Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Russiagate’s latest celebrity is a former Donald Trump associate named Carter Page. Page, who worked for Merrill Lynch in Moscow and speaks Russian, is a banker and investor who early in 2016 was a part of the amorphous group that was advising Trump on foreign policy. There is no evidence to suggest that he was ever an insider with the Trump campaign—quite the contrary. The Washington Post reports that he made several efforts to meet directly with Donald Trump but that his entreaties were rejected.
So why the fuss? Page appears to have been a target of Russian intelligence for a time, even though he had no sensitive information to give anyone and the presumed relationship appears to have ended long before the 2016 campaign. The possibility that Page might have been some kind of Moscow-controlled agent of influence close to Donald Trump has nevertheless excited Democratic Party critics who have been looking for some solid evidence of Russian government subversion of America’s electoral process. It has also provided some insights into the never-ending spy vs. counterspy battle, while suggesting that the Obama administration was not quite a wide-eyed innocent regarding FBI investigation of anyone plausibly linked to Trump.
Bear in mind that intelligence officers make a living and get promoted based on the “scalps” they acquire, to use the CIA expression, which means recruitment of possible sources of information. Page was and is somewhat of an expert on energy issues and, by virtue of his time spent in Russia, something of a Russophile. The combination would be very attractive to a Russian case officer looking for a new asset, so it is perhaps no surprise that Page bumped into Russian diplomat Victor Podobny at an energy conference in New York. The two soon established mutual interests in energy-industry developments and Page, apparently looking for business and investment opportunities, eventually passed some unclassified papers he had prepared to the Russian.
The passage of documents is a key case-officer objective. The assumption is that once documents are provided by the target and suitable noises are made about how they could result in wonderful business opportunities, this will lead to receipt of papers that are more sensitive. Then the prospective agent would be hooked, leading to his or her eventual acceptance of money or something in kind that seals the deal. If the transaction is completely illegal, so much the better, as the target would be disinclined to reveal the depth of involvement for fear of being exposed.
So Page passed papers to Podobny, not knowing that he was an intelligence officer. Pobodny in turn did not think much of his new prospect, telling a colleague in an intercepted phone conversation that Page was an “idiot” who “wants to earn a lot of money.” Pobodny observed that he would be reeled in by trading “favor for favor,” allowing the Russian to exploit him for whatever information of value he possessed before discarding him. The Page saga ended when diplomatic-covered Podobny was exposed and expelled as “persona non grata” from the United States in 2013. Page was interviewed by the FBI but it was determined that he had not compromised any confidential information.
But the story did not end there. Three years later, in July 2016, the FBI obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to monitor the communications of Page, who was at the time associating with the Trump campaign. It has been alleged that Page became a person of interest after meeting with some unidentified Russians, but the only evidence that has surfaced possibly relating to that is a claim that in July 2016 he met with Igor Sechin, chief executive of the energy company Rosneft and a reported Putin crony. Page has reportedly denied that the meeting even took place. The Washington Post also claims that Page gave a speech in Moscow “harshly critical of the United States’ policy towards Russia.”
The FISA warrant was presumably granted based on that visit. As a former intelligence officer, I can attest that the recruitment of someone who is close to a potential presidential candidate in any country is a prize worth having. It is referred to as an agent in place or an agent of influence, but its value is that it provides a possible insight into what another foreign leader actually intends to do. It is far more valuable than a stack of emails. So the possibility that Russian intelligence realized what potential access Page might provide and acted upon it should not be dismissed. And, of course, it is also possible that nothing of the sort happened, that the Russians did not realize what they might have and slept through the entire Page visit.
In either case, we might someday know what happened or possibly not. But one other thing that is clear is that the Obama administration did not hesitate to go after someone presumed to be close to GOP candidate Donald Trump based on evidence that may or may not have been compelling. Page himself denounced the FISA warrant as “unjustified, politically motivated government surveillance.” Bear in mind that the FISA court tends to approve most surveillance requests, not making much effort to challenge the executive branch.
The arguments that President Obama and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice have been making, asserting that they knew nothing about politically charged and highly sensitive FBI investigations are, of course, nonsense. Rice’s request for the identities of Americans appearing on transcripts of communications intercepts reveals that there was very much a heightened sense of the political dimensions of what was taking place. And she would have undoubtedly conveyed as much to her boss, suggesting yet again that the latest chapter in Russiagate may turn out to be Obamagate after all.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) concluded its annual conference late last month, triggering the usual debate in various alternative media outlets. Why does so much U.S. taxpayer money go to a small and not particularly useful client state that has a vibrant European-level economy and is already a regional military colossus?
Those who support the cash flow argue that Israel is threatened, most notably by Iran; they claim the assistance, which has been largely but not completely used to buy American-made weapons, is required to maintain a qualitative edge over the country’s potential enemies. Those who oppose the aid would counter that the Iranian threat is largely an Israeli and Saudi Arabian invention, used to justify continued American support for the national-security policies of both countries. And they would add that Tel Aviv is more than able to defend itself and pay for its own military establishment.
In truth, American aid to Israel is something like a pot of gold that keeps on giving. Both sides in the discussion would probably agree that the domestic Israel Lobby has been instrumental in sustaining the high level of aid, though they would undoubtedly disagree over whether that is a good or bad thing. The operation of “The Lobby,” generally regarded as the most powerful voice on foreign policy in Washington, led Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer to ask, “Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security … in order to advance the interests of another state? [No] explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the U.S. provides.” They observed that “Other special interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country—in this case, Israel—are essentially identical.”
Since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, it has been “the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II,” according to the Congressional Research Service. The United States has provided Israel with $233.7 billion in adjusted for inflation aid between 1948 through the end of 2012, reports Haaretz. Current discussions center on the Obama administration’s memo of understanding with Israel that promised it $38 billion in military assistance over the next 10 years, a considerable sum but nevertheless a total that is far less than what is actually received annually from the United States Treasury and from other American sources.
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), speaking in the most recent legislative discussion over Israeli aid, stated that the $38 billion should be regarded as a floor, and that Congress should approve additional funds for Israeli defense as needed. It has, in fact, done so. At its most recent meeting, AIPAC announced the latest windfall from America, applauding “the U.S. House of Representatives for significantly bolstering its support of U.S.-Israel missile defense cooperation in the FY 2017 defense appropriations bill. The House appropriated $600.7 million for U.S.-Israel missile defense programs.” And there is a long history of such special funding for Israeli-connected projects. The Iron Dome missile-defense system was largely funded by the United States, to the tune of more than $1 billion. In the 1980s, the Israeli Lavi jet-fighter development program was funded by Washington, costing $2 billion to the U.S. taxpayer before it was terminated over technical and other problems, part of $5.45 billion in Pentagon funding of various Israeli weapons projects through 2002.
The admittedly unreliable former Congressman James Traficant once claimed that “Israel gets $15 billion per year from the American taxpayers.” Indeed, how Israel gets money from the United States is actually quite complex and not very transparent to the American public, going well beyond the check for $3.8 billion handed over at the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1. Even that check, uniquely given to aid recipient Israel as one lump sum on the first day of the year, is manipulated to produce extra revenue. It is normally immediately redeposited with the U.S. Treasury, which then, because it operates on a deficit, borrows the money to pay interest on it as the Israelis draw it down. That interest payment costs the American taxpayer an estimated $100 million more per year. Israel has also been adept at using “loan guarantees,” an issue that may have contributed to the downfall of President George H.W. Bush. The reality is that the loans, totaling $42 billion, are never repaid by Israel, meaning that the United States Treasury picks up the tab on principle and interest, a form of additional assistance. The Bush-era loan amounted to $10 billion.
Department of Defense co-production projects, preferential contracting, “scrapping” or “surplusing” of usable equipment that is then turned over to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), as well as the forward deployment of military hardware to an Israeli-run base in Israel (used to support local military operations), are considerable benefits to Tel Aviv’s bottom line. Much of this assistance is hidden from view.
In 1992, AIPAC President James Steiner bragged how he “got almost a billion dollars in other goodies [in negotiations with Secretary of State Jim Baker] that people don’t even know about.” In September 2012, Israel’s former commander-in-chief, Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, admitted at a conference that between 2009 and 2012 American taxpayers had paid for more of his country’s defense budget than had Israeli taxpayers. Those numbers have been disputed, but the fact remains that a considerable portion of the Israeli military spending comes from the United States. It currently is more than 20 percent of the total $16 billion budget, not counting special appropriations.
Through tax exemptions, the U.S. government also subsidizes the coordinated effort to provide additional assistance to Israel. No other lobbying effort to promote the interests of a foreign country benefits in like fashion, and, indeed, most similar groups are required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has learned to his chagrin regarding Turkey.
Most organizations and foundations that might reasonably be considered active parts of the Israel Lobby are generally registered with the Department of the Treasury as 501(c)3 tax-exempt educational foundations. Grant Smith, speaking at a conference on the U.S. and Israel on March 24, explained how the broader Israel Lobby uses this legal framework:
Key U.S. organizations include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Hundreds more, including a small number of evangelical Christian organizations, play a role within a vast ecosystem that demands unconditional U.S. support for Israel. In the year 2012 the nonprofit wing of the Israel lobby raised $3.7 billion in revenue. They are on track to reach $6.3 billion by 2020. Collectively they employed 14,000 and claimed 350,000 volunteers.
The $3.7 billion raised in 2012 was largely tax exempt and it does not include the billions in private donations that go directly to Israel, as well as the billions in contributions that are regarded as covered by “religious exemptions” for groups that don’t file at all. There are also contributions sent straight to various Israeli-based foundations that are themselves often registered as charities. The Forward magazine investigated 3,600 Jewish tax-exempt charitable foundations in 2014 and determined that they had net assets of $26 billion, $12–14 billion in annual revenue, and “focuse[d] the largest share of [their] donor dollars on Israel.” That share amounted to 38 percent of total income. The Forward adds that it is “an apparatus that benefits massively from the U.S. federal government and many state and local governments, in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in government grants, billions in tax-deductible donations and billions more in program fees paid for with government funds.”
Some pro-Israel foundations are in-your-face about their goals. The Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, which “Support[s] the wellbeing and education needs of Israel’s brave soldiers,” is a registered tax-exempt charity that conducts fundraisers throughout the United States. Money being fungible, some American Jews have been surprised to learn that the donations that they had presumed were going to what they regard as charitable causes in Israel have instead wound up in expanding the illegal settlements on the West Bank, an objective that they might not support. It was recently reported that Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner has a family foundation that has made donations to Israel, including funding of West Bank settlements, which is illegal under U.S. law.
Israel also benefits in other ways, frequently due to legislative action by Congress. It enjoys free and even preferential trade status with the United States and runs a $9 billion trade surplus per annum. Its companies and parastatal organizations can, without any restrictions, bid on U.S. defense and homeland-security projects—a privilege normally only granted to NATO partners—which has given it dominance in some U.S. law-enforcement, telecommunications, and travel-security sectors. Its involvement in the development and use of classified military technologies developed by U.S. arms producers has sometimes led to claims that Israel has adopted and adapted—or even stolen—proprietary information and then used it to develop its own arms industry, which is now ranked sixth in the world by volume of sales. Ironically, U.S. taxpayers have subsidized an Israeli industry that then competes directly with American companies, producing a loss of jobs in the United States.
There has also been considerable collateral damage derived from the relationship with Israel, including the Arab Oil embargo and possibly even some blame for the ruinous cost of Iraq, which many believe to have been fought in part for Israel. But even without that war, the U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship has been an expensive proposition for Americans. Whether Israel is a strategic liability or not, or whether its complicated geostrategic situation merits virtually unquestioning support from the United States, the reality is that it has a lopsided relationship with Washington. This has long been and continues to be largely paid for by the United States taxpayer, who is not as well off as he once was.
The U.S.-Israel relationship is yet another instance where the perceived needs of an American “ally” take precedence over genuine national interests. Tens of billions of dollars need not necessarily be spent to placate a wealthy foreign country and its powerful domestic lobby. Indeed, other options to employ the money closer to home—in the form of schools, highways, and hospitals—may become increasingly attractive to American voters.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Call me confused. Last week’s House Intelligence Committee hearing on possible Trump associates’ collusion with the Russian government, which featured FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers, provided very little new information even as it confirmed troubling revelations that had already appeared in the media.
If the FBI began its investigation of team Trump in late July—after the nomination process but before the election—and the Trump campaign office was located in Trump Tower, doesn’t that confirm that Donald Trump is right when he insists that his office was “wiretapped” during the summer even if his word choice was not apt? And given that former Central Intelligence Agency head John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) chief James Clapper have been most frequently cited as the Obama administration’s possible bag men in arranging for the generation, collection, dissemination, and leaking of information disparaging to Trump, why weren’t they also being questioned?
For the overall vapidity of the proceedings, I’ll go with Politico on what were plausibly the high points. In an article that could have been written before the actual event transpired, Politico editors concluded that: Comey is no Trump lackey; that Trump’s words matter; that Republicans are mostly interested in leaks; that Democrats can smell blood; and that the investigation could take a while.
But as a qualifier for those observations, which really don’t tell us much, one might be better served by paying attention to the comment of Committee Chair Devin Nunes, who observed in his opening remarks: “Let me be clear, I’ve been saying this for several weeks. We know there was not a physical wiretap of Trump Tower. However, it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.”
Two days later Nunes elaborated: “I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community collected information on U.S. individuals involved in the Trump transition. Details about U.S. persons involved in the incoming administration with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value were widely disseminated in intelligence community reports.”
Pat Buchanan made the same point, noting in addition that only two crimes are known to have been committed: first, someone hacked into email accounts of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and those of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, and second that someone in the national security apparatus leaked to the media either a highly classified transcript or a summary thereof relating to a series of conversations between soon-to-be national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Buchanan accepts that the Russians did the DNC hack. Although no evidence has been produced confirming that judgment, I agree with him that everything else is speculation. He also notes that Comey and former DNI James Clapper agree that, in spite of eight months of investigation, no evidence has been developed that ties any Trump campaign official to inappropriate behavior with the Russians.
The issue of Russiagate itself appears to be receding as it becomes clearer that there is little or no danger of exposing any Manchurian candidate-type collusion, even though inquiries will undoubtedly drag on into the summer. Last week, President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort volunteered to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. Even former CIA acting director Michael Morell, an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter who once described Donald Trump as an “unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” has now recanted and conceded that, “On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all.”
Regarding the FBI investigation itself, someone in the White House had to authorize such a highly sensitive initiative as it is difficult to conceive that the Bureau would undertake such a task on its own without any political cover. Comey, for his part, failed to provide a roadmap and refused to either confirm or deny whether the White House knew or authorized the investigation of the Trump associates—just as he would neither confirm nor deny whether President Obama had received a copy of the transcript of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations. Indeed, the FBI Director spent most of his time refusing to confirm or deny anything.
Comey’s words are significant. One should recall that he is both a lawyer and the head of a federal police agency that has been under fire. He said, regarding Trump tweets claiming that former President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower, that “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” adding that “no individual”—not even a president—can unilaterally order a wiretap. NSA Director Mike Rogers also testified that “I have seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity nor that anyone ever asked us to engage in such activity.” Comey would not state whether or not an investigation of intelligence community leaks to the media, most notably the Flynn phone calls, were being investigated.
The comments “I have seen nothing” and “I have no information” are not the same as saying something did not occur. And we now have confirmed that there was, in fact, an investigation starting well before the election. As interviewing Trump associates or their alleged Russian contacts during an electoral campaign was presumably not an option, any investigation into whether Trump’s team had been colluding with the Russians would involve electronic surveillance of communications into and out of the campaign committee offices in Trump Tower.
If there is confusion, it appears to come from use of the word “wiretapped,” with its implication of a concealed microphone or transmitter inside the building, as Nunes noted. But that is no longer how electronic surveillance is done. The Bureau and/or the NSA would have been able to intercept phones and internet communications remotely from communications servers or from special facilities that tap directly into the telecommunications switching facilities—something that they do routinely in both criminal and national security cases. The recording of the Flynn calls to the Russian ambassador may have been obtained in that fashion, whether by the Obama administration, presumably either covertly or with the consent of the White House, or by the British.
Meanwhile, holes are beginning to appear in the claim that the Russians were behind the DNC hacking. The FBI was not allowed to examine the Democratic party servers that were allegedly targeted and the reports on accountability came from a contract security company called CrowdStrike, which claimed that the malware used against the DNC was related to malware employed by the Russians in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, no friend to Russia, as well as a highly reputable British think tank, are now claiming that the allegation is untrue, as is the narrative built around it. Take away the CrowdStrike report and there is no publicly available evidence whatsoever that the Russians were behind the hacking. This is not to say they didn’t do it, but it is yet another indication that verification of claims is lacking.
