So, What is “Unmasking”?

And I don't mean not wearing a mask to Costco.

So, a topic that I have not had time to write about is Trump’s new obsession, “Obamagate,” and specifically the elements dealing with Michael Flynn, he who was briefly National Security Advisor who resigned for lying to Vice President Pence. Trying to wrap one’s mind around the amorphous blob that is Trump’s new rhetorical plaything is, to be kind, a challenge.

One key element this week has been ranting about “unmasking.” Who did the unmasking? Did Obama unmask? Ah ha, Biden may have unmasked! And Flynn was the one who was unmasked! It all sounds rather sinister (or, at least, is intended to sound as such).

So, what is unmasking? And, rather importantly, how common or uncommon is it?

NPR provides a useful, straight-forward description (What You Need To Know About The Flynn, Biden And ‘Unmasking’ Story):

The intelligence community spies on hundreds or thousands of foreign targets abroad or foreign agents inside the United States. In many cases, it can hear what they say over the phone or read what they write in emails or text messages.

Reporting about those communications is used in myriad ways by investigators, analysts and policymakers. But for the sake of security and, to some extent, privacy, the reports undergo “minimization” before they’re circulated widely.

So a report might not say: “Foreign Minister So-And-So talked about the election this week with John Smith.” It would say he talked with “U.S. Person 1.”

Certain officials of sufficient stature can ask for “person 1’s” identity to be “unmasked” to more fully understand what’s taking place in the reporting. As the intelligence community has now revealed, one of those “U.S. Persons” appearing in reports in late 2016 and early 2017 was Flynn.

Two key observations.

First, the notion that unmasking was used to specifically target Flynn makes no sense, because you can’t know who is masked (because, you know, their identity is hidden). So, the allegations that unmasking Flynn’s name came about because Obama officials were out to get Flynn makes no sense.

I would note: if one was concerned that Russian actors were trying to interfere in the US electoral process, it is hardly surprising that US officials would have legitimate cause to want to know who Russian officials were talking to.

Second, unmasking is fairly common, so making it sound like some scandalous activity is dishonest. WaPo provides (Q&A: What does ‘unmasking’ someone in an intel report mean?):

The number of unmasking requests began being released to the public in response to recommendations in 2014 from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

There were 9,217 unmasking requests in the 12-month period between September 2015 and August 2016, the first period in which numbers are publicly available. The period was during the latter years of the Obama administration.

The number rose during the Trump administration. The 9,529 requests in 2017 grew to 16,721 in 2018 and 10,012 last year.

So, this is not an unusual action. And, indeed, it has increased under the Trump administration.

Note, too, as one evaluates all of this: Flynn pled guilty (twice, it is worth remembering) to knowingly lying to the FBI. He was not prosecuted for talking to Russian government officials. And he resigned for lying both to the FBI and to Pence, not because his name was unmasked.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. CSK says:

    Didn’t Martha Stewart go to prison for lying to the FBI?

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Gosh dar’n it Steven, there you go using logic and reason again. That’s the problem with you egg head, piled higher and deeper types, you THINK rather than emote. 🙂

  3. David M says:

    Flynn was interviewed, charged and convicted all while Trump was president. I feel like that gets overlooked when trying to pin this on Obama, regardless of when the unmasking occurred.

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    It bothers me from a civil liberties point of view that lying when not under oath is a crime. And it has since I first learned about it, back when Henry Cisneros was charged with lying to the FBI about the amount of money he was paying to an ex-girlfriend. (I am not making this up.)

    But Flynn also conspired to commit a kidnaping. Go ahead and indict him for that.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Mike Schilling:
    Last Tuesday my friend kidnapped a little girl. He’s abusing her, torturing her and preparing to murder her.

    The FBI came around and asked if my neighbor happened to be home Tuesday, the day of the kidnapping. I didn’t want to rat him out, so I lied to the FBI and said, yes, he was home. As a direct consequence of that lie the little girl was not rescued, but was killed.

