'Unmasking' probe pushed by Barr ends with no charges

Former CIA Director John Brennan, one of the key figures in the investigation, told NBC News he was never interviewed in the “politically motivated probe.”
Image: William Barr appears at Senate Judiciary hearing on his nomination to be U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington
William Barr waits to testify at the start of his confirmation hearing for attorney general on Jan. 15, 2019.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — A federal prosecutor appointed by Attorney General William Barr to look into Obama administration officials' "unmasking" of unnamed individuals in intelligence reports concluded his review without finding evidence of wrongdoing, according to a source with direct knowledge of the probe, and without interviewing former CIA Director John Brennan.

Brennan told NBC News he was not interviewed by the prosecutor, U.S. Attorney John Bash of the Western District of Texas, or anyone related to the investigation.

"I was never interviewed by anyone in the Department of Justice about unmasking, which was a politically motivated probe initiated by William Barr to please Donald Trump," Brennan said.

One other key figure in the unmasking controversy, who declined to be named, told NBC News there was no interview by Justice Department officials.

Bash was tapped by Barr to head the "unmasking" probe, according to statements made by Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec on Fox News in May. It began as a spin-off of Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham's investigation into the origins of what became special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The Washington Post was first to report that the unmasking investigation ended without producing a report or criminal charges.

Unmasking means revealing the identities of Americans whose names appeared in intelligence reports that were generated from electronic eavesdropping on foreign nationals. The names of the Americans appear in the reports because the foreigners were talking to them or about them, and those names are usually blacked out. The redactions can be lifted if doing so is necessary to help understand the intelligence.

Bash's team was tasked with examining whether Obama officials, such as Brennan, then-FBI Director James Comey or then-Vice President Joe Biden, acted inappropriately when they requested the identity of a person unnamed in intelligence reports, who turned out to be Trump's incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn.

"Looking specifically at who was unmasking whom can add a lot to our understanding about motivation and big picture events," Kupec told Fox's Sean Hannity on May 27.

It is not clear how many, if any, of the Obama administration officials were interviewed by Bash's team. A source with knowledge of how similar investigations are handled said it is possible Bash's team had enough material from other sources, such as documents, that certain interviews were not deemed necessary.

Durham has indicated he will not deliver a report prior to the Nov. 3 election.

The end of Bash's probe means it is unlikely that Trump will be able to point to politically motivated and wrongfully initiated investigations into his 2016 campaign ahead of Election Day.

Bash announced his resignation from the Justice Department last week, citing his desire to go into private practice. At the time of his resignation, Kupec said Bash's successor, Gregg Sofer, will take over any investigations Bash was overseeing, but did not comment specifically on the unmasking probe.

Kupec and Bash declined to comment on reports that the unmasking probe had concluded.