Last week, Fox News contributor Judge Andrew Napolitano was suspended after claiming that British intelligence was involved in a possible plot to bring down Trump. One might note that the New York Times itself revealed the possible British link on March 1, when it reported how the “Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking.” The article confirmed European intelligence service involvement in the Trump-Russia investigation, but somehow the possibility that a foreign agency might have collaborated with rogue elements in the United States to pursue a certain objective has somewhat fallen out of favor.
The foreign angle is intriguing. Contrary to FBI Director Comey’s claims, the U.S. president can authorize surveillance of anyone using the authorities he already has. But if one is engaging in politically-inspired underhandedness, it is far better to use misdirection in doing so. A foreign connection can be an enabler. This can be accomplished by routing the desired information through friendly liaison services, especially those among the “five eyes”—Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Mike Rogers’ lawyerly response to allegations about British involvement in the snooping on Flynn and possibly others was, “I’ve seen nothing on the NSA side that we engaged in any such activity, nor that anyone ever asked us to engage in such activity.” Again, it was the wrong answer to the wrong question, which should have been, “Did the British provide any information related to the investigation of Trump and Russia?” And, “If so, what was it, where did it come from and how was it conveyed?” The British, for their part, have denied any collaboration, issuing a statement that, “Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct wiretapping against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.” Again, since no one might actually have been asked to initiate a surveillance—only to hand over material already collected—the response can be seen as technically correct but somewhat evasive.
There are some rules in place at NSA and FBI, which can be circumvented, for collecting information on American citizens. But the British obviously have no problem in doing so. They also have access to most NSA collected material as well as their independent resources from GCHQ and MI-6, both formidable intelligence organizations. In practice, friendly intelligence services share information without always going through the bureaucratic loops involved in normal liaison. Agreements on sharing intelligence are routinely violated to allow liaison partners to obtain information that would be constitutionally or legally protected in their own countries. GCHQ would have had considerable information on Trump and it certainly ought to have enjoyed particularly good access to the phone calls made by Flynn from the Dominican Republic on networks used by Cable and Wire, a British company. And then there is the Christopher Steele “dossier” on Trump, which, for all its faults, was clearly prepared with some access to UK intelligence files.
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, describes how he has been
led to believe that maybe even the Democratic Party, whatever element of it, approached John Brennan at the CIA, maybe even the former president of the United States. And John Brennan, not wanting his fingerprints to be on anything, went to his colleague in London GCHQ, MI-6 and essentially said, “Give me anything you’ve got.” And he got something and he turned it over to the DNC or someone like that. And what he got was GCHQ MI-6s tapes of conversations of the Trump administration perhaps, even the President himself. It’s really kind of strange, at least to me, they let the head of that organization go, fired him about the same this was brewing up. So I’m not one to defend Trump, but in this case he might be right. It’s just that it wasn’t the FBI. Comey’s [also] right, he wasn’t wiretapping anybody.
Wilkerson is referring to the highly unusual abrupt resignation of the Director of GCHQ Robert Hannigan, which took place on January 23. The British Official Secrets Act has meant that there has been little speculation in the UK media about the move, but I and others have wondered if it is somehow connected to possible collaboration with U.S. intelligence officers over Donald Trump.
So there remain more questions than answers when it comes to Russiagate, possible campaign associates’ collusion with Moscow, and the alleged connivance in some circles to delegitimize the Trump presidency. For those who enjoy the continuing soap operas there will certainly be much more to come. But as the two political parties strive to promote their own respective narratives of criminal leaks versus possible treason (neither of which might prove to be demonstrable), the American public might be in for a long, hot spring and summer as the propaganda machines grind and spit out their non sequiturs.
I personally believe, based on what I have observed and read, that no Trumpster did anything indictable; that the Russians were indeed behind the DNC hack but were not trying to destroy our democracy; that Brennan arranged with the Brits to obtain the surveillance information, which he then leaked; and that Obama knew all about the investigation of Trump and probably worked with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to have the Justice Department initiate it. But what do I know?
There is a perception among some of the public and within the alternative media that America’s burgeoning national-security state is a monolith, a collective entity pursuing its own interests regardless of what is good for the country or its people. From both progressives and conservatives who mistrust the government, I often hear comments such as, “Once in the CIA, always in the CIA”—as if onetime employment in the agency forms an unbreakable bond.
Those familiar with both the national-security community and the peace movement are aware that something like the reverse is true. Individuals who were attracted to careers in intelligence, law enforcement, or the military are often sticklers for doing what is right rather than what is expedient. That often puts them at odds with their political masters, leading sometimes to resignations and a resulting overrepresentation of former national-security professionals in the anti-war movement.
One manifestation of this is an organization of former national-security officers, including myself, called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, or VIPS. VIPS was founded in 2003 out of revulsion on the part of many former officials over the shabby intelligence that was driving the decision to invade Iraq. The group includes officials from the whole alphabet soup of national security—CIA, NSA, FBI, FS (Foreign Service), and DOD. VIPS’s emergence and its ongoing letters of protest on national-security policy reflect a reality going back to the early debates surrounding the U.S. government’s stealthy escalation of the Vietnam War and its woeful handling of that conflict, ending in a humiliating defeat.
The lies that led to that Vietnam experience produced one of the first well-known rebels against intelligence corruption. Sam Adams, a CIA analyst who was assigned to the agency’s Vietnam desk in 1965, observed that the strength estimates for the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong guerrillas consistently underreported the true strength of the enemy. This led to a prolonged conflict with Army and White House officials, as well as with Adams’s own bosses, all of whom promoted the false notion that the Vietnam challenge was a limited insurgency easily defeated, a fabrication intended to ensure U.S. popular support for the conflict.
Though Adams eventually was forced out of the agency, he continued to expose how intelligence had been hijacked to suit a political agenda. He served as a witness in the trial of Daniel Ellsberg, the man behind the Pentagon Papers revelations. He wrote about the Vietnam “cover-up” and spoke to the House Intelligence Committee’s Pike Commission, which credited his allegations.
Today there are many former national-security officials in the mold of Sam Adams. For many, the disillusionment with the corruption of intelligence and betrayal of national security began with Iraq. CIA officers in the clandestine service such as European Division chief Tyler Drumheller pushed hard against CIA Director George Tenet and the White House, insisting that field reporting demonstrated that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Drumheller also dismissed “Curveball,” the German-Iraqi source of the false intelligence that Iraq was building mobile biological-weapons labs. The source, said Drumheller, was merely “a guy trying to get his green card essentially, in Germany, and playing the system for what it was worth.”
CIA analysts also sought to expose false claims that Iraqi intelligence officials had met with al-Qaeda. Senior State Department officials John Kiesling, John Brown, and Ann Wright resigned over the march to an avoidable war.
For others, increasing governmental attacks on the Constitution proved decisive. National Security Agency (NSA) officer Tom Drake went through channels after he learned the agency was illegally collecting information on U.S. citizens in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He was joined by former NSA officers William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, and Ed Loomis. Their efforts were rebuffed by the government. Despite whistleblower protections, Drake later was charged under the Espionage Act.
The large numbers of former foot soldiers in the national-security establishment who are now opposed to the warfare state should be an eye opener for many Americans, suggesting that there is no “high confidence” among many of those who are actually best positioned to know the truth regarding Washington’s perpetual warfare policies.
Which brings us back to VIPS and the dissident former national-security officers who have found a home there. One is Tom Drake, who was involved from the start, as was Ray McGovern, a former senior CIA analyst and presidential briefer. VIPS has produced 47 memos on national-security policy. Its first official action was a February 2003 memo to President George W. Bush condemning the United Nations speech by Secretary of State Colin Powell that established the pretext for invading Iraq. The memo said, “you would be well served if you widened the discussion beyond … the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”
More recently, VIPS has raised serious questions about the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered “Russian hacking” designed to destabilize American politics and, if possible, put Donald Trump in the presidency. The group called on President Obama to release solid evidence of this, even if it creates difficulty for ongoing intelligence operations. The former security officials suggested the evidence released by the government thus far “does not pass the smell test,” and they noted particularly the lack of any public evidence linking the Russians to WikiLeaks, which published the bulk of the information in question.
“We urge you to authorize public release of any tangible evidence that takes us beyond the unsubstatianted, ‘we-assess’ judgments by the intelligence agencies,” said the VIPS statement, addressed to Obama. “Otherwise, we … will be left with the corrosive suspicion that the intense campaign of accusations is part of a wider attempt to discredit the Russians and those—like Mr. Trump—who wish to deal constructively with them.”
The VIPS statement didn’t get much attention. Indeed, such warnings from former intelligence, security, law-enforcement, and military personnel are largely frozen out of the establishment media. When VIPS presents its annual Sam Adams award for integrity in intelligence, the recipients get more media attention in Europe than in the U.S. Rarely do the 50-plus associates of VIPS appear in the U.S. mainstream media, although they are frequently interviewed by the foreign press, particularly in Western Europe.
The government also does its best to repress any dissident opinion by requiring many former intelligence and law-enforcement personnel to have their writings reviewed by security officers prior to publication. The reviews can take months, make no effort to accommodate publishing deadlines, and often result in a heavily redacted text that is unreadable. The government sometimes strikes back in less subtle ways. Ray McGovern’s 2006 return of his Intelligence Commendation Medal over reports of CIA torture led to a provision in the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2007 enabling Congress to strip retirees of their pensions.
Pushback from former national-security officials is a good thing for the country and the agencies once served by these dissidents. Just as the Founders envisioned a citizen army so the defense of the nation would be in the hands of the people, a national-security structure responsive to responsible dissent should be cherished. The Obama administration, to its discredit, routinely punished legitimate whistleblowers and covered up its misdeeds through invocation of the state-secrets privilege. We can hope that the new Trump administration will have the wisdom and confidence to call off the dogs.
We Americans have long regarded coups as undesirable political turmoil afflicting nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America in which governments are changed by force rather than through the ballot box. During the past several weeks, political commentators are beginning to use the word when describing the series of events that began last summer with the claim that Russia was somehow interfering in our national election on behalf of one candidate. To be sure, no one expects the country’s armed forces to march on the White House and force Donald Trump out, but some commentators are suggesting that a political environment is deliberately being created that will either make it impossible for Trump to govern or, if the pieces fall together nicely, will provide grounds for impeachment. As those who might be promoting that kind of regime change are civilians who will not be resorting to armed insurrection, it might be most correct to refer to the possible coup as “soft” or even “stealth.” Conservative radio host and author Mark Levin refers to it as a “silent coup.”
Coup or legitimate political pushback depends on which side of the fence one is standing on. There are two competing narratives to choose from and there is inevitably considerable gray area in between depending on what turns out to be true. One narrative, coming from the Trump camp, is that President Obama used the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies plus judicious leaks of classified information and innuendo to the media to sabotage Trump during and after the campaign. This was largely done by spreading malicious claims about the campaign’s associates, linking them to criminal activity and even suggesting that they had been subverted to support Russian interests. As of this date, none of the “Manchurian candidate” allegations have been supported by evidence because they are not true. The intention of the Obama/Clinton campaign is to explain the election loss in terms acceptable to the Democratic Party, to hamstring and delegitimize the new administration coming in, and to bring about the resignation or impeachment of Donald Trump. It is in all intents and purposes a coup, though without military intervention, as it seeks to overturn a completely legal and constitutional election.
The contrary viewpoint is that team Trump’s ties to Russia constitute an existential national security threat, that the Russians did steal information relevant to the campaign, did directly involve themselves in the election to discredit U.S. democracy and elect Trump, and will now benefit from the process, thereby doing grave damage to our country and its interests. Adversarial activity undertaken since the election is necessary, designed to make sure the new president does not alter or eliminate the documentary record in intelligence files regarding what took place and to limit Trump’s ability to make serious errors in any recalibration with Moscow. In short, Trump is a dangerous man who might be in bed with an enemy power and has to be watched closely and restrained. Doing so is necessary to preserve our democratic system.
This is what we know or think we know described chronologically:
The sources all agree that in early 2016 the FBI developed an interest in an internet server in Trump Tower based on allegations of possible criminal activity, which in this case might have meant suspicion of involvement in Russian mafia activity. The interest in the server derived from an apparent link to Alfa Bank of Moscow and possibly one other Russian bank, regarding which the metadata (presumably collected either by the Bureau or NSA) showed frequent and high-volume two-way communications. It is not clear if a normal criminal warrant was actually sought and approved and/or acted upon but, according to The New York Times, the FBI somehow determined that the server did not have “any nefarious purpose” and was probably used for marketing or might even have been generating spam.
The examination of the server was only one part of what was taking place, with The New York Times also reporting that, “For much of the summer, the FBI pursued a widening investigation into a Russian role in the American presidential campaign. Agents scrutinized advisers close to Trump, looked for financial connections with Russian financial figures, searched for those involved in hacking the computers of Democrats….” The article also noted that, “Hillary Clinton’s supporters…pushed for these investigations,” which were clearly endorsed by President Obama.
In June, with Trump about to be nominated, some sources claim that the FBI sought a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court to tap into the same Trump Tower server and collect information on the American users of the system. FISA warrants relate to investigations of foreign intelligence agents but they also permit inadvertent collection of information on the suspect’s American contacts. In this case the name “Trump” was reportedly part of the request. Even though FISA warrants are routinely approved, this request was turned down for being too broad in its scope.
Also in the summer, a dossier on Trump compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele that was commissioned initially by a Republican enemy of Trump and was later picked up and paid for by the Democratic National Committee began to make the rounds in Washington, though it was not surfaced in the media until January. The dossier was being worked on in June and by one account was turned over to the FBI in Rome by Steele in July. It later was passed to John McCain in November and was presented to FBI Director James Comey for action. It contained serious but largely unsubstantiated allegations about Trump’s connection to Russia as a businessman. It also included accounts of some bizarre sexual escapades.
At roughly the same time the Clinton campaign began a major effort to connect Trump with Russia as a way to discredit him and his campaign and to deflect the revelations of campaign malfeasance coming from WikiLeaks. In late August, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid wrote to Comey and demanded that the “connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign” be investigated. In September, Senator Diane Feinstein and Representative Adam Schiff of the Senate and House intelligence committees respectively publicly accused the Russians of meddling in the election “based on briefings we have received.”
In October, some sources claim that the FBI resubmitted its FISA request in a “narrowed down” form which excluded Donald Trump personally but did note that the server was “possibly related” to the Trump campaign. It was approved and surveillance of the server on national security grounds rather than criminal investigatory grounds may have begun. Bear in mind that Trump was already the Republican nominee and was only weeks away from the election and this is possibly what Trump was referring to when he expressed his outrage that the government had “wiretapped” Trump Tower under orders from the White House.
Trump has a point about being “tapped” because the NSA basically records nearly everything. But as president he should already know that and he presumably approves of it.
Several other sources dismiss the wiretap story as it has appeared in the media. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “denied” on March 5 that there had been a FISA warrant authorizing surveillance of the Trump Tower server. He stated that there had never been any surveillance of Trump Tower “to my knowledge” because, if there had been a FISA warrant, he would have been informed. Critics immediately noted that Clapper has previously lied about surveillance issues and his testimony contradicts other evidence suggesting that there was a FISA warrant, though none of the sources appear to know if it was ever actually used. Former George W. Bush White House Attorney General Michael Mukasey provided a view contrary to that of Clapper, saying that “there was surveillance, and that it was conducted at the behest of the… Justice Department through the FISA court.” FBI Director Comey also entered the discussion, claiming in very specific and narrow language that no phones at Trump Tower were “tapped.”
The campaign to link Trump to Russia also increased in intensity, including statements by multiple former and current intelligence agency heads regarding the reality of the Russian threat and the danger of electing a president who would ignore that reality. It culminated in ex-CIA Acting Director Michael Morell’s claim that Trump was “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” British and Dutch intelligence were apparently discreetly queried regarding possible derogatory intelligence on the Trump campaign’s links to Russia and they responded by providing information detailing meetings in Europe. Hundreds of self-described GOP foreign policy “experts” signed letters stating that they opposed Trump’s candidacy and the mainstream media was unrelentingly hostile. Leading Republicans refused to endorse Trump and some, like Senators John McCain, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, cited his connections to Russia.
President Obama and the first lady also increasingly joined in the fray as the election neared, campaigning aggressively for Hillary. President Obama called Trump’s “flattery” of Vladimir Putin “out of step” with U.S. norms.
After the election, the drumbeat about Trump and Russia continued and even intensified. There was a 25-page report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on January 6 called “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” Four days later, this was followed by the publication of the 35-page report on Trump compiled by British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The ODNI report has been criticized as being long on conjecture and short on evidence while the British report is full of speculation and is basically unsourced. When the Steele dossier first appeared, it was assumed that it would be fact-checked by the FBI but, if that was ever done, it has not been made public.
