Barr taps prosecutor to examine dubious 'unmasking' allegations

Accused of repeatedly tasking U.S. attorneys from far-flung offices to parachute into politically explosive matters, Barr does the same thing once again.
Image: Attorney General William Barr at a press conference in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2020.
Attorney General William Barr at a press conference in Detroit on Dec. 18, 2020.Bill Pugliano / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

A few months ago, a Washington Post report noted that Attorney General Bill Barr's Justice Department "has repeatedly tasked U.S. attorneys from far-flung offices to parachute into politically explosive cases," which has raised "concerns among current and former officials that agency leaders are trying to please the president by reviewing and reinvestigating cases in which he is personally or politically invested."

As regular readers know, the evidence to bolster the observation is overwhelming, with the Republican AG repeatedly intervening in cases of direct interest to Donald Trump.

But it's best not to think of these efforts as developments from the recent past. On the contrary, they appear to be ongoing.

Attorney General William P. Barr has appointed a U.S. attorney in Texas to scrutinize Obama-era officials who sought to identify anonymized names in government documents that turned out to be people connected to then-President-elect Trump, a Justice Department official said Wednesday. In an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the attorney general had tasked John Bash, the U.S. attorney in the Western District of Texas, to examine the practice of "unmasking," which many Republicans charge was abused by the previous administration to unfairly target people close to Trump.

So, accused of repeatedly tasking U.S. attorneys from far-flung offices to parachute into politically explosive matters, the attorney general decided to do ... the exact same thing again. This time, in case the partisan political angle was a bit too subtle, the Justice Department dispatched a spokesperson to break the news with Sean Hannity, among Trump's most prominent allies.

But just as striking is the attorney general's eagerness to investigate a controversy that doesn't appear to exist.

The word has taken on greater political significance of late, but in national security circles, "unmasking" is a routine development in which U.S. officials examine intelligence intercepts involving people abroad, and uncover the names of Americans who appear in those reports. All of this, of course, has become more notable recently in light of former White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a former foreign agent in communications with Russia before starting his stint in the West Wing.

NBC News reported last week, however, "In a blow to GOP efforts to create a cloud of scandal around so-called unmasking, two sources familiar with the matter told NBC News that Michael Flynn's name was never redacted from an FBI intelligence report about his phone conversation with the Russian ambassador to the U.S." A Washington Post analysis called it "another significant, predictable blow" for the White House's foolish "Obamagate" conspiracy theory.

And yet, one week later, there was a spokesperson for Barr's Justice Department, telling a Fox News host, "We know that unmasking inherently isn't wrong, but ... can be problematic."

There's no evidence of anything "problematic" about the way in which the previous administration handled this routine practice, but presumably, that's why the attorney general is so eager to try to dig up something that might make Trump happy.

MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell recently noted that there were 10,000 unmaskings last year, and 17,000 the year before that. She added, "Can people please stop trying to gaslight us?"

The answer from Barr's Justice Department, evidently, is, "No."