A large group of Americans wants an investigation into how the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to steal the election. Another group wants an investigation into the Obama administration’s domestic spying on the Trump campaign and Transition Office and the leaks of classified material from intelligence agencies during the campaign and continuing. The first group complains that the latter investigation would just be a smoke screen to detract from the first investigation.
Most of the rest of us think it all ought to be investigated but that everyone should turn the volume down until the investigations are completed and actual facts, as opposed to leaks from anonymous sources, are known.
Now that the Congress is out of town on another vacation (they have worked for three months after all, however little they’ve accomplished), it seems a good time to apply a little reflection and perspective to these issues.
Russian Intrusion in the 2016 Presidential Campaign. During the 2016 Presidential campaign hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee officials, demonstrating favoritism towards the campaign of Hillary Clinton were released by WikiLeaks to the great consternation of supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders. Later in the campaign hacked emails of Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta were released by Wikileaks. These emails at the time were widely considered to have been hacked by Russian sources and provided to WikiLeaks, although both WikiLeaks and the Russians denied they came from the Russian government. Even if there were “private” Russian entities involved, nothing important goes on in Russia without the tacit approval of the government.
On December 12, I wrote about this in Did the Russians Hack to Help Trump? So what?
On January 6 the Mandarins of the Intelligence Community issued a report “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Election”
The report concluded that the Russians had interfered in the election, probably to support Russian President Putin’s preference, Donald Trump, or at least to damage the likely victor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This conclusion is accepted to the point where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised it as a grievance in his recent meeting in Moscow with the Russian Foreign Minister.
In my earlier piece, Did the Russians Hack to Help Trump? So what?, I imagined an FSB officer called on the carpet the morning after the election: “You idiot! You got Trump elected!” Recent events in Syria and Moscow make that thought much less fanciful.
History of Foreign Interference in Domestic Politics. In the brief portion of human history in which popular opinion played a role in government policy, nations have frequently attempted to influence another nation’s popular political opinion. Prior to both World Wars, for example, the British government made strenuous effort to sway popular opinion in the neutral United States towards support of the allies. During the Cold War the U.S.S.R. made similar, much clumsier, efforts to manipulate opinion in support of candidates it considered favorable.
Also during the Cold War the United States expended much money and effort to oppose left-wing parties and support their opposition in Western Europe and around the world. American involvement in foreign politics has continued through the Obama administration’s financial support of opponents of Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom it considered intransigent in peace negotiations.
Post-Cold War Business Dealings with Russia. From the time of Boris Yeltsin until recently American businessmen have been encouraged to develop associations and business in Russia, an activity we usually think tends to cement relations between nations. Former members of the Trump campaign, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, international political consultant Paul Manaforte and oil industry consultant and venture capitalist Carter Page have had significant business dealings with the Russians, as has Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as President of Exxon. Indeed, Trump himself had real estate dealings, whether investing or licensing, in Russia and ran his Miss Universe Pageant one year in Moscow.
This is a nonpartisan activity. Former President Bill Clinton was paid $600,000.00 for a single speech to a Russian bank and the Clinton Foundations successfully solicited millions of dollars from Russian entities while Secretary Clinton’s State Department was approving the sale of Uranium One, a company controlling 20% of U.S. uranium production, to a Russian government-controlled entity. Business dealings with Russia, even very profitable ones, are not a sign of any impropriety except in the eyes of those who wish to see it.
Trump Campaign Collusion in Russian Interference in the Election. To date the intelligence community states it has no evidence of collusion between the Russians and the campaign. That subject is under investigation by the FBI and two Congressional Committees. Those investigations should be pursued and, if any crimes were committed, the persons involved should be prosecuted. If there is strong evidence that the intended beneficiary of the Russian interference, Trump himself, solicited or coordinated with Russian interference, as opposed to passively, quietly enjoying it, he may very well be impeached, even by a Republican Congress. The #neverTrump crowd will not require evidence.
Domestic Political Spying by the Obama Administration. Since the election numerous stories have appeared, attributed to anonymous intelligence sources, about Russia-Trump related contacts. National Security Advisor-designate Michael Flynn was reported to have been in touch with Russian diplomats after the election, as if that should be a surprise. Most recently it was leaked that a FISA warrant was issued at the request of the FBI for communications surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump advisor mentioned above. Page is a Naval Academy graduate and investment consultant, specializing in Russian and central Asian oil and gas.
While these leaks were apparently designed to undermine Trump, a side effect of them has been to raise the question of whether the Obama administration was spying on the Trump campaign and transition. Trump himself tweeted that Trump Tower had been “wiretapped,” an assertion indignantly denied by all who would have been involved. However, earlier leaks revealed that communications between a computer in Trump Tower and a Russian Bank had been intercepted. The Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee learned that Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice had obtained the “unmasking” of a Trump official, caught up apparently as the other party in telephone communications with Russians being tapped. And there is, at least, the surveillance of Carter Page.
Whether these actions were legitimate is a matter that can be investigated by the Intelligence Committees of Congress with the cooperation of top intelligence officials, now Trump appointees. The Justice Department investigation can proceed as well, especially once Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is confirmed by the Senate which apparently did not have time to do so before it went on vacation.
As in the case of any Trump campaign collusion, any illegal spying on American citizens should be prosecuted. Any improper surveillance on Americans should be revealed.
The Leaks. Nearly all of the discussion above is based on media reports founded on a tsunami of intelligence leaks, unprecedented in volume and intensity in American history. Leaking of classified intelligence information is a crime. It no more illegal when the nation’s secrets are sold for cash to a foreign adversary, than it is when they are given to the press to curry favor or to advance a political cause and made available to that adversary for $2.00 a copy.
In addition to the leaks described above, I wrote in CNN’s “Fake News” about the leak of a scandalous but unfounded raw intelligence report of titillating gossip from Moscow about Donald Trump’s alleged, ah, social activities on a past business trip to Moscow.
It turns out that the sudden availability of all this leaked intelligence is no accident. Its availability was deliberately arranged by the Obama administration in its waning days. The source for this is the New York Times – certainly no Trump apologist – which reported on March 1:
“In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election—and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians—across the government. … At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a possible readership across the government – and, in some cases among European allies.”
The leaking of raw intelligence date is, of course, made much more likely by its broader dissemination across agencies and further down the chain of command in each. These criminal leaks also need to be investigated by both Intelligence Committees and the Justice Department. The Intelligence Committee investigations should include the source and timing of the instructions to spread the dissemination of this information. Attorney General Lynch should be asked about the source and timing of her late term order permitting the NSA to disseminate raw intelligence intercepts more broadly. The intelligence agencies also have counter-intelligence capacities to stop the leaking of their secrets including requiring some employees to submit to polygraph examinations.
If all else fails the Justice Department can “go nuclear” and put the journalists who published the leaks on the witness stand in front of a grand jury. In Branzburg v. Hayes in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a reporter may be compelled to reveal sources when the government can “convincingly show a substantial relation between the information sought and a subject of overriding and compelling state interest.” This would certainly be such a case. It might at least restrain leaks during the investigation to announce ahead of time that this option is under consideration.
Wow. I can hardly wait for vacation to be over.