    Still think it’s no biggie to lie to the FBI?

  6. Gustopher says:

    Question: Let’s say Joe Biden unmasks Flynn — who besides Joe Biden would learn of Flynn’s identity?

    Sometimes you ask questions that you know the answers to, just to ensure other people learn the answers. Like the above question, where I am 95% certain the answer is “only Joe Biden, because that information is classified and protected, so not even his staff should learn of it.”

  7. CSK says:

    I realize none of you is a mind reader, but now that unmasking has been explained–thank you, Dean Taylor–perhaps someone could clarify for me what Trump thinks OBAMAGATE is. I don’t know and neither does Susan Glasser at The New Yorker.

  8. @Michael Reynolds: Man, Michael, you need a better class of friends.

  9. @CSK:

    perhaps someone could clarify for me what Trump thinks OBAMAGATE is. I don’t know and neither does Susan Glasser at The New Yorker.

    I have to be honest: I am inching towards that one before I fully comment.

  10. @Mike Schilling: I understand the impulse, but especially in a case like this (wherein Flynn testified under oath that he knew lying to the FBI was a crime), I have no reason to be sympathetic or to see injustice as having been done.

  11. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Well, I eagerly anticipate your remarks. Perhaps you should forward them to Trump. He probably could use an explanation as well.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I have to be honest: I am inching towards that one (what OBAMAGATE is supposed to mean) before I fully comment.

    Is it really worth the effort to try to decode what Trump meant? Everybody keeps burying the lede in these stories. The story is that the President* is babbling incoherently. Do the details in each individual episode matter? By debunking each lie, do we succeed only in adding to the smokescreen?

  13. wr says:

    Flynn was fired by the Trump administration because he lied to Pence. (According to the administration at the time.)

    Now Pence has said he’d welcome having Flynn back in the White House.

    Does this mean that Pence doesn’t mind have officials who lie to the vice-president about their official duties? Or that Flynn never actually lied to Pence and that Pence knew all along that Flynn was lying about his conversations with the Russians?

  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The quick and dirty summary is that the Saudi’s shipped over the <a href="”>orb and Tiny stared into it and a voice in his head whispered Obama, Obama, Obama is out to get you.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    Trump was generally believed to have laundered Russian money and to have ties to mobs, Russian and domestic. The Russians had supported him in the election (as confirmed by Richard Burr’s Intel Committee, which is why Burr’s being singled out). His campaign manager was up to his eyebrows in Russians. And then he appointed Flynn as his Nat’l Security Adviser although Flynn was also up to his eyeballs in Russians, and Turks. Meanwhile, everybody and his brother seemed to be trying to set up a back channel to Putin. Flynn was known to be a Loony Toon and the Acting AG warned the Trupskyites about hiring him. What was the FBI supposed to do? Shrug their shoulders?

    I admit lying to Pence seemed a bit thin as a charge. I mean did anyone in the Administration care if he lied to Pence? Can you really be blackmailed over lying to Mike Pence? Hell, Mother probably lies to him. But the fact is he did, with malice aforethought, lie to the FBI in a setting he knew carried criminal penalties for lying. And from what I read the plea on lying was part of a deal to not pursue conspiracy to commit kidnapping, slam dunk charges of failure to register as a foreign agent, and to let his kid off. All in return for his testimony, which the judge seems to think also included lies. He made a deal, and Barr’s letting him renege.

    Instead of discussing what OBAMAGATE might mean, the MSM would serve truth better by reminding the electorate just why these people were being investigated, and that nothing has actually happened to lift those suspicions.

  16. Mikey says:

    Here’s what “Obamagate” is: yet another baseless Trump flim-flam, wherein the utterly unqualified acting DNI compliantly did Trump’s bidding by releasing a list of those who “unmasked” but without any context, taking advantage of the fact 99.9% of Americans don’t know jack-shit about any of the processes involved in intel collection, minimization procedures, analysis, or creation and dissemination of the final products.