Also on January 6, two weeks before the inauguration, Obama reportedly “expanded the power of the National Security Agency to share globally intercepted personal communications with the government’s 18 other intelligence agencies before applying privacy protections.” This made it easier for derogatory or speculative information on individuals to be shared or leaked. The New York Times interpreted this to be a move intended to “preserve” information relating to the investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russian ties. In this case, wide dissemination was viewed as a way to keep it from being deleted or hidden and to enable further investigation of what took place.
Two weeks later, just before the inauguration, The New York Times reported that the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Treasury Department were actively investigating several Trump campaign associates for their Russian ties. There were also reports of a “multiagency working group to coordinate the investigations across the government.”
Leaks to the media on February 8 revealed that there had been late December telephone conversations between national security advisor designate Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. The transcripts were apparently leaked by senior intelligence officials who had access to such highly restricted information, presumably hold-overs from the Obama Administration, and Flynn was eventually forced to resign on February 13 for having lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the calls. For what it’s worth, some at the CIA, FBI and State Department have been openly discussing and acknowledging that senior officers are behind the leaks. The State Department is reported to be particularly anti-Trump.
One day after Flynn resigned The Times cited “four current and former officials” to claim that Trump campaign associates had had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials,” but admitted that there was no evidence that the campaign had in any way been influenced by the Russians.
The Attorney General Jeff Sessions saga, which appeared in the media on March 1, is still ongoing. Sessions is being accused of lying to Congress over two contacts with the Russian ambassador. No one is claiming that he did anything inappropriate with Kislyak and he denies that he lied, arguing that the question was ambiguous, as was his response. He has agreed to recuse himself from any investigation of Russia-Trump campaign ties.
Soon thereafter, also on March 1, The New York Times published a major article which I found frightening due to its revelation regarding executive power. It touched on Sessions, but was more concerned with what was taking place over Russia and Trump. It was entitled “Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking.” It confirmed the previous European intelligence service involvement in the Trump-Russia investigation and also exposed the long-suspected U.S. intelligence agency interception of telephone communications of Russian officials “within the Kremlin,” revealing that they had been in contact with Trump representatives.
The Times article also described how in early December Obama had ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full assessment of Russian activity relating to the election. Soon thereafter the intelligence agencies acting under White House instruction were pushing Trump-Russia classified information through the system and into analytic documents so it would be accessible to a wide readership after the inauguration while at the same time burying the actual sources to make it difficult to either identify them or even assess the reliability of the information. Some of the information even went to European allies. The State Department reportedly sent a large cache of classified documents relating to Russian attempts to interfere in elections worldwide over to Senator Ben Cardin, a leading critic of Trump and Russia, shortly before the inauguration.
The Times article claimed, relying on anonymous sources, that President Obama was not directly involved in the efforts to collect and disseminate the information on Trump and the Russians. Those initiatives were reportedly directed by others, notably some political appointees working in the White House. I for one find that assertion hard to believe.
The turmoil on Capitol Hill is matched by street rallies and demonstrations denouncing the Trump administration, with much of the focus on the alleged Russian connection. The similarities and ubiquity in the slogans, the “Resist” signs and the hashtags #notmypresident have led some to believe that at least a part of the activity is being funded and organized by progressive organizations that want Trump out. The name George Soros, a Hungarian billionaire and prominent democracy promoter, frequently comes up. Barack Obama is also reported to be setting up a war room in his new home in Washington D.C. headed by former consigliere Valerie Jarrett to “lead the fight and strategy to topple Trump.” And Hillary Clinton has been engaged in developing a viable opposition to Trump while still seething about Putin. Two congressional inquiries are pending into the Russian connection and the FBI investigation, insofar as can be determined, is still active.
If one were to come up with a summary of what the government might or might not have been doing over the past nine months concerning Trump and the Russians it would go something like this: FBI investigators looking for criminal activity connected to the Trump Tower server found nothing and then might have sought and eventually obtained a FISA issued warrant permitting them to keep looking on national security grounds. If that is so, the government could have been using the high-tech surveillance capabilities of the federal intelligence services to monitor the activity of an opposition political candidate. Additional information was undoubtedly collected on Trump and his associates’ dealings with Russia using federal intelligence and law enforcement resources, and NSA guidelines were changed shortly before the inauguration so that much of the information thus obtained, normally highly restricted, could then be disseminated throughout the intelligence community and to other government agencies. This virtually guaranteed that it could not be deleted or hidden while also insuring that at least some of it would be leaked to the media.
The actions undertaken by the lame duck Obama administration were certainly politically motivated, but there also might have been genuine concern over the alleged Russian threat. The Obama administration’s actions were quite likely intended to hobble the new administration in general as Trump would be nervous about the reliability of his own intelligence and law enforcement agencies while also being constantly engaged in fighting leaks, but they might also have been designed to narrow the new president’s options when dealing with Russia. Whether there is any intention to either delegitimize or bring down the Trump White House is, of course, unknowable unless you had the good fortune to be in the Oval Office when such options were possibly being discussed.
It should also be observed that all of the investigations by both the government and the media have come up with almost nothing, at least insofar as the public has been allowed to see the evidence. Someone, widely presumed but not demonstrated to be in some way associated with the Russian government, hacked into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The factual information was then passed to WikiLeaks, which denies that it came from a Russian source, and was gradually released starting in July. There has been a presumption that Moscow was either trying to influence the outcome of the election in support of Donald Trump or that it was trying to somehow subvert American democracy, but no unimpeachable evidence has as of yet been produced to support either hypothesis. The two senior Trump officials – Flynn and Sessions – who have been under the gun have not been pummeled because they did anything wrong vis-à-vis the Russians —they did not — but because they have been accused of lying.
So, whether there is some kind of coup in progress ultimately depends on your perspective and what you are willing to believe to be true. I would suggest that if there continue to be damaging leaks coming from inside the government intended to cripple the White House the possibility that there is a genuine conspiracy in place begins to look more attractive. And the possibility of impeachment is also not far off, as Trump is confronted by a hostile Democratic Party and numerous dissidents within the GOP ranks. But if nothing comes of it all beyond an extremely rough transition, the whole business might just be regarded as a particularly nasty bit of new style politics. If, however, it turns out that the intelligence agencies have indeed been actively collaborating with the White House in working against opposition politicians, the whole tale assumes a particularly dangerous aspect as there is no real mechanism in place to prevent that from occurring again. The tool that Obama has placed in Trump’s hands might just as easily be used against the Democrats in 2020.
We are entering into a politically charged environment where ordinary interactions between senior government officials and their foreign counterparts can quickly become toxic.
Incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn did nothing wrong when he spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. It is just as evident that Sen. Jeff Sessions did nothing wrong when he spoke twice to the same gentleman in the context of his membership on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The first Sessions meeting in June was part of a conference organized by the State Department and the Heritage Foundation that included 50 ambassadors. Sessions was the keynote speaker and was approached by some of the ambassadors afterwards, including the Russian envoy.
The second meeting in September took place in Sessions’s office. There were staffers present at the meeting, which was held in a Senate building because Sessions had turned down a request by the ambassador for a private lunch, which he considered inappropriate. No one is claiming that anything discussed at either meeting was in any way incriminating or damaging to national security. According to Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, FBI investigators have reportedly gone farther than that, having already indicated to the House and Senate intelligence committees that there is “no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.” That conclusion has, however, been challenged by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who countered that the investigation is still in its initial stages.
Flynn was forced to step down after a campaign of vilification orchestrated by some senior officials at CIA and NSA, possibly acting on behalf of the outgoing Obama administration, though the actual issue that led to his resignation was a reported failure to be completely honest with Vice President Mike Pence regarding his phone calls with Kislyak. Whether that was an oversight or deliberate remains to be determined, but the Trump administration clearly decided that it was not a fight worth engaging in given the superheated media coverage that it produced.
The Sessions story is somewhat different, though it too includes hysterical reactions from the media and also from some leading Democrats. The controversy surrounding Sessions is based on a single question asked by Sen. Al Franken, “If there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?”
Sessions responded that he was “not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.”
Explanations of what Sessions did or not mean have generally taken two approaches. If you believe Sessions was discussing how Moscow might help defeat Hillary, was he was hiding something nefarious? Or, if you believe he was innocent, was he honestly responding to Franken’s apparent focus on contact with Russians as an element in the campaign?
As I believe the entire narrative seeking to portray the Trump victory as some kind of Manchurian-candidate scheme concocted by the Kremlin is complete nonsense, I tend to believe Sessions was answering honestly, after interpreting the question in a certain fashion. His spokesman has described the exchange as: “He was asked during the hearing about communications between Russia and the Trump campaign—not about meetings he took as a senator and a member of the Armed Services Committee.”
It is important to note that Sessions was not part of the Trump campaign staff, which explains his answer to Senator Franken. It would have been nice if he had begun his response to by noting that he has had intermittent interaction with Russian officials as part of his responsibilities in the Senate and then gone on to state that there had been no such contact that he was aware of as part of the campaign. But he did not do that, which has opened the door to the current politically-motivated firestorm.
What is particularly disturbing about the attack on Sessions is the hypocrisy evidenced by congressmen like Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who are demanding that the attorney general resign because they claim he committed perjury. Answering questions in such a way as to avoid saying too much is a fine art in Washington—a skill that both Schumer and Pelosi have themselves also developed—but it does not amount to perjury. Sessions’s answer to Franken is not completely clear, but it is not an out-and-out lie. In that respect the attack on Sessions is like the attack on Flynn, basically a way of getting at and weakening President Donald Trump by opportunistically discrediting his high-level appointments.
That Sessions has now recused himself from anything having to do with Russia may be politically advisable, at least in part, to quell the outrage in the media and among nearly all Democrats and the usual caballero Republicans. But the original demands were inappropriate, as no one has demonstrated that Sessions has in some way worked with a foreign power to damage the national security of the United States. He is being tried by innuendo and in the cooperative media.
And then there is the even more disturbing Russian aspect to all of this. Sessions’s staff noted that as a senior senator on the Armed Services Committee, he met with 25 ambassadors. Why aren’t Schumer and Pelosi asking for a list of all those contacts? Ambassadors are doing their jobs when they represent their nations’ interests, which include working against some U.S. policies and trying to get foreign officials to reveal sensitive information “off the record.” Russia does indeed do that, but so do many countries that are regarded as close friends.
Russia is yet again being singled out for political reasons, even though Moscow and Washington are not at war. The evidence that Vladimir Putin has been somehow interfering in U.S. politics is definitely on the thin side and apparently not about to get any better. And fooling with Russia can be dangerous as it is the only country on earth that can destroy the United States. Nevertheless, in spite of that, there are many in the Democratic Party and the media who would like to make Russia something like a permanent enemy, to sustain the warfare state while also having a punching bag that can be blamed for whatever else might be going wrong.
One might reasonably consider the attacks on Sessions to be less about him and more about both Trump himself and Russia. Indeed, Trump and Russia are conjoined as the impending investigation into Moscow’s possible role in the election is also by its very nature a way to begin a process that would reverse the Trump electoral victory. Implicating yet another senior government official as a possible Kremlin patsy—and pressing ahead with a broader, bipartisan inquiry into the alleged subversion of the Trump campaign by Moscow—will narrow the president’s options for any reset with Russia while weakening his administration.
I note that President Trump has appointed hardliner Fiona Hill as his point person for dealing with Russia on the National Security Council. It is a bad move and possibly a sign that the relentless pressure regarding Moscow is beginning to bear fruit, forcing Trump to backtrack on his campaign promises to seek a reset with Putin.
The American media is ignoring a story from London about the abrupt resignation of Robert Hannigan, the head of Britain’s highly secretive Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which is the codebreaking equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Hannigan’s resignation on January 23 surprised everyone, with only a few hours’ notice provided to his staff. He claimed in a press release that he wanted to spend more time with his family, which reportedly includes a sick wife and elderly parents. Given the abruptness of the decision, it seems likely to be a cover story.
The British media is speculating that Hannigan was pushed out because he was resistant to sharing sensitive intelligence with the Trump White House, but that story makes no sense. The UK’s formidable GCHQ does indeed have significant resources that make it the most valued partner for the NSA, but the bilateral flow of information is predominantly from Washington to London, making the relationship more valuable to Britain than to the U.S., no matter who is president.
Hannigan, who is only 51, was a senior civil servant brought into GCHQ in November 2014 for an anticipated four-year tour of duty. He was tasked with initiating reforms in the wake of the Snowden revelations. Hannigan promised more openness and accountability. But one of his first moves was to condemn attempts by mostly U.S. technology companies to restrict government access to their messaging systems, making them “the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists. More recently, he has authorized public relations demonstrations, including illuminating his headquarters building in the rainbow colors of the LGBTQ flag.
For those who have been following such developments, the European media’s feeding frenzy regarding Donald Trump and his administration has made any but the most rabid U.S. news outlets look highly civilized by way of comparison. The British press has been a leader in that effort and anti-Trump demonstrations are both large and frequent in London and other cities. Hostility to Trump is consequently strong both within the British government and among the people, including motions in Parliament and petitions to ban the American president from Britain.
Britain, like the U.S., has three principal intelligence agencies: GCHQ corresponds to NSA; the Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) is the British CIA; and MI-5 works on internal security like America’s FBI. The CIA and NSA report to the president, while MI-6 and GCHQ answer to the UK foreign secretary, who in turn is accountable to the prime minister. MI-5 is under the British government’s Joint Intelligence Committee, while the FBI is directed by the U.S. attorney general.
The heads of CIA, NSA, the FBI, GCHQ, MI-6, and MI-5 together constitute what is likely to be the world’s most exclusive club. Though most intelligence is shared with the other “Five Eyes” English-speaking countries (Canada, New Zealand, and Australia), it is the Anglo-American relationship that drives the process and produces most of the information. As the Downing Street memo demonstrated in its assertion that the Iraq War intelligence and facts “were being fixed around the policy,” Brits and Americans are frequently inclined to do each other favors, even when they know that the enterprise they might be engaging in is not “going by the book.”
The Hannigan resignation is not occurring in a vacuum, and some in the large and highly networked retired intelligence community have come to believe that it is connected to the investigation and downfall of Trump’s first national-security advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has detailed exactly how the Flynn case does not appear to fit into any acceptable category that would have mandated an investigation and interrogation by the FBI. Surveillance of a Russian official would be authorized under FBI guidelines, but to extend that type of monitoring or investigation to a U.S. citizen would require specific authority from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to issue a warrant based on probable cause.
There is no evidence that that was ever done. Flynn was not an actual or suspected foreign intelligence agent, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that he might be so inclined. Nor was he engaged in any criminal activity or unwittingly connected to an ongoing investigation. Indeed, apart from possibly dissimulating over what he said, he basically did nothing wrong. There were no grounds for him to be questioned (“grilled” according to the New York Times) by the FBI, and whether or not he misled Vice President Pence over the content of his December phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak is a matter for the president and his advisers to sort out from a political perspective, which is indeed what eventually took place.
Regarding the actual development of the investigation of Flynn, recall for a moment that we are dealing with at least some individuals at the top levels of national-security organizations who did not hesitate to break the law, leaking information to the media on the highly classified telephone intercepts. Some government employees have gone to jail for doing just that. That revelation alone might be considered a major security breach, since the Russians learned they were being intercepted and have likely tightened up their communications procedures, meaning there will be no more freebies.
Why would these leakers do it? The investigation of Flynn was initiated by high-level Obama officials who had access to tightly controlled and normally inaccessible information. “Obama advisers” were reportedly working directly with the FBI to investigate Flynn. Many of those advisers and other high officials had lost much in the electoral outcome and some might certainly have been seeking payback, while the lame-duck White House could have been looking for ways to preemptively weaken the incoming administration.
The FBI or NSA would have been recording the conversations of the Russian ambassador as a legitimate exercise of their authority, but the normal procedure involving inadvertent intercept of a soon-to-be high-ranking American would be to redact that part of the conversation or otherwise “minimize” it to conceal his or her identity. Leaking the classified information thus obtained to the media portraying Flynn, and by extension Trump, in a bad light would require reconstruction of the original documents and might be risky to carry out. Even if the enterprise could be seen as a good move politically if one were a Democrat, it would not pay to do it too directly, as someone might eventually backtrack and find out the source.
That being so, it might not be too preposterous to consider discreetly asking the Brits what they might have in a folder somewhere on calls and other contacts made by Flynn. As Flynn was known to be in touch with senior government officials all over the world, GCHQ might well have content or corroboration that NSA could have missed. Pull together enough “foreign sourced” stuff that way, imply something possibly untoward about all of it, send it on over to the CIA liaison, and you have a prima facie case that would satisfy the admittedly willing-to-be-convinced Obama Justice Department that Flynn might be up to something that could potentially damage national security.
