In the foyer of the 20-room asylum: Interpreting the first round of unmasking revelations

In the foyer of the 20-room asylum: Interpreting the first round of unmasking revelations
The "Old" (Eisenhower) Executive Office Building across from the White House in Washington, D.C.. (Image: Wikimedia)

In the post about Grenell’s satchel on Wednesday, we looked at the importance of understanding that the information Richard Grenell has amassed is mostly about all the other “unmaskings” that were being done by the Obama administration.  Those are the unmaskings that tell investigator John Durham what the scope of the Obamagate enterprise was, and who was in on it.

In this article, I want to move on and give a flavor of what we can discern from the list already released by Senators Grassley and Johnson.  This is the list with the big marquee names in it: Biden, Clapper, Brennan, Power, and so forth.

Sharp-eyed analysts have already pointed out that Samantha Power appears to have testified untruthfully to Congress about whether she unmasked Flynn or another Trump team associate.  She said she didn’t.  But in this list alone, she’s recorded as unmasking Michael Flynn seven times.

Will this presidential election be the most important in American history?

I suspect it was actually someone who worked for her and was able to deploy her credentials who did that.  It may well be that Power was unaware of the hundreds of unmaskings from 2016 and January 2017 that have her name on them.

But the more significant point is that we can learn a lot from looking at the list posted by Grassley and Johnson.  We learn more from it than seems possible at first, if we know how to interpret it.

Why spy

Here’s the key to that.  The formal unmaskings of Flynn – which is all we’re looking at here – were done because of what was going on at the time in world events and U.S. policy.  There are probably a few that represent merely a nosy desire to find out what Flynn was communicating with someone about.  But most of the unmasking events were tied to developments in U.S. foreign policy and national security.

The motive was to discover what the Trump transition team was saying to others about those developments.

AFP video, YouTube

That has significant implications in and of itself.  One of the big things it means is that the Obama administration was pulling surveillance information on everything the Trump team did as those developments progressed.  It means (and I guarantee you it means this) that Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, wasn’t the only one who was being unmasked.  It’s a really good bet that Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, James Mattis, and others with national security-related portfolios were being spied on.  (So were others with other portfolios, I am sure, such as energy, environmental, and health policy.  The contents of their communications may not have been Hoovered in for inspection, however.)

We’ve heard today (Friday) that the list of formal unmaskings of Flynn constitutes less than 5% of what Richard Grenell has forwarded records of.  I’m sure that’s accurate.  Again, the list we got Wednesday applies only to Flynn, and it only contains the formal unmaskings done through official requests to NSA.

Another Adam Housley tweet from this week helps put that in perspective.  Here are the two we’ve already considered, which are very illuminating if we know what we’re looking for.

And here is the later one:

The published Flynn list is the foyer.  Housley refers to a 20-(bed)room mansion beyond that, implicitly stuffed full of hydra-headed secrets.  I think of it as a 20-room asylum.  (Hence the headline.)

To envision what that means, we’ll do two things in this article.  One is to elucidate the abbreviations in the Flynn list whose meaning may not be obvious.  The other is to briefly examine a couple of calendar-date periods in the Flynn list, which help us understand why communications in which Flynn was involved were being targeted.

A few abbreviations to set the stage

For the most part, we know which positions we’re dealing with in the Flynn-unmaskings list.  But there are a few that aren’t immediately clear.  Some of them are redacted to the point of lacking context.  In those cases, I am supplying the context because this list is about national security positions that would be interested in unmasking Michael Flynn.

That’s the case for all but one of them.  It’s an odd one out, and that very fact reinforces for us how extremely hydra-headed this Obamagate surveillance was.  We’ll do that one first, as it’s the first curiosity that comes up in the list anyway.

OIA – Patrick Conlon:  OIA is the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, a position in the Executive Office of the President (EOP).  Patrick Conlon was the incumbent of that office – its director – in December 2016.  The charter of the OIA is to manage White House relations with the state, local, and tribal governments of the United States.

Why this office would take an interest in a communication to which Michael Flynn was a party is a good question.  My guess would be that it was related to homeland security.  The national security adviser has that in his portfolio as well as external security and foreign affairs.

But it’s worth noting in passing that this position (or previous similar ones) has not normally had the authority since the passage of the FISA in 1978 to request the unmasking of U.S. persons.

Indeed, the list of officials who (nominally) requested the unmasking of Flynn goes far beyond what I would have expected to see.  More on that in another post.

The next requester is not obscured by an abbreviation, but it is obscured by full redaction of its affiliation.

Chief Syria Group:  This is probably a task-organized entity in the CIA, set up ad hoc to work the Syria problem.  I won’t speculate further on the nature of its tasks.

But it appears next to another CIA entity:

NEMC:  This would be the Near East Mission Center.  In 2015, John Brennan reorganized the CIA into a set of geographic and discipline-thematic “mission centers,” in which analysts and field operators are integrated with each other instead of working in separate directorates.

