WASHINGTON — The nation’s intelligence chief has declassified an Obama-era document related to President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a highly unusual move that prompted accusations that he was trying to discredit the Justice Department’s Trump-Russia investigation.
Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, declassified the document — a list of Obama administration officials who sought to learn the identities of Trump associates swept up in surveillance of foreign officials — and gave it to the Justice Department, officials said. The department does not intend to release it, a senior department official said, and Mr. Grenell’s office declined to a provide a copy. But Republican lawmakers could demand that Mr. Grenell’s office release the list.
Mr. Grenell’s move came as Mr. Trump and his associates have in recent days intensified their efforts to change public perception about the Russia inquiry from a scandal involving Mr. Trump to one involving his predecessor. They argue that the Obama White House, the F.B.I. and the news media acted improperly as they sought to learn more about Mr. Flynn’s ties to Moscow.
“It is part of the struggle over who controls the narrative of the investigation of the 2016 election,” said Steven Aftergood, an expert on government classification at the Federation of American Scientists. “It is putting the spotlight on the investigators rather than the investigated. It is saying what is irregular here is not the extraordinary contacts with the Russian government but the attempt to understand them.”
The information that Mr. Grenell declassified could help a Justice Department prosecutor appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr to investigate the origins of the Russia inquiry. The prosecutor, John H. Durham, has examined the initial leak of information to a Washington Post columnist about phone calls in late 2016 between Mr. Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the United States, officials have said. Mr. Durham could use the names on Mr. Grenell’s list to identify officials who would have had access to the sensitive details about those discussions.
The declassification could also allow Trump administration officials to leak the names on the list without violating laws against disclosing classified information, the very issue that Mr. Durham is investigating.
Mr. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about the conversations in a case that the Justice Department abruptly moved to drop last week, prompting accusations of politicization from former law enforcement officials.
The dropped case ignited an intensified phase of the attacks by Mr. Trump and his allies on the Russia investigation. Mr. Trump has begun on Twitter to label his counterargument “OBAMAGATE!” and promoted news articles about Mr. Grenell’s declassification.
On Dec. 29, 2016, routine American surveillance of Sergey I. Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the United States, picked up multiple conversations with Mr. Flynn. At one point, Mr. Flynn asked Russia to refrain from retaliating against the Obama administration’s sanctions imposed as punishment for Moscow’s election interference.
Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and a member of the House Intelligence Committee who has championed Mr. Flynn’s cause, has long said that Obama officials acted improperly in requesting that associates of Mr. Trump be revealed to them from surveillance transcripts. Mr. Trump has accused Susan E. Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, of committing a crime by seeking to learn the identities of Trump associates caught in intelligence surveillance. Mr. Trump has never provided any evidence to support his claim.
Names of Americans swept up in wiretaps of foreign officials by spy agencies are blacked out of transcripts to prevent such eavesdropping from becoming a tool for improper domestic surveillance, but experts said that Ms. Rice’s requests to see, or “unmask,” them were a justifiable step.
Officials must provide a reason to view the information, like trying to better understand the significance of an electronic intercept or the strategy of a potentially adversarial government, Mr. Aftergood said.
But declassifying or publicly revealing which officials make those requests is highly unusual, he added.
Ms. Rice has said she does not remember specifics of her requests, according to transcripts of questioning by congressional investigators released last week. But, she said, she was trying to understand Russia’s election interference and would have been concerned about an official outside government, as Mr. Flynn was at the time, talking to foreign adversaries in a way that could have undermined the sitting administration’s policy.
Republicans have renewed their focus on Ms. Rice in recent days. On Fox News on Monday evening, Trey Gowdy, the Republican former congressman, pointed to a partially declassified memo from Ms. Rice, which said Mr. Obama raised concerns about sharing information about Russia with the incoming administration. Mr. Gowdy called on the rest of the memo to be declassified and released.