Enter the FBI at that point to open an investigation. And focus on the Russian aspect as it supports the official Democratic Party narrative that “Putin stole the election”—and also satisfies the many in Congress, the intelligence community, and the media who are opposed to any détente with Moscow. It all looks and smells good because key evidence comes from outside the system and doesn’t appear to derive from dedicated players harboring agendas on this side of the Atlantic. Pull it all together and it accomplishes three things: it enables an investigation of Flynn, provides cover for media leaks, and both embarrasses and weakens the authority of the new administration.
Yes, I know this is largely speculation, but former colleagues and I have come to suspect something does not smell right with the Hannigan resignation and would seem to be quite plausibly related to Flynn. It also explains how and why the investigation proceeded as aggressively as it did: information derived from a major foreign intelligence partner could not be easily dismissed or ignored and would have to be acted upon.
Hannigan’s exit is almost certainly more than it seems, and the Flynn dismissal also would appear to have aspects that have not yet surfaced and, in truth, might never see the light of day. It is not unreasonable to argue that it can all be connected. Aggrieved senior officials closely tied to the outgoing White House might have surreptitiously sought assistance from a “special relationship friend” in a foreign government to make a case that would humiliate and ultimately bring down an unlovable and abrasive incoming national-security advisor. Of course, one still needs to learn who those senior officials were and consider whether they should be allowed to walk away from what they have done.
As for Hannigan, did the Trump White House discover what had occurred and did it back channel to British Prime Minister Theresa May demanding that someone’s head roll? Or did May learn of the maneuvering independently and respond appropriately? However it is playing out right now, someday the whole story almost certainly will be leaked and whatever contrivance or sequence of events enabled the attack on Flynn will become public. You can be sure of that.
The story on the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is somewhat like peeling an onion, with each layer revealing something new. To be sure, I am delighted to see Flynn gone, both because of his clearly expressed desire to confront Iran and his inaccurate characterization of Islam. But Flynn’s departure will no doubt be exploited by many to justify increased hostility toward Russia, which is neither justified by circumstances nor in America’s long-term interests.
Ironically, I am not even sure if Flynn was ever really on the same page as his boss regarding relations with Moscow. The former advisor considered Russia one of a number of states that would be useful allies in the global war against “radical Islamic terrorism.” But at the same time, Flynn has been focused on a post-ISIS situation in which a transnational alignment of Iran, Russia, China, and other states all join a grand conspiracy to challenge American military supremacy and ultimately destroy the United States.
To be sure, there are parts of the Flynn tale that just do not make sense. How is it that an experienced intelligence officer would not instinctively know that a long-distance telephone call between a man relaxing at a beach resort in the Dominican Republic and the Russian ambassador in Washington would be intercepted by the National Security Agency? And knowing that, why would anyone lie about it, even if it did include some kind of discussion relating to the current round of sanctions on Russia, which is pretty unsensational material when all is said and done? Flynn certainly had a number of other discussions with foreign-intelligence officers before the Trump inaugural, including those of Israel and most likely Britain, without any scandal being imputed even though the talks must surely have included discussion of substantive issues. The difference is clearly the involvement of Russia.
The motivation for the leak of the apparent transcript of the phone call (or a summary of it) to the media must be considered. There are (more or less) four theories currently floating around regarding what happened and why. First, that it was vindictive members of the intelligence community (IC) getting even for Trump’s rude comments about them. Second, that it was a victory for the neoconservatives who want a national-security advisor who will be more openly willing to employ U.S. military power worldwide. Third, that it was honorable members of the IC acting as whistleblowers to expose the illegality and blackmail potential of Flynn discussing policy with a foreign diplomat before he was actually in office. Fourth, that it was carried out by Obama holdovers getting revenge.
I don’t buy any of those explanations. In this case, the leak came out of the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, or possibly the Central Intelligence Agency (or all three) with the intent of bringing down a key political figure—thereby damaging a new White House and influencing policy formulation. It also appears to have involved multiple leakers, according to The Intercept. That goes beyond vindictive, vengeful, exposing illegality, worrying about blackmail, or wanting to change horses. This was a leak that had specific policy implications.
Which leads to the possibility that the story about Flynn actually has little or nothing to do with either him personally or his having been indiscreet. How it developed and where it is leading might actually be much more about America’s Russian policy. Taking down Flynn, whose actual views on foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran and Russia are pretty closely aligned with those of the neoconservatives and many in Congress and the media, would hardly appear to be a suitable objective but for the fact that his irascible demeanor made him an easy mark for discrediting the entire Trump project. Now that he has been dismissed over contact with a Russian, Flynn is the stick that will be used to beat Vladimir Putin.
Everyone who matters in the United States is now rushing to demonize Russia, even though Moscow was pretty much a passive player in what happened and has subsequently developed. The narrative that Moscow somehow influenced the outcome of the recent U.S. election has not completely gone away, largely fueled by Democratic Party rage over the final result even though no hard evidence has ever been produced to support the allegations regarding Putin’s interference. Some senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have always been prepared to respond dramatically to Russian initiatives. And the media has been on an anti-Putin binge ever since the fighting over Georgia in 2008.
Quite a lot of what is now taking place is feeding off of a shift in perception in Washington. Russia is no longer seen as an adversary or competitor but as an enemy. This was clear in the Hillary Clinton campaign’s insistence on punishing Moscow, and it resonates in most mainstream-media coverage of any and all developments in Russia.
Some suggest that the intelligence community is also on board with this sentiment, though that is often dismissively attributed to a desire for larger budgets and increased turf in Washington. But my own recent encounters with intelligence officers of the current generation has led me to believe something quite different—that many people in the IC really have come to believe that Russia is a major and very active threat against the United States, just like in the old days with the Soviet Union. I assume they have come to that conclusion through their understanding of developments in Syria and Ukraine, but I nevertheless fail to understand how they have adopted that point of view given the real limitations on Russian power. Whatever the reason, they believe in their Russophobia passionately, and I have discovered that arguing with those who are fixated on Moscow as the fons et origo of global chaos is futile.
To my mind, this makes the officials who shared the phone transcripts much more dangerous than conventional leakers motivated by some personal grievance or desire to right a wrong. I fear that the current crop of Russia skeptics are true believers of the worst kind and will do whatever it takes to disrupt any moves toward rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Exposing a highly classified sigint-derived phone call of a soon-to-be high U.S. official might reasonably be described as an extreme initiative.
So it seems that the destruction of Flynn, involving as it may have a number of leakers coming from all across the intelligence community, might be part of a coordinated effort to narrow the Trump White House’s options for dealing with Russia. Many in Washington do not want a comfortable working relationship with Putin in spite of the fact that a reset with Moscow should be the No. 1 national-security objective. There are already multiple investigations of Russia underway in Congress with calls for more, but exploiting the vulnerable Flynn might have been seen as providing the best opportunity to do something really disruptive before any change in the direction of foreign policy can take place.
The United States is adding new sanctions on Iran over that country’s alleged misdeeds, and nearly all of those allegations are either out-and-out lies or half-truths. It has a familiar ring to it, as demonizing Tehran has been rather more the norm than not since 1979, a phenomenon that has included fabricated claims that the Iranians killed American soldiers after the U.S.’s armed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time around, the administration focused on the perfectly legal Iranian test of a non-nuclear-capable, medium-range ballistic missile and the reported attack on what was initially claimed to be a U.S. warship by allegedly Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi fighters. The ship was later revealed to be a Saudi frigate.
Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, “officially” put Iran “on notice” while declaring that “The Trump Administration will no longer tolerate Iran’s provocations that threaten our interests. The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”
Ignoring the fact that Iran cannot actually threaten the United States or any genuine vital national interests, the warning and follow-up action from the White House also contradict Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to avoid yet another war in the Middle East, which appears to have escaped Flynn’s notice. The increase in tension and the lack of any diplomatic dialogue mean that an actual shooting war might now be a “false flag,” false intelligence report, or accidental naval encounter away.
If it all sounds like a reprise of the baseless allegations and intentionally unproductive negotiations that led to the catastrophic Iraq War, it should. What “belligerent actions against the United States” Flynn was referring to, generally speaking, were not completely clear, but that lack of precision may have been intentional, to permit instant vilification of anything Tehran attempts to do to counter the hostility coming out of Washington.
Hating Iran has a considerable pedigree. I must confess to being of a generation in the federal government, like Flynn and others, where saying something derogatory about Iran was in the DNA, welcomed by all and sundry. I nursed a personal and specific grudge relating to the mullahs, as an Iranian government agent tried to kill me in Turkey in the 1980s. But more often the animosity was generic, sometimes expressed humorously at CIA Station staff meetings. I recall how one fellow officer who was undercover at a consular office would positively gloat as he described how many Iranian visa applicants he had turned down in the past week and everyone would bang their fists on the conference table, signifying their approval. Of course, we all felt fully justified in our Iranophobia due to the 1979-80 embassy hostage crisis, which was still very fresh in our minds.
But my rancor toward Iran has long since faded. I have Iranian friends and have come around to the view that Iran has much more been sinned against than sinned in its relationship with the United States. With the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015, I even began to believe that the two nations might well be able to resume something like normal diplomatic relations, which would benefit everyone involved. Alas, such hopes appear to be scuppered by a recent wave of Iran hysteria that bids fair to eclipse the Russian panic that has consumed the media and chattering class during the past six months.
I should have seen it coming. In December 2015, I was present at a conference in Moscow where General Flynn explained his concept of 21st-century geo-economic-political strategy. At least I think that was what he was talking about, though one can understand the frustration of the interviewer, Sophie Shevdernadze, as she tried to get him to explain what he meant during a largely incoherent presentation.
At the time I knew little about Flynn and his views, but I was particularly taken aback by a random shot he took at the Iranians, stating very clearly that they were responsible for “fueling four proxy wars in the Middle East.” He was presumably referring to Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. The audience, which included a number of international journalists and genuine foreign-policy experts, became somewhat restless and began to mutter. I was standing in the back of the room and witnessed Flynn’s son, Michael G. Flynn, responding to the expressions of disbelief, waving his arms around and shouting “Right! Right! Check the intel!”
Two minutes later, the elder Flynn returned to the theme, mentioning the “terrible nuclear deal with Iran.” Now, I am accustomed to hearing nasty things about Iran, but they usually come from Israeli partisans who persist in falsely describing the Iranians as a global threat. It is in their interest to do so, and many pliable American politicians and media talking heads have picked up the refrain, so much so that a U.S. attack on Iran would likely be endorsed overwhelmingly by Congress and applauded in the media.
But I believed that Flynn was not particularly in with that group, consisting largely of neoconservatives, and his disdain for Iran seemed to be at least somewhat sincere in that it appeared to be rooted in his own experience as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). But I was wrong and should have paid more attention to the people Flynn was talking to.
Sources of Flynn’s Worldview
A long-time foe of Iran, Michael Ledeen believed that invading the country should have been the first priority in 2003 rather than Iraq. He believes that “everything traces back to Tehran” and that Iran manipulates both sides of the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict, leading reviewer Peter Beinart to note that his “effort to lay virtually every attack by Muslims against Americans at Tehran’s feet takes him into rather bizarre territory.”
Even as Flynn was speaking in Moscow he was collaborating with Ledeen on a book called The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, which appeared in July 2016. The book has two basic premises. First, the entire “civilized world” is engaged in a life-and-death struggle with a perverted form of Islam that has produced the phenomenon referred to as “radical Islamic terrorism,” a phrase that may have been embraced by the Trump administration largely thanks to Flynn. Flynn insists on the tag including the Islamic part because of his belief that the Muslim religion is itself intrinsic to the very nature of the conflict. In fact, he prefers to call Islam a political ideology rather than a religion and even describes it as a political ideology that has “metastasized” into “malignant cancer.” He once tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” linking to a false claim that Islam wants 80 percent of humanity enslaved or exterminated.
Second, Ledeen’s book views Iran as both the source and lynchpin of the massive disorder prevailing in the Middle East, with tentacles reaching throughout the region and beyond. It is itself a radical Islamic regime that uses terror as a weapon, a state sponsor of terrorism according to the State Department, and it also is an ally of movements like ISIS and the various al-Qaeda affiliates that it only pretends to be fighting. Flynn and Ledeen also assert that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear weapon and has a secret program to do so in spite of the 2015 agreement. It would use such a weapon to threaten Israel and other U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond, and is simultaneously developing ballistic missiles that could be used to deliver the weapons on target.
In addition to Ledeen, Flynn’s conspiratorial mindset goes back further, to his days with DIA, where he was well known for what his staff referred to as “Flynn facts,” things he would say that were demonstrably untrue. He once insisted that three-quarters of all new cell phones were bought by Africans and maintained that Iran has killed more Americans than al-Qaeda. Few dared to disagree. When he took over DIA, Flynn said to his senior staff that everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His subordinates would only be right when their views became the same as his.
DIA Director Flynn considered the Benghazi attack in September 2012 to be an incident in the global war against Islam. His initial reaction was to “prove” Iranian involvement, and he pressured his analysts to come up with the evidence, including shouting at them when they couldn’t support his conclusions. He told the analysts that Benghazi was a “black swan” event that needed more creative analysis to unravel.
Later, in testimony before the House of Representatives in June 2015, Flynn stated that
Iran represents a clear and present danger to the region, and eventually to the world. Iran’s stated desire to destroy Israel is very real. Iran has not once contributed to the greater good of the security of the region. Nor has Iran contributed to the protection of security for the people of the region. Instead, and for decades, they have contributed to the severe insecurity and instability of the region, especially the sub-region of the Levant surrounding Israel. … It is clear that the nuclear deal is not a permanent fix but merely a placeholder.
Flynn was eventually fired from DIA over his hardline views, in part because of his demonization of Iran and Islam. It would be easy to suggest that Flynn has only a tenuous grasp on what is really going on in the Middle East. Consider his assertion that Shi’ite Iran is in league with groups like al-Qaeda—which consider Shi’a to be a heresy and are willing to kill its followers on that basis alone. But the situation is actually much more dangerous than the usual Washington groupthink: Flynn and Ledeen have constructed a narrative in which the world is at war with a great evil and Iran is the central player on the enemy side. It is a viewpoint that is, unfortunately, shared at least in part by the new secretaries of defense and state and endorsed by many in Congress. This has consequently developed into a new sensibility about U.S. national security that is apparently driving the Trump administration’s responses to Iranian behavior.
The Danger of Escalation
Iran certainly exhibits assertive behavior regionally. But much of its maneuvering is defensive in nature; it is surrounded by a sea of enemies, most of whom are better armed and funded than it is. The nuclear agreement with Iran has considerably delayed any possible development of a nuclear weapon and is in everyone’s interest. It is not plausibly a delaying tactic to acquire a weapon somewhere down the road, as Flynn and Ledeen would have us believe.
Iran will be a very tough nut to crack if Flynn has his way and the Trump White House employs military force. Iran is roughly the same size as Alaska and has three times the population of Iraq, and the Iranian people have a strong national identity. They would fight hard, and using their sophisticated Russian-provided air defenses and Chinese missiles they could inflict major damage on U.S. air and naval units in the Persian Gulf region. They would also be able to unleash limited but nevertheless lethal terrorist resources. It would not be a “cakewalk,” and even if there were a military victory of some sorts, the world would be left with yet another power vacuum in the heart of Asia.
I believe that Flynn is a dangerous man, possibly even mentally unhinged on some issues. He thinks that the United States has the preemptive right to tell countries in the Middle East what is acceptable and what is not and is willing to exercise various repressive measures to compel good behavior. Iran, as a designated “problem state,” is consequently not allowed to act in support of its own national-security interests. Flynn justifies his hostility by claiming that Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and instability, which is a self-serving lie. Absent diplomacy to resolve differences, the only interaction with Tehran from Washington has become the threat of economic sanctions backed up by military force. As Iran responds in kind this will become an escalatory cycle with no easy way out.
A better policy would allow Iran to diversify naturally without a constant stream of provocations that only serve to embolden hardliners. Iran’s young people, the majority of the population, are very pro-Western and even pro-American in their cultural affinities and sentiments. The Iranian population is closely tied to a large Iranian diaspora, with an estimated 1.5 million Iranians living in the U.S. alone. Threats of military action will strengthen the grip of the government in Tehran, producing hard responses and piling threat upon threat that will ultimately lead nowhere. Hopefully some adults in the White House cabinet room will at some to point tell Michael Flynn that it is time to sit down and listen to the facts.
How many Iranian terrorists have staged attacks in the United States? How many Sudanese? Or Iraqis or Syrians? Or Yemenis? Or Libyans? They are, of course, trick questions as the answer is none. Pakistanis, yes, central Asians, yes, a Somali, a couple of Egyptians and lots and lots of Saudi Arabians. Somalia is on the list of countries now completely blocked for travel to the U.S., but citizens of the other countries have never staged a terrorist attack and are being restricted anyway. And Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, where Americans are perceived extremely negatively and where most terrorists have actually come from, are not on the list.