CIA reorganization chart from 2015. Source: CIA. Click to enlarge for legibility.

The NEMC has the distinction of holding Iran in its portfolio.

The next block is also a CIA grouping.  It appears on the date of 16 December 2016, and made, in the aggregate, four unmasking requests on that date.

COS:  Chief of Station.  This is the senior CIA representative in a U.S. mission (embassy) in a foreign country.  Because of the redactions, we don’t know which one.  We can see that one Chief of Station requested an unmasking of Flynn on 16 December.

DCOS:  Deputy Chief of Station.  This may or may not be the same country team as the COS listed above.

CMO:  Collection Management Officer.  This position works for the CIA in more than one organizational arrangement.  There are two CMO requests listed here.  Presumably that means two different CMOs made requests on 16 December.  They might be from task-organized entities (like the “Syria Group” above), or from other organizational groups.  “Collection management” is a specific intelligence job dedicated to ensuring that the priorities for collecting intelligence, through the various resources available to national taskers, are constantly aligning with the emerging requirements of national intelligence.

The final abbreviation occurs on 10 January 2017.

CIA/CTMC:  This is another mission center in the CIA.  It’s one of the four themed mission centers: the Counterterrorism Mission Center.

These, along with the ones that are easier to decipher, are the positions and entities that requested to have Flynn unmasked in various communications between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017.

In the interest of keeping this tight, I will defer comments on how “routine” that really was.

Examples of world-event cueing

Everyone is familiar by now with the late-December phone calls between Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.  Those phone calls had some specific topics, two of which were of exceptional concern to the Obama administration.

One was the intensified U.S. sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia at the end of December, as a punishment for the Russian attempts at meddling in the U.S. 2016 election, reported out in the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) assembled by John Brennan’s task force.

The other, discussed a week earlier, was the UN Security Council Resolution (number 2334) that condemned Israel for the “settlements” in the West Bank provinces of Judea and Samaria.  The Obama administration was determined to let UNSCR 2334 be advanced to a Security Council vote, and then to abstain from voting on it, instead of vetoing it in accordance with longstanding U.S. policy.

Other nations in the UN had tried to forestall the vote – including the nation that sponsored the resolution, Egypt.  The Trump team at one point requested Russia, as one of the “Permanent 5” of the Security Council, to delay the vote until after Trump’s inauguration.  But Russia apparently declined to do so, and the vote was held, with the U.S. abstaining instead of vetoing the resolution.

United Nations

So when I speak of world events and U.S. policy, this is what I’m talking about.  It is fully expected that an incoming U.S. administration will be talking to foreign governments about such matters.  What isn’t so expected is that the outgoing administration is trying to spy on everything the incoming president’s transition team is saying.

We could come up with quite a few developments that probably sparked the Obama administration’s urgent interest in what Team Trump had to say.  We’ll look at just two date selections.

The Italian Job

There’s been considerable interest in the fact that two top officials in the U.S. embassy in Italy requested the unmasking of Flynn: Kelly Degnan, the Deputy Chief of Mission (“vice-ambassador,” essentially) and Ambassador John R. Phillips.  Both requests were made on 6 December 2016.

Although it’s possible this had something to do with the numerous Italian connections to Spygate/Obamagate, there may be a simpler answer.  The government of Matteo Renzi fell in the previous 72 hours of December 2016, when Renzi lost a referendum vote on changes his party was proposing to the Italian constitution.  Renzi lost overwhelmingly on that point, and after an ugly set of voting returns on 4 December, he announced his intention to step down.  He formally did so on 7 December.

The Obama administration had invested a lot in relations with the Renzi government.  In fact, the last state visit of the Obama administration hosted the Renzis.  (This was the state visit in which Vice President Biden’s staffer, Eric Ciaramella, played such a prominent role.)

An incoming presidential administration like Trump’s would of course be making and/or receiving phone calls about such an event.  Even in Italy, governments don’t fall every day.

Obama and then-PM Matteo Renzi of Italy, state visit Oct 2016. C-SPAN video

The Obama administration may have been especially sensitive about what the contents of such phone calls might be, because of the links of Italian intelligence (and possibly the Renzi government, or at least officials of the Italian Democratic party) to the whole Obamagate enterprise.

I suspect the unmasking of Flynn on 6 December, by the U.S. ambassador and his deputy in Rome, was about discovering what the Trump team was saying in regard to the fall of the Renzi government – and who was saying it.

Flynn probably wasn’t the only one who participated in such phone calls in that three- or four-day period from 4 to 7 December.  He’s just the one we have a list of unmaskings for.

No, this isn’t “normal”: spying on the incoming administration this way.  It’s not business as usual.

