A top Republican senator is calling upon the Justice Department to provide answers about the reported ending of an investigation into the leak of potentially classified information from Michael Flynn’s calls with a Russian ambassador to the media.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the new ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called for the Justice Department to explain its findings, sending a letter to acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson.
“Time and again, we see examples of double standards when it comes to enforcing laws against mishandling classified information. The transcripts of Lt. Gen. Flynn’s call with the Russian ambassador were classified, so how can leaks about them be ok?” Grassley asked Friday. “It’s especially concerning when Congress is left in the dark while the Department continues to leak about its own leak probe to the press. The American people need assurances that the Justice Department will hold its employees to at least the same standard that it holds the rest of the country.”
Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, signed off on closing the inquiry into the disclosure of the December 2016 calls between former President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the recommendation of prosecutors in Washington, a person familiar with the investigation told the New York Times. The report Tuesday, the final full day of Trump’s administration, said that the inquiry, code-named Operation Echo, looked into Obama administration officials with access to the sensitive contents of the discussions, but it “ultimately found no wrongdoing.”
After just a few weeks on the job, Flynn resigned as White House national security adviser in February 2017 amid the controversy that followed the Washington Post reporting his December 2016 contacts with Kislyak. Flynn, 62, fought to dismiss the government’s case against him throughout 2020 after he pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to investigators about those conversations during the presidential transition period. The U.S. government intercepted Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak, after which now-fired FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI agent Joseph Pientka interviewed him on Jan. 24, 2017, about the talks.
Grassley’s letter pointed to former Attorney General William Barr’s May 2019 Senate testimony, where he said the Justice Department had “multiple criminal leak investigations underway” related to the handling of the Trump-Russia investigation following questioning by Grassley.
During that Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Grassley told Barr that “there have been a number of leaks coming out of the Justice Department and FBI during high-profile investigations.” The Iowa Republican pointed out that the 2018 report from DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz found “a culture of unauthorized media contacts … during the department’s investigation of Hillary Clinton for mishandling highly classified information.” Grassley added that “during the Russian investigation, the leaks continued.”
On Friday, Grassley said that “after I had requested that the Flynn-Kislyak calls be declassified in the interest of public disclosure, the Director of National Intelligence did so” and “accordingly, it is clear that the information leaked to and published by the Washington Post on January 12, 2017, was sensitive information at that time and the leak was most likely designed to undermine the Trump administration in its first days.” A list of officials who received information in response to unmasking requests, declassified by former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell in the spring of 2020, shows that 16 Obama officials made 49 unmasking requests related to Flynn between Election Day 2016 and Jan. 31, 2017. The National Security Agency document shows 39 Obama officials who received the unmasking intelligence.
“In light of then-Attorney General Barr’s testimony to Congress and the New York Times report, the Department must update Congress on whether the reported finding that ‘no wrongdoing’ was identified is in fact true and accurate,” Grassley told the Biden DOJ. “Accordingly, no later than February 5, 2021, please provide all records relating to the Flynn-Kislyak leak investigation, including any report of investigation and closing memoranda.”
The New York Times reported in April that now-special counsel John Durham was looking into media leaks. He was reportedly looking into a Jan. 12, 2017, article in the Washington Post by columnist David Ignatius, which said that Flynn “cultivates close Russian contacts” and cited a “senior U.S. government official” who revealed that Flynn had talked to Kislyak on Dec. 29, 2016, the same day that former President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian officials. A follow-up article by the Washington Post on Feb. 9, 2017, revealed likely classified details from Flynn’s monitored calls with Kislyak.
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed in 2018 that he believed these “leaks of classified documents” were “a violation of the law.” Sessions said the Justice Department was “pursuing it aggressively.”
After a two-year investigation, Mueller concluded the Russian government interfered in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Trump issued Flynn a pardon just before Thanksgiving.