Donald Trump issued on Thursday an executive order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” Some critics are claiming that several of the Muslim countries exempted are where Donald Trump has investments, but I don’t think that is in any way true. Trump raised the issue of immigration and refugee security back in the summer, and his views have been consistent. I rather believe that the current plan is a continuation of reactionary and ill-conceived policies that have been hanging around since 9/11 that see Muslim states as definable through a process that is more political than driven by the reality of where terrorism comes from. The seven countries in question were already classified as “countries of concern” under President Barack Obama and subjected to additional scrutiny. Congress also produced a bill last year that proposed stopping all refugee intake from Syria and Iraq until it could be certified that the new arrivals pose no security threat. The bill did not become law, but it reflected broad sentiment in the legislature that not enough was being done to determine just exactly whom we were letting into the country.
Blocking the entry of people by nationality, even if they have satisfied all normal requirements for visa issuance, might well be illegal under current immigration law, and the executive order is currently being challenged in the courts. And some are also noting that if it truly were a question of national security based on discernible facts, Saudis and Pakistanis would be blocked and subject to intensive secondary review for visa issuance, not Iranians or Sudanese. And what about the omission of Afghanistan, where numerous Americans have been killed by Afghans, though admittedly there have been no attacks generated against the United States itself?
And the executive order truly lacked any touch of common decency, which might have been considered without weakening its intent. It could and should have permitted visa and green-card holders already in transit or arriving at U.S. ports of entry to be godfathered in. The grief experienced by divided families and loved ones ricocheting between airports is just not acceptable and was widely played in the media worldwide. Only on Sunday did the administration change course and say green-card holders would not be barred.
All of which is not intended to suggest that the executive order is completely wrong-headed. The countries in question, with the exception of Sudan and Iran (included because they are, for reasons that basically make no sense, labeled state sponsors of terrorism), do indeed have major radicalization problems, as described in the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism. It is quite sensible to block travel by citizens of those countries until one can establish procedures to make sure that militants are not being admitted to the U.S., because embassies overseas have only limited ability to vet prospective visitors or immigrants. To be sure, the Obama administration has insisted that it applies an extreme vetting process to would-be refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, and tourists, but it has failed to provide any details of how the system actually works.
It should be assumed that groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda would be delighted to infiltrate refugee, immigrant, and tourist travel movements into Western Europe and the U.S., which makes American embassies and consulates overseas the choke points for keeping potential terrorists out. Having myself worked the visa lines in consulates overseas, I understand just how difficult it is to be fair to honest travelers while weeding out those whose intentions are less honorable. At the consulate, an initial screening based on name and birth date determines whether an applicant is on any no-fly or terrorism-associate lists. Anyone coming up is automatically denied, but the lists include a great deal of inaccurate information, so they probably “catch” more innocent people than they do actual would-be terrorists. Individuals who have traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria since 2011, or who are citizens of those countries, are also selected out for additional review.
For visitors who pass the initial screening and who do not come from one of the 38 “visa waiver” countries, mostly in Europe, the next step is the application for a visitor’s visa, called a B-2. At that point, the consulate’s objective is to determine whether the potential traveler has a good reason to visit the U.S., has the resources to pay for the trip, and is likely to return home before the visa expires. The process is document-driven, with the applicants presenting evidence of bank accounts, employment, family ties, and equity like homeownership.
Whether an applicant hates America or not is inevitably hard to determine from documents. In some countries, the documentary evidence can be supplemented by police reports if the local government is cooperative. Some consulates employ investigators, generally ex-policemen, who are able to examine public records if there is any doubt about an applicant’s profile or intentions, but most governments do not permit access to official documents. Recently, background investigations have sometimes been supplemented by an examination of the applicant’s presence on the internet to determine whether he or she is frequenting militant sites or discussing political issues online. If the visa applicant is seeking to become a U.S. resident, the process is, of course, much more rigorous and takes much longer.
Both travel and immigrant visas are nevertheless a somewhat subjective process and as they are both document-driven and reliant on what a potential traveler says in his or her interview. In many places, official documents are the weak link, as they are easy to forge or can even be obtained in genuine form from corrupt bureaucrats. If one is unable to go the source of the document for verification, papers submitted in support of a visa application are frequently impossible to authenticate. So what does one do when applicants from countries in the throes of civil war—like Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Yemen—show up at a visa window, some of them with no documents at all? Or when such applicants constitute not a trickle but a flood applying for asylum or refugee status? It gets complicated, and Trump has a point in saying we should deny entry to all of them until procedures can be established for making those judgments in a more coherent fashion.
I personally believe that the United States has a moral obligation to accept a considerable number of refugees and asylum seekers from countries that it has intervened militarily in. Washington is also a signatory to the United Nations-administered agreements to resettle refugees, producing another steady stream of immigrants that Trump is currently blocking. Much of the refugee background vetting is carried out by the UN in a not-completely-transparent fashion, and the resettlement of those who are accepted in various places is done by quota—with the U.S. being the largest recipient country, expected to receive about 100,000 in 2017, a number that Trump intends to cut roughly in half.
But the current refugee policy unfortunately means accepting many who have been on the receiving end of U.S. military interventions. Some inevitably harbor thoughts of revenge against the West and the U.S. in particular, meaning that Washington has been taking in many people who have good reason to dislike the United States. This results in a home-grown problem that manifests itself in the courts, where most of those convicted in terrorism-related cases in the U.S. are foreign-born. America’s 100,000 Somali refugees have been a particular problem, with many returning home to join the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab.
There are a number of other issues that the executive order does not consider. Many of the most radicalized Muslims now carry European passports, and though some already receive additional scrutiny because of where they were born, they are able to travel relatively freely. Also, the executive order’s singling out of “religious minority” refugees for favorable treatment and the repeated use of expressions like “radical Islamic terrorism” will give ammunition to those who already believe that the “War on Terror” is actually a war on Islam. Finally, banning travel from certain countries invites reciprocity and other nations that are outraged by Trump’s move will require visas and screening for American travelers.
The real issue that Trump is and should be addressing is the federal government’s inability to vet visa applicants, immigrants, and refugees to a level that could be considered sufficient from a national-security perspective, a failure that has led some conservatives to complain that White House policy is to “invade the world, invite the world.” Trump’s demands to block many visitors and would-be residents might seem, and in some respects surely is, an overreaction, and it could have benefited from some fine-tuning to make the package less humiliating for travelers and more palatable for a global audience. But until a broken immigration system is fixed, he is more right than wrong.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest. This article is adapted in part from one he wrote last June.
It would never occur to ordinary CIA officers that derailing a presidency might be a desirable thing to do. The rumor of some kind of coup in the making is the creation of a media that is looking for a story and trying to bash Donald Trump at the same time.
To be sure, there has been an open dispute between Trump and several intelligence officials over the nature of the alleged Russian threat, with the new president tending to dismiss the alarms being raised by former CIA director John Brennan and others. Trump has struck back against the criticism in general terms, noting dismissively how several of the various agencies that make up the community have had a tendency to get things wrong, most notably the CIA’s Weapons of Mass Destruction assessment on Iraq.
Sometimes this rift has morphed into an alternative media narrative suggesting that the intelligence agencies are actually trying to stage a soft coup through their criticism of Trump and his advisers, attempting to delegitimize the presidency and wage war on Trump’s policies as he struggles to establish himself in Washington. There have also been allegations that leaks reportedly coming from the top levels of several agencies have been intended to discredit the new president.
Some others have noted, less alarmingly, that a president at odds with the intelligence agencies he directs is a formula for trouble internally and will also create problems in sharing information with friendly foreign security services. Those who are more conspiracy-minded see instead a focused effort to pile up criticism and distractions that will narrow Trump’s options for dealing with Russia and the Middle East. In its most extreme rendition, some suspect that the national security “deep state” is even eager to enter into a new Cold War with Moscow, possibly to justify its own existence and emoluments.
Trump has responded sharply to a so-called dossier containing allegations about his relationship with Moscow, calling the possibility that an intelligence agency leaked the scandalous but unverifiable material something that might have happened in Nazi Germany. John Brennan saw an unacceptable analogy in that comment and also warned that the impression that the White House does not trust its own spies could have major international repercussions. He recommended that the new president should be more careful in what he says and does, particularly regarding Russia, further fueling the perception that the national-security state is building a united front against any possible shift in policy.
I do not, however, share the view that a major conflict between America’s intelligence community and the Trump administration is in place or somehow developing. Nor is there a potential problem with foreign intelligence services, which continue to receive much more information from Washington than they provide. Yes, there is a rift between the new White House and its national-security apparatus, but what we have been seeing is a largely internal conflict between the outgoing Obama administration and the incoming Trump administration over the foreign-policy and national-security agenda.
Sources of Russian Hysteria
Obama, for reasons that elude me, used his last several weeks in office to punish Russia. Relying on the as of yet evidence-free claims of Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election as a pretext, 35 Russian diplomats and their families were expelled just before the New Year while an American infantry brigade supported by armor was shifted to Poland over a largely speculative threat to allies in Eastern Europe.
The Obama attempt to lock Russia into a certain foreign-policy box has been aided and abetted by a largely Democratic Party and media-induced hysteria over the results of the election, one that increasingly blames Russia and Vladimir Putin personally for the outcome. The narrative has expanded as it has gone along, adding an apparent Russian-Putin plan to destabilize all of Europe. Republican notables, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have eagerly jumped on board the bandwagon and are chairing committee hearings where no one who has anything exculpatory to say about Russia need apply.
But as the CIA does not often do things spontaneously, someone should be asking who in the White House directed the agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to focus on Russia and the election, resulting in the yet-to-be-seen-by-the-public classified 35-page report on the alleged hack that is now being used to explain the stunning election results. As John Brennan has been promoting the anti-Russian agenda as Obama’s yes-man in Langley, he is almost certainly the source of much of the prevailing narrative, but one nevertheless has to assume that he was acting under orders.
Another prominent former CIA officer who has also been aggressively pushing the anti-Russian button is retired Acting Director Michael Morell. He is best known for his recent recommendation that the United States begin to assassinate Iranians and Russians to send a “serious” message that they are interfering in Syria—and that we are really angry about what they are doing. (Morell somehow missed the fact that we are the ones who are interfering, as Syria has an internationally recognized government that has sought assistance from Tehran and Moscow while excluding us.)
Morell is currently calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to return whistleblower Edward Snowden to the U.S. so he can be tried and punished as an inaugural “gift” to President Trump. If the proposal is being made in all seriousness, it suggests that Morell has completely lost touch with what most would regard as reality.
Morell is inevitably a passionate Clinton supporter who might have been aspiring to be named as her CIA director. During the campaign, he described Trump as an “unwitting agent” of Russia even though his own career through the CIA bureaucracy rather suggests that “unwitting” might well apply to several of his stops along the way. Morell, as White House briefer, delivered the false report that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. He also presented to George W. Bush the August 2001 CIA report suggesting that a major terrorist strike on the U.S. was about to take place but added his own view that “there was no need to worry about an Al Qaida attack on the homeland.” Morell also led the team of analysts that prepared the infamous Colin Powell UN speech that falsely claimed Iraq possessed “biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”
But Morell is gone for good unless one has the misfortune to see him on CBS News. Brennan is now also out the door, soon to be replaced by Mike Pompeo, and if Brennan’s personal staff is not gone already, it soon will be. So the drive for a certain flavor of foreign policy being supported by cherry-picked intelligence to suit will lose its raison d’être and will change to conform with what the new administration desires.
The Permanent CIA
The CIA is not the departed John Brennan and his inner circle of heavily politicized senior managers. Nor is it Michael Morell. It is nearly 20,000 employees who are generally type-A personalities: headstrong and largely unwilling to have anyone tell them what is right and what is wrong. Many who work through a couple of overseas tours return home pretty much as political nihilists, regarding one band of corrupt politicians pretty much like any other, including those who sit in Washington. To cite only one example, while serving in Geneva, fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden recounted how he met many American spies who were deeply opposed to the ongoing war in Iraq and U.S. policy in the Middle East. “The CIA case officers were all going, what the hell are we doing?” That kind of reaction by CIA’s foot soldiers to what was coming out of Washington was not exactly unusual.
An interesting recent op-ed by David Ignatius, who is well plugged in to Washington intelligence circles, explains inter alia how the CIA is not equivalent to the agency leadership, which comes and goes with each administration. As Ignatius describes, most CIA staffers are currently more engaged in a controversial internal reorganization Brennan has been implementing over the past year—in part to punish the agency’s actual spies, who reportedly rejected his services 37 years ago, instead forcing him to become an analyst. He has never forgiven them, apparently. Ignatius cites two senior operations officers who describe the changes as the “revenge of the nerds.”
The bottom line is that few agency staffers care very deeply about how Donald Trump might perceive the organization that pays them, as long as it continues to pay them and gives them at least a modicum of respect. No cuts in the intelligence-community budget are anticipated and some believe that it might actually increase. I know there were no exit polls at CIA headquarters, but I would bet that an overwhelming majority of agency staffers, who normally identify as Republicans anyway, actually voted for Donald Trump. Many were more than a little disgusted by what they regarded as a pusillanimous Obama and hold Hillary Clinton in utter contempt for no-fault email caper.
Trump, for his part, has clearly understood the need to reassure the intelligence community that new management is preparing to take over. His first visit to a government agency on the day after the inauguration was to CIA, where he was applauded as he said at least some of the right things to heal the breach.
Sure, it is nice to be loved—but it is far more important to have a good job with benefits, work that is fulfilling, and regular promotions that help pay the mortgage and kids’ college tuition. CIA employees who put their job and family first will go with the program as long as the leadership doesn’t go completely bonkers. Most also take seriously their oath to uphold the Constitution, not necessarily what they perceive as the propaganda that comes out of every White House.
Yesterday, BuzzFeed published a 35-page dossier containing allegations that Russian operatives worked to identify and develop compromising personal and financial information about Donald Trump. Allegedly, this is the full document from which a two-page synopsis was drawn and provided to Trump and President Obama as an appendix to a report about Russian interference in the election.
I have read through the published document, which is actually a collection of short reports containing considerable redundancy. Reportedly, these are memos to the client of an unnamed private security firm in London headed by a former British MI-6 officer who served in Russia and is considered to be a credible source by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement. The investigation was commissioned by a group of anti-Trump Republicans and was subsequently supported by anti-Trump Democrats.
Much of the report has been in the hands of the United States government since the summer. The information is apparently being fact-checked by the FBI, but reportedly, it has not been easy to confirm specific details referred to in the document.
The document is somewhat odd in appearance, as it includes no headings or other information identifying who prepared it. That information has evidently been deleted, possibly out of a desire on the part of those who drafted it to remain anonymous. The Wall Street Journal has identified the ex-MI-6 officer as Christopher Steele of the Orbis security company.
I have worked for private international investigative firms, and the first thing I noted was that the language sounds right. The individual reports are exactly what one would expect in terms of tone and content on updates sent to a client to inform him or her what is happening in an investigation.
The next thing I noted was that sources are protected and described by alphabet letters, but are described by position to reveal their access to desired information. That is also what I would have expected from an intelligence officer or a good investigator. But I also noted that quite a lot of the most significant information comes from a single source, Source E. This source’s credibility or lack thereof has to be considered an important issue. With the information publicly available, it is impossible to determine if he really knows what he claims.
Having done intelligence-based investigations for clients, I would have to observe that the initiators of this work were not looking for information to exonerate Trump. That means that the investigation was looking for negatives, which also implies that the investigative firm and the sources that it acquired were not interested in learning what a nice guy Trump is. No reputable security investigative firm would out-and-out lie to a client (though there are plenty of non-reputable companies that would), but anybody who wants to stay in business would collect any and all information and present it in the most negative light possible, because that is what the client wants. That determination would also hold true for the local sources for the report, all of whom would want to stay on the gravy train as long as possible. That means that they might fabricate if they considered it to be doable without getting caught.
What I am saying is that there is a tendency to report speculation and rumors as fact, or at least something approaching that, with the whole product being put together in such a fashion as to appear credible. That is precisely what I felt when I read through the 35 pages. There is considerable detail, and some proper names are cited, including those of two close associates of Trump and one of Putin. Including proper names provides credibility, though in this case, it appears that the FBI has not been able to confirm the dates and places regarding travel and meetings, so the drafters of the document might have gotten some details wrong or might have assumed that discrepancies would not be detected by the client.
And as for Trump and Team Trump’s connection with the Russians, you can bank on the fact that the KGB successor FSB would know who is coming and going in Moscow. They would target prominent Americans and Europeans as potential sources of information and also as possible elements in influence operations, so the assumption that Trump was being monitored is quite credible. But that doesn’t mean he took the bait to do “deals” with the Russians, as the report even notes, and it does not mean that he is an agent. I would also note in passing that U.S. intelligence agencies similarly prey on foreigners passing through or being educated in this country. CIA has an entire division dedicated to spotting, assessing, and recruiting foreigners who are here for business or study, so it is very much an intelligence-agency operational imperative that is not limited to Russia.