The Big Kahuna in mid-December

The final topic is the enormous wave of unmaskings in the period 14-16 December.  There were 32 unmaskings: and that’s just the unmaskings of Flynn, and just the formal unmaskings.

Samantha Power requested two of them on the same day, 14 December.  John Brennan made both of his requests – the only two from him on the list – in this period.  What seems like the entire U.S. Treasury Department weighed in with requests, and there was a massive surge of requests from our representatives on the NATO staff in Europe.

The Department of Energy made requests, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, and a slew of those CIA entities we broke out the abbreviations for above (to include the Chief Syria Group).  This is also where we see the weird request from Patrick Conlon at the OIA.

What in the world was going on at that time?  I believe the following developments, all in that timeframe, are relevant.  I place them in ascending order of importance.

1. The fall of Aleppo in Syria.  The fall of Aleppo – the defeat of the rebels fighting there, their evacuation, and the takeover of Aleppo by the alliance of the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran – was in its greatest paroxysm during these three days.  Russia had been the catalyst for launching the campaign to drive the rebels out of Idlib and northwestern Syria back in September of 2015, and the fall of Aleppo was the decisive event that marked the success of that campaign.

Aleppo’s fall was a watershed in the battle for Syria.  It meant a decisive shift in the dynamics of power and control there, and had major long-term implications for the surrounding nations (Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon) as well as the Assad alliance and the U.S.-led coalition.

That would be one matter on which the Obama administration would have wanted to spy on what Team Trump was saying.  Michael Flynn would be of special interest because of his known advocacy from the period 2012 to 2014, when as DIA Director he was at odds with the administration on Syria and ISIS policy.

2. Barack Obama’s decision on 15 December to decline to sign the bill by which Congress had renewed the U.S. act under which sanctions on Iran are levied.  Congress had voted weeks before to renew that act, which was due to expire.

Obama had suspended the sanctions imposed on the basis of that act as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015.  But Congress voted to keep the authority going, even though the actual sanctions were in abeyance.  Without that affirmative move, the sanctions act would still have automatically renewed.  Congress wanted the political impact of the affirmation.

But Obama didn’t.  It made a stir when he allowed the act to renew without his signature.  Although this might be seen as a hollow formality, the real point is that the Trump officials were known to see it very differently.  The Obama administration probably wanted to know who they were talking to and what they were saying when the renewal of the sanctions act made it a freighted current topic.

Setting a new standard.

3. There was another significant event on 15 December.  Trump selected David Friedman to be his ambassador to Israel.  The mainstream media turned themselves inside out to depict Friedman as a far-right nutter, giving his selection at least as much coverage as the fall of Aleppo, and in some cases more.  What Trump’s inner circle was saying to our allies and partners overseas about that pick was no doubt of considerable interest to the Obama administration.

4. Finally, the least-known event of this period may have been the most important.  Sometime in these few days, a delegation of Israelis visited the Trump transition team.  It included the chief of the Mossad and the Israeli national security adviser.

It was reported (although only in newer and alternative media) as a “secret” visit.  What that really means is that the mainstream media had not been advised of it.  But the Obama administration assuredly knew it was happening.

There is nothing the slightest bit nefarious about such a gathering.  But we can bet it had members of the Obama administration twitching.  I would be confident at least some of the unmasking in the period 14-16 December was related to that visit.  A notable feature of the visit is that it would have had as its chief topics all of the other contemporaneous developments mentioned above – and such topics as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, reviewing the security situation of Israel and the West Bank, and the future of the JCPOA with Iran.

The temptation to spy on communications about those topics, especially as they related to a visit with an Israeli national security delegation, would have been a powerful motive for unmasking.


Perhaps this helps to put the anti-Trump spying in context.  This is why we’re talking about a 20-room asylum, and not just the foyer: because there were multiple reasons for all the spying done after the election, and they shoot off in dozens of directions.

Keep in mind three things.  One, the only aspect of this we have visibility into so far is the formal unmasking, with the names of senior officials attached to the requests.  That’s not going to be all there is.

Two, the same spying mechanism applied to both gaining information about targeted individuals, like Michael Flynn, and discerning the policy intentions of the incoming Trump administration.

And three, the latter – spying on the Trump administration’s policy communications, once the administration had taken office – is what Obamagate is ultimately about.

Remember, we know the spying effort continued after the inauguration.  The Carter Page FISA authorization was renewed.  That point is not in any doubt.

I hope readers can see by now, however,  that it wasn’t the only way to spy.  What Devin Nunes found when he went to the White House in March 2017 was evidence of something that might have been kept going for a long time, if Nunes hadn’t been alerted to it.  (Admiral Rogers of NSA must be credited with an early warning about this as well, during his visit to the Trump team in November 2016.)

The tactics and interim goals of Obamagate changed now and then.  But from the beginning, it was always about having the “intelligence” on Trump to (1) thwart his policies, even if he became president, and (2) take him down.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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