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and who has served as the United States attorney for the Western District of Texas after being appointed by Trump in December 2017, said on Monday that he had accepted a private sector job and thanked his Texas colleagues in the announcement.

“Through their tireless efforts, we have held accountable child abusers, drug-cartel leaders, gang members, bank robbers, embezzlers, fraudsters, scammers, and corrupt public officials,” he said.

Bash, who handled the federal case against the El Paso mass shooting suspect accused of killing 22 people and wounding 23 others at a Texas Walmart in August 2019, noted that Barr appointed Gregg Sofer, currently a counselor to the attorney general but formerly a veteran Justice Department attorney who served at the National Security Division at Main Justice and spent a decade as a national security specialist in the Austin office, to be his successor in Texas.

“I offer my gratitude to John Bash for his service as United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas,” Barr said Monday. “Since 2017, John has successfully led one of the largest U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the country.”

The status of Bash’s unmasking investigation remains unknown. When asked about it, DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told the Washington Examiner that “without commenting on any specific investigation, any matters that John Bash was overseeing will be assumed by Gregg Sofer.” Kupec had previously announced Bash’s role leading an unmasking deep dive during a Fox News appearance in May, saying Bash would be helping U.S. Attorney John Durham’s inquiry into the Russia investigation.

“So, John Durham, as part of his investigation, had been looking at the issue of unmasking, and the attorney general determined that certain aspects of unmasking needed to be reviewed separately as a support to John Durham’s investigation,” Kupec said earlier this time. “So, he tapped John Bash, one of our U.S. attorneys out of Texas, to do just that.”

Unmasking occurs after U.S. intelligence agencies eavesdropping on foreigners sweep up communications with or about U.S. citizens in what is known as incidental collection. When intelligence reporting is shared across the government, the names of U.S. citizens are typically concealed to protect their identities. The names can be unmasked, however, when authorized U.S. officials make the request.

Republicans have alleged since 2017 that Obama-era officials improperly unmasked associates of then-candidate Donald Trump’s presidential campaign during the Russia investigation. Democrats have defended the intelligence-gathering process, arguing that the collection of identifying information is inevitable.

“Obviously, we know that unmasking inherently isn’t wrong. But certainly, the frequency, the motivation, and the reasoning behind unmasking can be problematic,” Kupec said in May. “And 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.”

Also in May, then-acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell released a declassified National Security Agency document containing a list of dozens of Obama administration officials, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who were authorized recipients of information in response to “unmasking” requests that revealed retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s identity in surveillance intercepts. The former Trump national security adviser’s name was reportedly not masked in the FBI reports on his conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition period.

“The attorney general determined that it was appropriate to look at unmasking as a support to John Durham’s investigation and looking specifically at episodes both before and after the election,” Kupec said. “And like I said, you know, the frequency, who was unmasking whom, all of these circumstances and events can shed light and give us a better understanding of what happened with respect to President Trump, his campaign, and then, of course, what happened after he was elected as well.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sent a letter to Grenell in May, asking him to declassify any unmasking requests made between Trump’s November 2016 victory and his January 2017 inauguration that revealed the identity of anyone in Trump’s orbit. Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told Grenell they were expanding the scope of their “unmasking” investigation requests to include information as early as January 2016. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked for the intelligence reports related to Flynn’s conversations to be declassified.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who assumed the office in late May, is now the one who would decide what more to make public.

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