My suspicion would be that the report is a composite of some fact, a lot of speculation, and even some fiction. It is very similar to the types of media-focused disinformation produced by both CIA and KGB in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, where a little bit of factual information would be used to provide credibility for a lot of speculation and false stories that were intended to sow doubt and confusion. In this case, the original intent might well have been to discredit Trump personally; its release at this time is likely intended to delegitimize his presidency, or to narrow his options on recalibrating with Russia.
I expect, however, that much of the possibly tall tale being told will unravel as the FBI continues and expands its investigation. Trump has predictably denounced the entire matter as “fake news.” He may be right.
The eagerly awaited report on the alleged Russian influence operation and hack linked to the recent American presidential election finally appeared on Friday. It is quite possible that President Obama, the intelligence community, and Congress now hope that the case has been definitively made to tighten the screws on Russia. If that is so, they are delusional. Moscow and Vladimir Putin may or may not be guilty as charged, but the paucity of the evidence being presented by the White House and the Director of National Intelligence suggests that the American people are being very poorly served by those who have been entrusted with protecting the nation.
The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was entitled “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution.” It followed the short “Joint Analysis Report” that appeared on December 29, produced by the Department of Homeland Security and FBI. The earlier paper was entitled “Grizzly Steppe—Russian Malicious Cyber Activity” but, apart from assertions of suspected Russian activity connected to an unnamed political party, it provided absolutely no evidence that the alleged intrusions into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers and John Podesta emails were anything beyond probing for vulnerabilities to collect information, and carried out by unknown parties. In fact, it didn’t even provide the evidence for that and was instead largely a primer on how to avoid being hacked.
The short report’s first page had a telling disclaimer: “This report is provided as is for informational purposes only. The Department of Homeland Security does not provide any warranties of any kind regarding any information contained within.” In fact, the information allegedly contained was difficult to discern, making the report completely useless for those seeking to learn the actual evidence behind the alleged Russian hack.
Friday’s longer and updated report was clearly intended to address those shortcomings. It was also thematically linked to the oral testimony provided by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the previous day. The unclassified report is 17 pages, while the original classified version has been described in the media as being 50 pages; this suggests that the evidence supporting claims made was more-or-less completely redacted, a reasonable conclusion given the paucity of information one might consider sensitive in the public document. Nevertheless, the language used and how judgments are expressed often suggests the sources and methods that were exploited to prepare the original document.
In truth, I had fully expected that the report, which is evidently considered to be the “last word” on the claimed Russian hack, would be much more forthcoming, if only to dispel criticism. Seven pages, nearly half the content, consist of analysis of programming by RT International, a Russian-government-owned television broadcasting service. (Full disclosure: I have appeared on RT frequently.) And there are several pages of charts as well as an expansive explanation of analytic methods and terms used, so the actual substantive content is a bit on the thin side.
Before reading the report, I believed that the government would have considerable solid evidence to back up several of its claims, at least some of which might be judiciously used to provide a modicum of credibility for the entire package, but that was hardly the case. Indeed, the report, like the “Grizzly Steppe” effort, includes an unusual disclaimer, noting in an appendix on “Estimative Language” that “Judgments are not intended to imply that we have proof that shows something to be a fact.”
The report’s “key judgments” and the subsequent echo-chamber coverage in the national media are focused on six “findings” that support the thesis that “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election” reflect an escalation in Moscow’s program to “undermine the U.S. led liberal democratic order.”
The first conclusion is that “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.” This claim is the most elusive and is based on the premise that, as head of state, Putin must have known and approved. But if U.S. intelligence does not have access to Putin’s private papers or communications, whether he personally ordered the campaign cannot be known. If it is known through indisputable evidence, the finding should have read something like “There is definitive intelligence indicating that …” The use of the expression “we assess” is weasel wording, meaning that the conclusion is not supported by actual evidence and is a judgment.
The second claim is that “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.” This is also preceded by “we assess” and is pure speculation unless the intelligence community has a document revealing such an intention in more or less those words.
The third allegation is that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.” This is another “we assess.” No doubt Russia saw Clinton as hostile and would take steps to discredit her using both media and intelligence resources based on its own self-interest, but, again, lacking any documentary or Humint (human intelligence) source providing a clear insight into Russian thinking, the conclusion that it was done to help Trump is speculative. This reservation is supported by a comment at the end of the finding itself, stating that the National Security Agency (NSA) had only moderate confidence in the conclusion. That is a low grade, meaning that there was little or no actual electronic intelligence collected that supports the judgment.
The report also states its belief that in June, Russia shifted its strategy to help Trump by ceasing to say good things about him publicly: “Kremlin officials thought that any praise from Putin personally would backfire.” The report then goes on to contradict itself, noting that other “pro-Kremlin figures” continued to praise Trump for his “Russia-friendly positions.” However, one can’t have it both ways if one were actually trying to run an “influence campaign.”
Though it did not appear in the report, some news stories have revealed possibly leaked information indicating that Washington had intercepted phone calls made by senior Russian officials expressing joy over the election results. Desperate to confirm Russian involvement, the calls are being regarded by some as additional evidence that Moscow must have aided Trump.
The fourth claim is an assessment “with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (GRU) relayed material to WikiLeaks.” This comment is on firmer ground, even though it is also a “we assess” and appears to indicate that the intelligence community has at least some names and additional corroborative material. It identifies Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks as possible conduits that released “U.S. victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.” But it does not indicate who actually might have carried out the alleged hacks and, again, this raises the question of whether the U.S. government does or does not have the type of information that connects the dots, linking together the transmission belt for the information and the identity of its couriers in a chain of custody that goes directly from the alleged hack in the U.S. to the GRU in Moscow and then on to WikiLeaks in Moscow. I doubt that they do have that kind of information, but would concede if I were running a hacking operation combined with an influence or disinformation one, concealing the connections through use of cut-outs (mutually trusted intermediaries) would be an essential in maintaining plausible deniability. In other words, if the Russians actually did it, they would make it difficult to identify how it took place.
The fifth allegation is that “Moscow’s influence campaign … blends covert intelligence operations … with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state funded media, third party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’” The report is claiming that Russia’s overt media is part of the plot and that the production of what is now being referred to as “fake news” was all part of the game. RT International is referred to as the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” Assuming there was in fact some kind of plan, one would expect Moscow’s state-owned media to be following an official line on developments in the United States. Even if there were no conspiracy, Russian news would almost certainly reflect a government viewpoint. That is also true in the United States, where the media rebroadcast assertions made by the White House uncritically. Or even worse, like the completely false reports of Russian hacking of utilities in Vermont. Hasn’t Clapper or anyone else on his team read the Washington Post lately?
An odd assertion in the report used to denigrate the coverage provided by RT International and Sputnik news claims that the two Russian state owned outlets “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.” It certainly looked that way to me and to many other Americans, which is possibly why Trump won in the first place. Other “evidence” provided in the report consists of analysis that Russian media was “consistently negative” regarding Clinton. It fails to note that Clinton was consistently negative regarding Russia, regularly seeking to tie an allegedly evil Putin to Trump.
And finally, the sixth assertion is that “Moscow will apply … lessons learned … to future influence efforts worldwide.” This is also preceded by a “we assess” and is sheer speculation unless the intelligence community has somehow obtained a document stating that that is what Russia intends to do or has intercepted a phone call in which Putin has indiscreetly outlined his plans.
I would assume that there were disagreements over some of the findings identified above, but that does not come through in the unclassified version of the report, apart from the one comment about NSA taking a “moderate” position. Given the frequency of “assessments” and “judgments” in the document, the lack of dissent is astonishing. One wonders if disagreements appear in the classified version. Possibly not, particularly if one goes by the example of historic intelligence assessments like the Soviet Estimate and the Iraq WMD reports, which were damaged goods produced under heavy White House pressure to conform to preexisting notions about what should appear.
As one works through the new report, suspicion grows that the so-called analysis is largely derived from an in-depth critique of what was appearing in the Kremlin-controlled media, which might or might not provide an insight into broader government policies. Fully half of the account focuses on Russian overt media operations and reporting, which are, to be sure, highly critical of the U.S. government, and include regular coverage of national surveillance programs and civil-rights infringements. RT also is indicted in the report for opposing “Western intervention in the Syrian conflict.” Well, I and many other Americans who are not useful idiots working for the Kremlin hold the same view. An annex to the report even describes RT International as promoting “radical discontent,” an odd expression that might have been coined by the Comintern.
I am personally quite familiar with RT International and also with quite a few of the American and European contributors who have appeared on their programs, many of which feature speakers holding quite adversarial positions on issues of the day. I am unaware of anyone ever being coached or pressured to adopt a certain viewpoint to conform with an editorial policy and believe that on most issues RT is no worse than many American and European news outlets. If RT coverage of the American election was biased, it is little different than what was occurring in the U.S. media—and if there is a problem with that for the drafters of the report, it appears to be attributable to the fact that the slant was unacceptably pro-Trump rather than pro-Clinton. Trump has said that the only reason anyone is concerned with the possible Russian involvement is that Hillary lost. He is probably correct. Did Russian media coverage really amount to an attack on the United States and our way of life? Did people in America actually vote in large numbers based on what RT International was reporting?
So the latest attempt to nail perfidious Moscow is, to my mind, yet another mish-mash of soft facts combined with plenty of opinion and maybe even a bit of good old Cold War-style politics. A lot of sometimes wild speculation and judgments based on fragmentary information taken together are not a good basis for determining foreign policy, particularly if one is dealing with a powerful foreign state that is heavily armed with nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile delivery systems.
The midnight oil is burning over at the Central Intelligence Agency as senior managers consider options relating to how to play new president Donald Trump and new director Mike Pompeo, neither of whom possesses any serious understanding either of intelligence operations or of how to lead 20,000 often difficult-to-manage employees.
With the exception of the 1976 turnover that followed shortly after the devastating Church Commission report and simultaneously brought in Jimmy Carter as president and Admiral Stansfield Turner as director, the agency has always been able to control the transitions and wind up on the right side of those in power. It has maintained its prerogatives through its use of an elaborate dog-and-pony briefing show that carefully revealed some of the organization’s most cherished secrets to convince the new boss of the immensely valuable product provided by CIA. John F. Kennedy was in that fashion beguiled by Allen Dulles before he soured on the relationship as a result of the dissimulation surrounding Bay of Pigs. Ronald Reagan, who was in any event inclined to be pro-agency, reportedly came away from his first major briefing astonished by what had been revealed.
Today, however, the CIA is in transition and under fire over the Russian hacking issue, though most believe that the war or words and tension with the president will largely vanish after the inauguration. With the post-9/11 reorganization of the intelligence apparatus—including the creation of a Director of National Intelligence, who is only nominally in charge but in control of a separate staff, and the expansion of Pentagon spying, the agency has lost a good deal of its exclusivity and clout.
Current Director John Brennan is seen as Obama’s man and is not popular in some circles inside the agency, where the president is viewed as weak and vacillating while Brennan is regarded as a presidential poodle, poseur, and yes-man. He is most notably disliked by the traditional spies from the former Deputy Directorate of Operations who have seen their elite status eroded under his leadership as he has promoted paramilitary officers instead of traditional agent handlers to lead the clandestine service. As Brennan will be departing in any event, few will defend the fusion centers that he has created to combine analytic and operational capabilities along the existing lines of the Counter Terrorism Center. Critics believe that putting intelligence collectors together with analysts who meet with the intelligence consumers will inevitably politicize what is being reported.
Most CIA employees are looking forward to the arrival of Pompeo, who promises to be hard-nosed and aggressive. But he will presumably take his lead from the National Security Council and White House staffs. As one of the first high-level appointees to the new administration, he is expected to stake out CIA’s position at the head of the table when the intelligence community convenes. The CIA is likely to be top dog when it comes to funding and will likely expand its operational reach in some parts of Asia and Africa, which are considered to be full of unstable and under-resourced governments that are vulnerable to the infiltration of groups such as ISIS. No one is expecting that the War on Terror will end any time soon.
My wife is English, so every Christmas we include in our celebration holiday crackers. For those unfamiliar with British traditions, the crackers are cardboard tubes wrapped in decorated paper. When you pull on the ends they pop open with a bang, and inside there is a paper crown to commemorate the visit by the three kings as well as a small gift item. This year my cracker would not pop open, a failure that I chose to attribute to Vladimir Putin.
On Facebook it is possible to find numerous accounts of mishaps where someone eventually comments, “Putin did it.” It is, of course, a joke—but it is a reflection of how the Russian president has been demonized to an absurd degree both in the media and by the American political class. The recent criticism derives largely from the allegation surfaced by a Central Intelligence Agency report suggesting that Russia or its proxies hacked into email accounts relating to the recent U.S. presidential election and then exploited the information.
Initially, the story claimed that the Russians were trying to discredit and damage America’s democratic institutions, but the tale soon morphed into an elaborate account of how Moscow was operating covertly to help elect Donald Trump. It is now being claimed in some circles that the Russian intervention, together with public statements by FBI Director James Comey, was decisive in defeating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and it has also been alleged that Vladimir Putin himself ordered the operation. Without a doubt, if all of that is true it is a serious matter, and calls for a thorough investigation of what took place are not misplaced.
Initially, the FBI did not agree with the still-classified CIA report, but eventually it was convinced, and the report’s conclusion has also been publicly embraced by both Hillary Clinton and the White House. Nevertheless, even though it has been nearly three weeks since the Washington Post initially reported the story, no hard evidence has been provided to identify the actual hackers or to link them to the Russian government, much less to President Vladimir Putin.
The allegation that Putin ordered the interference in America’s election is particularly troubling. As a former intelligence officer, I am aware that learning someone’s intentions is the most difficult task for a spy. Only someone in the president’s immediate circle would be privy to information that sensitive in nature, and there has been no indication that either CIA or any other Western intelligence service has that kind of agent in place. More likely, the CIA and now the White House are assuming, without any evidence, that such a high-level hack and influencing operation would have inevitably required Russian presidential approval. This assumption is certainly plausible, but it’s impossible to demonstrate, and lacking corroboration it should be considered as little more than speculation.
The most detailed examination I have seen of the alleged hack appeared at the The Intercept, concluding that the evidence for the Russian connection was “not enough.” More recently, a cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to investigate the hack has concluded that the malware detected is related to malware used by Russian military intelligence units in Ukraine. That explanation is not completely convincing, as malware, once in place, is often picked up and used by other miscreants. Also, it would be unlikely that an actual government intelligence unit would be so reckless as to leave behind its own fingerprints when there are plenty of private-sector hackers available to serve as proxies.
And other quite plausible explanations have been offered. Former British Ambassador Craig Murray claims that he met in Washington with an associate of an American who worked for the DNC who provided the information to him for passage to WikiLeaks. Murray is a collaborator of Julian Assange, who, like Murray, has denied any Russian involvement in obtaining the information that was later posted on WikiLeaks. It is significant that, if the story is true, it was a Snowden-style leak, reportedly by a disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporter who was outraged by DNC shenanigans to deny his man the nomination, rather than a hack that produced the relevant information. And even if the Russians or their proxies were simultaneously hacking sites connected to the U.S. elections, which might be the case, it would have been incidental to the damage being done by the leaker, which shifts the narrative considerably.
The White House could, of course, order the release of at least some of the evidence for Russian perfidy to end all the confusion, but that does not seem to be in the cards. President Barack Obama may be hesitating because he is protecting intelligence sources and methods, but he should also be aware of the fact that the continuous Russia-bashing will have consequences even if President Donald Trump does succeed in moderating the vitriol toward Moscow once he is in office.
Going after Russia has become a bipartisan sport in Washington, predictably coming from Republican senators including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but also being pushed by Chuck Schumer and a number of other leading Democrats, if only to explain how they lost an election that appeared to be theirs for the taking. There is no indication that the situation will improve in the New Year, and one might usefully note the predictable lining up of Washington media and think tanks seeking to bait the Russian bear. The neocon Hudson Institute has two feature articles entitled “Putin is no partner on terrorism” and “How President Obama can retaliate against Russia,” while the American Enterprise Institute posts an article by Leon Aron headlined “Don’t Be Putin’s Useful Idiot.”