    People familiar with the relevant knowledge understand this whole thing is 100% unalloyed bullshit, as well as a deadly dangerous politicization of the intel community, but a Venn diagram of “people who know how intelligence works” and “Trump supporters” is two entirely distinct circles.

  17. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think that one could argue that prison is too much, but I think that it’s of public interest to punish people that lie to federal investigators.

  18. Slugger says:

    @Mike Schilling: When I was interviewed by an FBI agent in connection to an interstate fraud case by a vendor my company was using, the agent made it very clear that I was liable to serious sanctions if I lied or withheld material information. Talking to federal agents is a big deal. This happened about twenty years ago. About fifty years ago, I was interviewed because a close friend was trying for security clearance. I don’t recall being warned at that time. I have have been inattentive fifty years ago, but it is possible the law changed.

  19. Barry says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: ” I understand the impulse, but especially in a case like this (wherein Flynn testified under oath that he knew lying to the FBI was a crime), I have no reason to be sympathetic or to see injustice as having been done.”

    Adding on – this was a counterintelligence investigation, and the FBI wanted to know who was meeting with whom, when where and why. Flynn was (IMHO illegally) holding a position of high trust, requiring a high-level security clearance. He was required to inform the US government of contacts; he failed to do so.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mike Schilling: Nobody made him lie to the FBI, he chose to. He could have invoked his 5th amendments rights. He chose not to. Add in the fact that he knew it was against the law, and I really don’t know exactly what it is you are objecting to.

  21. EddieInCA says:

    “Based on what we know today, this Obamagate theory is 100 percent bullshit… There isn’t an iota of evidence thus far to implicate President Obama or even any member of his inner circle, for that matter, in a crime or even wrongdoing when it comes to the unmasking of General Flynn. The only way you can possibly get there is you have to presume that the motives of the people involved were political and nefarious. Despite the fact that the inspector general has already determined there was no evidence that any launching of the Russia investigation, any key piece of it, was politically motivated. You have to make leaps to be able to say, ‘Aha, this is why it happened.’ Because based on the facts of what we know and what they knew at the time, there is nothing today to support the notion that this is a scandal.”

  22. Hal_10000 says:

    I can’t imagine why there would be an interest in knowing who was using personal channels to make secret nuclear deals with the Saudis and promise the Russians the sanctions would never be enforced. I mean, who here *hasn’t* done that?

  23. Ken_L says:

    Kayleigh McEnany clarified the substance of ‘Obamagate’ in yesterday’s media briefing. It consists of the entire evidence-free narrative the Trumpropaganda network and Republicans in Congress have been peddling for more than three years starting with George Papadopolous being ‘entrapped’ by the FBI and ending with the perfidious Mueller inquiry. The attempted coup, in other words. She even managed to describe an actual crime: someone leaked Flynn’s name to the media.

    To grasp the detail of the narrative, you would need to have been reading websites like Power Line, Gateway Pundit, The Federalist, Townhall and PJ Media assiduously for years. Otherwise it’s a bit like trying to work out the plot of Game of Thrones by watching just the final episode.

    BTW it’s barely been reported, but the ‘unmaskings’ causing all the commotion could not have been requested in connection with classified reports about Flynn’s calls with Kislyak, because those reports were FBI documents in which Flynn’s name was never masked in the first place. It’s likely they arose from intelligence reports about Flynn’s secret work for the Turkish government, his plan to export nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, and other little projects he was working on that we haven’t learned about yet.

  24. EddieInCA says:


    Welcome back, Hal. I haven’t noticed you being around in a while. Hope you’re well.

  25. DrDaveT says:


    The only way you can possibly get there is you have to presume that the motives of the people involved were political and nefarious.

    Well, there you have it. Neither Trump nor any of his inner circle can conceive of any other kind of motive, so what are they supposed to think?