And the frenzy about Russia is also letting some of the loonies out of the closet. Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, a Hillary Clinton foreign-policy advisor, claimed before the election that Putin had recruited Trump as an “unwitting agent” of the Russian Federation. He also called for covertly killing Russians and Iranians in Syria to send a message, and he is now declaring that the alleged Russian hack is the “political equivalent of 9/11,” demanding a similar robust response. He identifies several ways he might have reacted in Obama’s shoes, including carrying out a major cyberattack, initiating devastating sanctions, and arming Ukrainians and encouraging others hostile to Moscow. In any event, his approach would have “two key pieces to it. One is it’s got to be overt. It needs to be seen. A covert response would significantly limit the deterrence effect. If you can’t see it, it’s not going to deter the Chinese and North Koreans and Iranians and others, so it’s got to be seen. The second, is that it’s got to be significant from Putin’s perspective. He has to feel some pain, he has to pay a price here or again, there will be no deterrence, and it has to be seen by the rest of the world as being significant to Mr. Putin so that it can be a deterrent.”
Morell seems oblivious to the fact that an overt attack on Russia by either cyber or conventional means is the equivalent of war, in this case without any hard evidence being produced that Moscow actually did anything. Unfortunately, Morell is not alone in seeking a vigorous response to Russia heedless of the fact that the one imperative interest that Washington should have in common with Moscow is to avoid crises that might escalate into a nuclear exchange. Those who are fulminating most effusively about Russia should perhaps step back and reflect on the fact that they do not actually know what happened with the DNC computers. And while Vladimir Putin’s Russia might not be to everyone’s taste, dealing realistically and cautiously with a powerful foreign leader who is not completely to one’s liking just might be better than starting World War III.
Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov has been shot dead in Ankara by an assailant who was subsequently killed by police. Sources who were present at the scene report that the attacker, dressed in a suit and brandishing a handgun, shouted in Arabic “Allahu Akhbar” followed by screams in Turkish, “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria! Stand back! Stand back! Only death will take me out of here. Anyone who has a role in this oppression will die one by one.” Moscow, Ankara, and the State Department in Washington are all regarding the killing as a terrorist act.
Ankara’s mayor and the Turkish Interior Minister have confirmed that the assailant was a 22-year-old plainclothes police officer who used his credentials to enter the exhibition hall where the ambassador was opening an exhibition of Russian photographs. The Turkish media is reporting that there was security at the building, both inside and outside, but there appear to have been no special measures like metal detectors in place in spite of the fact that there have been large demonstrations in both Istanbul and Ankara over the past week protesting Russian actions in Aleppo. Some of the demonstrations have occurred in front of the Russian embassy and consulates so security was already at a high level.
Most of the demonstrators against Russia have reportedly been Turks, nominally supporting their own country’s foreign policy and ostensibly responding to reports of both Russian and Syrian brutality. Intelligence sources suggest that there has been no indication whatsoever that radical groups like ISIS or al-Nusra had infiltrated the gatherings, though both groups are known to have active cadres in Ankara and Istanbul. Turkey is also now home to more than 2 million refugees from the fighting in Syria but they have been careful to remain apolitical and are monitored closely by the Turkish intelligence service MIT.
Turkish television, which is partially state run and is careful not to offend the government, is speculating that the murder will disrupt a planned Turkish-Russian-Iranian foreign ministers meeting scheduled to start tomorrow in Moscow to discuss the situation in Syria now that Aleppo has fallen. Russia and Turkey are nominally on opposite sides regarding what to do about the government in Damascus, with Moscow continuing to support Bashar al-Assad while Ankara insists that he must be removed.
In reality, Turkey has been shifting closer to the Russian position as the facts on the ground have changed, now stressing the need to take steps to prevent the development of any kind of Kurdish fiefdom along the border as the top priority. Russia is apparently willing to participate in shaping resettlement policies that will satisfy Turkish concerns. And the inclusion of Iran in the discussion is a sign that regime change in the near term is no longer being contemplated as a sine qua non. Iran can also be counted on to share Turkey’s concerns over regional separatism as it has its own problem with an indigenous Kurdish terrorist group called the PJAK.
Turkey has also been undergoing fundamental political shifts. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown more estranged from Washington and the Europeans due to the negative reaction to his crackdown on alleged supporters of the July coup. That his foreign minister will be meeting with Russia in Moscow to discuss Syria is significant. The Turkish media has been cautiously optimistic about Donald Trump, possibly reflecting a government expectation that he will give Ankara a free hand in dealing with what it perceives to be its Kurdish problem, but Erdogan continues to warn that his country’s alignment with the west is not a given. He has made clear that cultivating warmer relations with Moscow and Beijing is a serious option for Ankara, so it will behoove him to take whatever steps are necessary to reassure Vladimir Putin. Erdogan has already telephoned the Russian president to offer his condolences on the killing and it is likely that the government will declare a state of official mourning over the Ambassador’s death.
In the wake of the killing, most diplomatic missions in Turkey are now in a state of security lockdown. The United States Embassy and several European countries have already issued travel advisories in the wake of recent terrorist bombings, suggesting that visitors should exercise caution. These warnings will surely increase in number, further damaging Turkey’s already reeling tourism industry, so it is to be expected that the government will take steps to convince potential visitors that the country is safe.
Russia will also likely proceed cautiously. Its government will clearly consider the fact that Ambassador Karlov could have been provided better protection and will discuss specific steps that might be taken regarding treatment of its diplomatic staff, but its objections will be largely pro forma and it will likely not press on the issue very hard as the improved relationship with Ankara is also in its own interest. Turkey, in spite of considerable political turmoil since the 1980s, can also argue that it has an excellent record on protecting foreign diplomats.
Both Russia and Turkey will express chagrin over the assassination and their bilateral relationship will undergo some strain but they will also be eager to put the incident behind them. If anything, the death of Ambassador Karlov might well accelerate a rapprochement on what to do about Syria, leaving the United States even more isolated in terms of its demand that al-Assad be compelled to step down.
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA has concluded that Russia acted to aid Donald Trump in winning the election. The story follows accusations that the Russian government was behind the hack of the private servers used by the Democratic National Committee, as well as the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. The information obtained was provided to WikiLeaks and other sources like the Romanian Guccifer 2.0 in order to be made public and discredit the Clinton campaign—and potentially influence the outcome of the election. The New York Times is reporting that the Russians also hacked the Republican National Committee server but did not release any of the information obtained. The GOP claims that its system was not breached.
The allegations about Moscow’s involvement in the election derive from a still-secret report prepared by the CIA that represents the intelligence community’s consensus on the issue, though the use of the word “consensus” implies that there was dissent over the conclusions, and there is even a suggestion that not all of the community signed off on the final draft. For what it’s worth, the report does not address whether the hacking influenced the result of the election, and both the Russian government and WikiLeaks have denied that they were acting in collusion or were part of any organized effort to promote the Trump campaign.
The White House has responded to the analysis by calling for an investigation of hacking surrounding the campaign and election. Donald Trump has issued a statement dismissing the CIA claim: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction … it is now time to move on.”
The Trump response is frivolous because the vulnerability of the U.S. election process to outside interference is a serious issue involving both private and public information-sharing systems. It is also important to note how critics of Russia in Congress, including Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are already exploiting the allegations to block any possible initiatives by Trump to improve ties with Moscow, which might have serious consequences down the road.
To determine what precisely is being alleged, it is necessary to rely on media accounts, as neither the CIA nor the White House has made public the classified report. It is, first of all, most important to consider the evidence for the hack and dissemination of the information. The White House is claiming the intelligence community has “high confidence” that the hack of servers and the dissemination of the material related to the election was directed from the top levels of the Russian government.
The wording is significant, as it implies that officials have established a direct chain of custody for the materials stolen, including named individuals in the Russian government and conduits used outside it. To put it another way, the U.S. government and its presumed allies at Britain’s GCHQ are claiming that they have obtained information on the series of “cutouts” used to move the information from the hackers to the outlets employed to disseminate the stories. That is why they are claiming “high confidence,” which implies having hard evidence.
That is a serious claim, but it is currently impossible to know whether it is true or not. Some anonymous government officials are reportedly conceding that the direct link from the Russian government to the actual hackers and then on to the disseminators of the information is lacking. If the intelligence community is nevertheless claiming that they know enough to conclude that it was directed from the top levels of the Russian government, then they should be able to produce documentary or other evidence of officials’ ordering the operation to take place.
If the CIA is to maintain its credibility, it should do just that, even if the report is in a sanitized or heavily redacted version to protect sources. Do they have that kind of information? It is clear that they do not, in spite of their assertion of “high confidence.” And there is a suggestion by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, a persistent critic of Russian spying who is on the House Intelligence Committee, that the information they do have consists of innuendo and is largely circumstantial.
So what do they actually have? They likely have bits and pieces of the transmission belt the information moved along, and are presuming without necessarily knowing that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agreement would have been necessary to initiate such an audacious operation. Putting all of that together, they are positing that approval from the Kremlin leadership was part of the process.
Press accounts indicate that there were two hacker groups tied to Russian intelligence that obtained the information in the first place, and that the material was then provided to others for release, WikiLeaks being the most prominent of the outlets used.
Some in the media are claiming that the Russian hack and dissemination of information had two objectives: first, to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton; and second, to “undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system,” as the Washington Post describes it. I would argue that the “undermine confidence” part is implausible and that no intelligence organization would see that kind of objective as worth pursuing except under very rare circumstances. The Clinton campaign is, however, another story. Hillary Clinton castigated Russia throughout her campaign and made it clear that she would be confrontational in Syria and Eastern Europe. Trump endorsed détente, by contrast, so Moscow’s choice of candidate would have been obvious, and the Kremlin might well have decided to take steps to bolster the Trump campaign in support of Russia’s own self-interest.
Using intelligence resources to advance one’s national interest is what all governments do. The objective is to maintain secrecy, but no one should be too surprised when such activity is detected. Attempts to influence foreign opinion in a targeted country or within a targeted group is referred to in the trade as covert action. All major state players engage in covert action to a greater or lesser extent. The CIA certainly uses its media assets worldwide to place stories supportive of politicians and parties favored by the administration in power in Washington. I would have to assume that President Barack Obama has, for example, approved CIA-generated favorable press coverage of endangered politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose policies he strongly supports.
If a covert action involves the media, it will sometimes consist of totally invented stories that usually are quickly exposed for what they are, or accounts that are partly or largely true but also contain spin or some untruths to undermine or influence a prevailing narrative. If the stories are crafted subtly enough, they will be accepted as true by most of the public. Stories placed in that fashion by an intelligence agency, frequently acting through surrogates, can, upon exposure, be considered part of the “fake news” that has so traumatized the media of late.
Far better than fake news from the intelligence-agency point of view is real news, which is why exposure of the Clinton-Podesta-DNC emails was so effective. They were undeniably true, and they bring to mind another Russian intelligence operation in 2014, where the hacked phone of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was exploited to reveal that Nuland thought little of America’s European allies. The lesson that should be taken home from those errors in judgment is that we create our own vulnerabilities that others will exploit. If the DNC wanted to load the dice to make Bernie Sanders go away, it would have been best not to say so in an email. If John Podesta did not trust Hillary Clinton’s impulsive decisionmaking, he should not have written that opinion down and sent it off electronically. If Nuland wanted to commit an act of fornication on Europeans, she should not have discussed it on an unsecured cell phone.
So nearly every country employs espionage when dealing with others and works on promoting its own interests through the use of its intelligence and other national resources. That should surprise no one. And it is impossible to know if the WikiLeaks publication of hacked emails changed the outcome of the recent election, though it is clear that it did not help Hillary. The lesson is not that the Russians spied on the United States and covertly assisted a candidate they favored. That should be a given, well understood by people in the White House and elsewhere in the administration. That information is no longer private in an age where electronic intrusion or hacking can be run out of someone’s garage should also be a given. But when aspirants to high office are careless in what they say, when they say it, and how they communicate to associates, there will be consequences.
Far better to mend our own fences than try to punish the Russians for doing what comes naturally. That would only lead to a tit-for-tat worsening of an already bad relationship.
“Fake stories” are in the news. The narrative goes something like this: fabricated accounts that misrepresent “the truth” are proliferating on the internet, and once they appear on a social networking site, they are frequently spread far and wide, often doing serious damage along the way to whatever or whomever was the target of the initial posting. Reportedly, Google and Facebook are now alert to the problem and doing their best to monitor and eliminate such material. How exactly that will work is not yet clear, as it would be blatant censorship, and the relative openness of the internet is a major part of its appeal.
And there is, of course, a political aspect to the fake stories. Allegedly, most recent tales were focused on denigrating the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, accusing her of a series of crimes both high and low, challenging her veracity on issues relating to her health, and claiming that she was seeking to “hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers.”
That the overwhelming majority of the media’s campaign coverage actually consisted of negative reporting on Donald Trump would appear to contradict that narrative. But because most of those currently promoting the “fake news story” theory can be comfortably described as Clinton supporters, it is perhaps not surprising that whatever benefit might be obtained from the political angle would tilt in her direction.
And there’s something even more nefarious that fits neatly into another storyline that was intensely pursued in the lead-up to the election. It has now been discovered by the assiduous researchers attached to several previously unknown and somewhat shady inside-the-Beltway think tanks that the Kremlin was behind it all, described in some detail by the Washington Post in an article entitled “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” The front-page Post piece, which was promptly replayed uncritically elsewhere in the mainstream media, concerned the alleged existence of “a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.”
With two coauthors, a fellow at one of the obscure think tanks cited by the Post, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, had released an article called “Trolling for Trump: How Russia is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy” on November 6 through the War on the Rocks online magazine. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, just before the election, and the article shilled heavily for Clinton, asserting absurdly at one point that “A Trump victory could pave the way for Russian ascendance and American acquiescence.”
A second group cited in the article, PropOrNot, revealed on October 30 the keys to “Identifying and Combatting Russian Online Propaganda,” including a convenient table that names all the internet sites that are apparently “useful idiots” engaged in supporting the “active measures” produced by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his shadow warriors. PropOrNot alarmingly warns that unless something is done about Moscow’s propaganda, there might be in the “immediate aftermath of the upcoming election, Russian orchestrated political violence in the U.S.”
The research and analysis conducted by both the Foreign Policy Research Institute and PropOrNot is based on physical connections between sites featuring the “fake stories” as well as repetitive language and expressions, but that is precisely how information moves around on the internet in any event. The completely respectable Consortium News, Antiwar.com, Unz.com, and Ron Paul Institute are four of the sites PropOrNot includes on its “peddlers of Russian propaganda” list, rather suggesting that discussing Moscow’s foreign policy objectively outside the comfort zone of the Washington establishment bubble is enough for inclusion.
The Post article accepts that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee files and other accounts to “embarrass Clinton,” even though actual Russian government culpability has never been unambiguously demonstrated and has been denied by both the Kremlin and WikiLeaks. And it might surprise the Washington Post, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and PropOrNot to learn that Moscow was watching the U.S. presidential election very closely based on its own self-interest. On one hand, there was a major-party candidate who compared Putin to Hitler and who was advocating confronting Russia in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Syria, including expanding NATO and increasing direct lethal military assistance to Kiev while also intervening directly in Syria. That intervention would include creation of a “no-fly” zone, which would virtually guarantee an incident involving U.S. warplanes and the Russian aircraft supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
On the other hand, there was another major-party candidate advocating dialogue and détente with Russia, arguing that the current level of hostility with Moscow was unwarranted. He was also uninterested in increasing U.S. direct involvement in Syria.
There should be no mystery about whom Putin was going to favor. Yes, Moscow undeniably has a large bureaucracy that engages in media management in support of its own perceived interests, but the State Department does the same thing, as does the CIA overseas, and the Pentagon manages the news coming out of war zones through its embedment of journalists. The White House itself fed false information to journalists in the lead-up to the Iraq War.
Many other governments, including those of Israel and China, also engage in methodical global media manipulation to promote both their foreign and domestic policies. And one might also add that the U.S. mainstream media exercises considerable self-censorship over stories that would displease the corporate and political establishment. One must ask who is manipulating whom and whether it is fair to suggest that the American public is so gullible as to believe everything that appears on the internet, on television, or in print?
In addition, I would argue that there is a vast abyss between using a country’s global media resources to favor a certain political outcome in a foreign country and deliberately seeking to destroy that same nation’s political institutions, which is what the Post and its associated think tanks are attempting to link together. And it is not like posting false or misleading stories to obtain some political advantage is something new, having been something like the norm since the invention of mass journalism in the 19th century. It is not for nothing that “truth” has been described as the first casualty when nations engage in conflict and go public to explain their respective points of view.
The Post article wraps its allegations about Russia around the kernel of truth that there have been many false stories on the internet. In my own experience placing false or misleading articles overseas during the Cold War, the trick was not to use a sledgehammer but rather to base an account on a substantially and unimpeachably true story while inserting an element that would convey some additional information. Linking something that was false to something believed to be true would validate the former. Ironically, that is precisely what the Post article seeks to do when it tries to establish as solid its view that Russia was behind the fake news before it demurs, “There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump.” The newspaper is planting the seed that Moscow’s role was decisive by including the reservation.
The Post article also describes the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s health issues and implies that the negative commentary was somehow linked to direction coming from Moscow, but the reality is that Clinton actually did stumble and almost fall on camera. That video was played repeatedly, unleashing a torrent of discussion worldwide, including on Clinton-friendly networks like CNN, without any need for Russia to do anything to popularize the story. Russian trolls might indeed have been onto the story quickly, as the article suggests, but they were not alone.
The mainstream media, which clearly is having some difficulty in explaining why anyone should pay attention to it, is eager to discover new reasons why the reporting in the lead-up to the elections was so awful. It is convenient to claim that the Russians planted false stories, and furthermore are attempting to destroy our democracy, which would be a good segue if only anyone would actually believe any of it. The fact is that the public does not trust the media because the reporting has been both intrinsically biased and selective, with Team Clinton being the beneficiary of the status quo far more often than not in the recent electoral campaign. The clearly perceived bias is precisely why the public seeks out alternative sources of information and latches on to fake stories—and while it may be true that a Russian government ministry is responsible for some of what is being produced, the allegation that there exists a plot to destroy American democracy is a bridge way too far. The Democratic and Republican parties are already doing that without any help from Moscow.
I would very much like to see the White House revert to a George Marshall type of foreign policy, in which the United States would use its vast power wisely rather than punitively. As Donald Trump knows little of what makes the world go round, senior officials and cabinet secretaries will play a key role in framing and executing policy. One would like to see people like Jim Webb, Chas Freeman, Andrew Bacevich, or even TAC’s own Daniel Larison in key government positions, as one might thereby rely on their cool judgment and natural restraint to guide the ship of state. But that is unfortunately unlikely to happen.
Instead, by some accounts, we will quite possibly be getting Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, Sarah Palin, Jose Rodriguez, Michael Ledeen, and Michael Flynn. Bolton, who is being tagged as a possible secretary of state, would be a one-man reactionary horror show, making one long for the good old days of Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright. There are also lesser, mostly neocon luminaries lining up for supporting roles, résumés ready at hand. To be sure, we won’t be seeing the Kagans, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, or Michael Hayden, who defected to Hillary in dramatic fashion, but there are plenty of others who are polishing up their credentials and hoping to let bygones be bygones. They are eager to return to power and regain the emoluments that go with high office, so they will now claim to be adaptable enough to work for someone they once described as unfit to be president.
It is reported that associates from the conservative Heritage Foundation have been tasked with the search for suitable national-security candidates as part of the transition team. One candidate to head the CIA is Jose Rodriguez, who back under W headed the agency’s torture program. Another former CIA officer who is a particularly polarizing figure and is apparently being looked at for high office is Clare Lopez, who has claimed that the Obama White House is infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Lopez is regarded by the Trump team as “one of the intellectual thought leaders about why we have to fight back against radical Islam.” She has long been associated with the Center for Security Policy, headed by Frank Gaffney, a fanatical hardliner who believes that Saddam Hussein was involved in both the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing, that Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist is a secret agent of the Muslim Brotherhood, that Gen. David Petraeus has “submitted to Sharia,” and that the logo of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency reveals “official U.S. submission to Islam” because it “appears ominously to reflect a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star.”
But if Rodriguez and Lopez and others like them can be either discarded or kept in a closet somewhere, let us hope for the best. If Trump appoints competent senior officials, they might actually undertake a serious review of what America does around the world. Such an examination would be appropriate, as Trump has more or less promised to shake things up. He has indicated that he would abandon the policy of humanitarian intervention so loved by President Barack Obama and his advisors, and has signaled that he will not be pursuing regime change in Syria. He will also seek détente with Russia, a major shift from the increasingly confrontational policy of the past eight years.
Donald Trump rejects arming rebels as in Syria because we know little about whom we are dealing with and increasingly find that we cannot control what develops from the relationship. He is against foreign aid in principle, particularly to countries like Pakistan where the U.S. is strongly disliked. These are all positive steps, and the new administration should be encouraged to pursue them. The White House might also want to consider easing the United States out of Afghanistan through something like the negotiated Paris Peace talks arrangement that ended Vietnam. Fifteen years of conflict with no end in sight: Afghanistan is a war that is unwinnable.
Apart from several easy-to-identify major issues, Trump’s foreign policy is admittedly quite sketchy, and he has not always been consistent in explaining it. He has been slammed, appropriately enough, for being simple minded in saying that he would “bomb the [crap] out of ISIS” and that he is willing to put 30,000 soldiers on the ground if necessary to destroy the terrorist group, but he has also taken on the Republican establishment by specifically condemning the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq. He has more than once indicated that he is not interested in being either the world’s policeman or a participant in new wars in the Middle East. He has repeatedly stated that he supports NATO, but not as a blunt instrument designed to irritate Russia. He would work with Putin to address concerns over Syria and Eastern Europe. He would demand that NATO countries spend more for their own defense and also help pay for the maintenance of U.S. bases, which many argue to be long overdue.
Trump’s controversial call to stop all Muslim immigration has been rightly condemned, but he has somewhat moderated that stance to focus on travelers and immigrants from countries that have been substantially radicalized or where anti-American sentiment is strong. And the demand to take a second look at some potential visitors or residents is not unreasonable in that the current process for vetting new arrivals in this country is far from transparent and apparently not very effective.
Beyond platitudes, the Obama administration has not been very forthcoming on what might be done to fix the entire immigration process, but Trump is promising to put national security and border control first. If Trump were to receive good advice on the issue, he would indeed tighten border security and gradually move to repatriate most illegal immigrants, but he would also look at the investigative procedures used to examine the backgrounds and intentions of refugees and asylum seekers who come in through other resettlement programs. The United States has an obligation to help genuine refugees from countries that have been shattered through Washington’s military interventions, but it also has a duty to know exactly whom it is letting in.
Trump is also critical of the Iran nuclear agreement and the steps to normalize relations with Cuba, the two most notable foreign-policy successes of the Obama administration. Any change in the latter would have relatively little impact on the United States, but the Iran deal is important as it stopped potential proliferation by Iran, which likely would have produced a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Trump has called the agreement “horrible” because it stopped short of total capitulation by Tehran and has pledged to “renegotiate it,” which might prove impossible given that the pact had five other signatories. Iran would in any event refuse to make further concessions, particularly as it would no longer be prepared to accept assurances that Washington would comply with any agreement.
The White House could, however, de facto scuttle the agreement by imposing new sanctions on Iran and continuing to apply pressure on Iranian banks and credit through Washington’s influence over international financial markets. If enough pressure were applied, Iran could rightly claim that the U.S. had failed to comply with the agreement and withdraw from it, possibly leading to an accelerated nuclear-weapons program justified on the basis of self-defense. It is precisely the outcome that many hardliners both in Washington and Iran would like to see, as it would invite a harsh response from the White House, ending any possibility of an accord over proliferation.
Someone has to try to convince Trump that the Iranian agreement is good for everyone involved, including Israel and the United States. Even though such a suggestion is unlikely to come from the current group of advisors, who are strongly anti-Iranian, a good argument might be made based on what Trump himself has been urging vis-à-vis Syria, stressing that ISIS is America’s real enemy and Iran is a major partner in the coalition that is actively fighting the terrorist group. As in the case of Russia, it makes sense to cooperate with Iran when it is in our interest, and it also is desirable to prolong the process, delaying Iran’s possible decision to acquire a nuclear capability. Working with Iran might even make the country’s leadership less paranoid and would reduce the motivation to acquire a weapon in the first place, an argument analogous to Trump’s observations about dealing with Russia.
But it all comes down to the type of “expert” advice Trump gets. The president-elect is largely ignorant of the world and its leaders, so he has relied on a mixed bag of foreign-policy advisors. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, appears to be the most prominent. Flynn is associated with arch-neocon Michael Ledeen, and both are rabid about Iran, with Flynn suggesting that nearly all the unrest in the Middle East should be laid at Tehran’s door. Ledeen is, of course, a prominent Israel-firster who has long had Iran in his sights. Their solution to the Iran problem would undoubtedly entail the use of military force against the Islamic Republic. Given what is at stake in terms of yet another Middle Eastern war and possible nuclear proliferation, it is essential that Donald Trump hear some alternative views.
There are other foreign-policy areas as well where Trump will undoubtedly be receiving bad advice and would benefit from a broader vision. He has said that he would be an even-handed negotiator between Israel and the Palestinians, but he has also declared that he is strongly pro-Israel and would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem—which is a bad idea, not in America’s interest, even if Benjamin Netanyahu would like it. It would produce serious blowback from the Arab world and would inspire a new wave of terrorism directed against the U.S. Someone should explain to Mr. Trump that there are real consequences to pledges made in the midst of an acrimonious electoral campaign.
The Trump Asia policy, meanwhile, consists largely of uninformed and reactionary positions that would benefit from a bit of fresh air provided through access to alternative viewpoints. In East Asia, Trump has said he would encourage Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenals to deter North Korea. That is a very bad idea, a proliferation nightmare, but Trump evidently eased away from that position during a recent phone call to the president of South Korea. Trump would also prefer that China intervene in North Korea and make Kim Jong Un “step down.” He would put pressure on China to stop devaluing its currency because it is “bilking us of billions of dollars” and would also increase U.S. military presence in the region to limit Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea.
It is to be hoped that Donald Trump and his transition team will be good listeners over the next 60 days. Positions staked out during a heated campaign do not equate to policy and should be regarded with considerable skepticism. American foreign policy, and by extension U.S. interests, have suffered for 16 years under the establishment-centric but nevertheless quite different groupthinks prevailing in the Bush and Obama White Houses. It is time for a little fresh advice.
The Republic of Turkey has become a loose cannon on deck, a short-term asset in enabling the U.S.’s bombing of northern Syria but a major liability when it comes to any eventual settlement intended to quell the fighting in the region.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to destroy both genuine enemies and far less blameworthy critics alike in his over-the-top reaction to July’s attempted military coup. His emergency powers were recently extended. He has used an enemies list, prepared pre-coup, to detain 37,000 without any prospect of trial, to arrest or fire more than 100,000 government officials, to shut down newspapers and televisions stations, to close schools and universities, and to wage an increasingly bloody war against the country’s minority Kurds. In Kurdish southwestern Turkey there have been wholesale dismissals and even arrests of teachers, bureaucrats, and elected officials, including mayors. They are being replaced by appointees from Ankara loyal to the government but frequently lacking in the training required to do their jobs.
Erdogan’s paranoia and desire for revenge run deep. Alleged coup organizer Fetullah Gulen has been described as the head of a “terrorist organization … intent on subduing the entire world, far beyond Turkey.” Turkish embassies and consulates overseas have been ordered to compile lists of disloyal citizens, and Ankara even sued a German comedian who satirized Erdogan. In Turkey itself, police and intelligence agents have been arresting people who possess multiple American $1 bills whose serial numbers all start with the same letter. (It is believed that the banknotes were used to establish bona fides among coup plotters.) Reading the wrong newspaper or book has led to firing or imprisonment, while parliamentary critics are being silenced and threatened with arrest after being labeled as terrorists. There have been frequent reports of torture, beatings, and even rape of those detained, and Erdogan has supported calls for the death penalty for military officers involved in the coup.
And then there is the ongoing corruption of Erdogan himself, his family, and his close associates. Turkey illegally bought Iranian oil while Iran was under sanctions, and Erdogan’s son Bilal used his tankers to move it to markets in East Asia to sell it. Fearing a police raid at one point, Erdogan telephoned his son and advised him to go to his safe, remove all the money inside, and hide it. Now the government has been arresting businessmen accused of being sympathetic to the coup without presenting any evidence, while also confiscating billions of dollars in assets belonging to their companies. The assets are being “temporarily” managed by political associates of Erdogan.
Erdogan is unfortunately supported by a solid bloc of voters who see the world the same way he does and generally share his intense and often-cited religiosity. He is inspired by his own personal sense of righteousness, and he has exhibited what one might reasonably describe as megalomania, seeing grandiose building projects and a redefinition of Turkey’s domestic and international interests as part and parcel of his own authority and that of his ruling AKP party.
I have previously described how Erdogan’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy has long been driven by a somewhat legitimate fear of the development of an independent Kurdish state, which presumably would incorporate parts of Turkey with northern Syria and Iraq as well as western Iran. Indeed, Erdogan’s recent participation in the fighting against ISIS is actually a deliberate misdirection, being instead mostly aimed at striking the Kurdish militias that the United States regards as its most effective fighting force against the terrorist groups.
More disturbing still, recent developments suggest that Ankara is now entertaining irredentist claims over former parts of the Ottoman Empire that are adjacent to Turkey’s current borders, including Mosul in Iraq, areas just north of Aleppo in Syria, and parts of Greece. Erdogan has argued that he has a responsibility to protect “Turks” in neighboring states, a rationalization that he has been employing to bomb Kurdish-controlled areas and to demand a role in the impending Iraqi assault on Mosul, which has a small Turkmen minority. Iraq’s government, knowing that once Ankara has its foot in the door it will be difficult to make Turkish soldiers go home, has flatly rejected the offer. Erdogan responded by observing that Turkey has a right to invade Iraq if it feels threatened.
The aim to assert some form of regional dominance is a reversal of Turkey’s former foreign policy, which stressed friendly relations with all its neighbors. One might further suggest that the July coup let the genie out of the bottle, fully liberating Erdogan from whatever restraints he believed himself to be under and giving him an opportunity to rewrite the country’s constitution to enhance and perpetuate his own power, a process that is now well underway.
Many reasonably question whether NATO should exist at all after the demise of the Soviet Union, but including Turkey as a member raises some very serious concerns due to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (which created the alliance). This provision requires all members to respond to a military threat against any member state as a “collective defense.” As the alliance purports to be defensive in nature, Turkey’s irredentist claims are problematic—particularly as it would not be particularly difficult to contrive an incident that would make an offensive operation appear to be self-defense. Such an incident took place in December 2015 with the clearly premeditated downing of a Russian warplane that had strayed over the border into Turkey for 17 seconds. Turkey regarded the incursion as an act of war. Fortunately, Moscow was restrained in its response, and the situation did not escalate in military terms, so the issue of NATO involvement, though it briefly surfaced in Brussels, was essentially moot.
In addition, as a basically European-American alliance, NATO has long taken as a given that member states will conform to reasonably democratic norms. That is something that Turkey is rapidly moving away from with its mass arrests, show trials, and collective punishments while Erdogan seeks to aggrandize his position by enhancing his own presidential powers. As Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute puts it, “Turkey’s brief democratic moment is ending.”
For the United States, the calculus is somewhat complicated. Hillary Clinton will likely up the ante in Syria, which will require the use of the airbase at Incirlik. But after that, presuming that World War III can somehow be averted while the escalation and intervention are taking place, the role of Turkey should be reevaluated based on strategic considerations distinct from the current fighting in Iraq and Syria. Ankara’s status as a long-term strategic asset should certainly be challenged, particularly in light of the Erdogan government’s authoritarian predilections.
Most observers in Washington now believe that ISIS will soon be defeated as a territorial threat, though it likely will retain a base of operations in troubled Libya. That means any continued operations against the group will be conducted by special ops and intelligence personnel, and thus will not require extensive infrastructure and support. As the U.S. will retain major regional military assets in Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar, Turkey will become a backwater and a Cold War relic, redundant, with Washington instead increasingly focused on security issues surrounding Iran and the Sunni-Shia conflict.
Ankara persists in believing that its current strategic importance means that it can do or say anything and Washington will avoid any criticism, but the White House is clearly beginning to recognize that Turkey is, in the long run, a liability as long as Erdogan’s brand of democratic centralism prevails. And it must be observed that the current bilateral relationship, in which the administration leans over backwards to placate an invariably irritable Erdogan, produces bad policy. In the recent contretemps with Baghdad over an enhanced Turkish role in Mosul, Secretary of State John Kerry unwisely urged the Iraqis to let the Turks become a partner in the enterprise. He was tone deaf to other considerations of which the government in Baghdad and America’s Kurdish partners were all too aware.
The White House should recognize that Turkey has become a destabilizing force in the Near East. Its past collusion with—and arming of—terrorist groups like ISIS reveals that it is not unwilling to play a double game against its nominal allies. Its implacable hostility toward all things Kurdish affects the internal stability of nearly all of its neighbors and even diminishes Washington’s ability to deal with ISIS. Its increasingly assertive nationalism, which is beginning to define itself as irredentism—backed by what is still, after the purge of thousands of personnel, the most powerful military in the region—could easily morph into a series of local conflicts as Ankara seeks to realign its borders.
If Turkey continues to remain in NATO, and if the U.S. persists in being closely tied to it logistically, the eventual consequences could be grave, with Washington again drawn into a Middle East quagmire by virtue of a war that it is neither prepared for nor seeking to fight.