Back in my time in the CIA, there were two places in the headquarters building one could go that were free speech zones—places where it was safe to vent about senior management without necessarily being admonished or even reported. They were the Historical Intelligence Collection room off the library, where no one ever went to look at the books, and the office supplies storage room in the basement. The supplies room had a lot of dark corners and concealing shelves where it was possible to be anonymous and it was completely unsupervised in the belief that true-blue CIA officers would never stoop to taking even a single pencil more than was actually needed to get the job done.
I don’t know if those rooms still exist, but I sometimes think of them when the subject of government conspiracies come up. I have this vision of two or three conspirators huddled in the corner behind the staplers back in 1975 discussing how one would go about eliminating the likes of Senator Frank Church, who at that time was heading a major congressional investigation into CIA improprieties.
If there had been such a gathering, I would imagine that the Washington Post would have found out about it on the next day as intelligence officers are gregarious and like to talk. This has been my principal problem with the debate in some quarters about the 9/11 Commission. Their report did indeed miss many important angles in order to protect certain governmental interests, but if there had been a genuine conspiracy involving what must have been hundreds of people to demolish the Twin Towers with explosives, it surely would have leaked long ago.
Two months ago, I would have dismissed as fantasy any thoughts of a conspiracy based in America’s national security agencies to bring down Donald Trump. But now I am not so sure. Many of my friends who are former intelligence officers are increasingly asking questions. It is worth pointing out that none of us are fans of what the White House has been doing and saying—quite the contrary. Still, alerting the country to concerns over what might be a developing soft coup orchestrated by the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to nullify the results of a national election in no way equates to trying to protect Donald Trump and his uncouth and ill-informed behavior. It is rather a defense of the Constitution.
Donald Trump said on Wednesday that “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” He might be right. He was referring to Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein’s appointment of the highly-respected Robert Mueller as independent counsel to investigate “any links and/or coordination between Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
Trump’s bombast puts everyone but his most tone-deaf supporters on edge, but there are two points that he has been making repeatedly that are essential to any understanding of what is going on. First, the investigation into Russia and the Trumpsters has been a high priority at FBI and also in Congress for nearly a year. Yet so far no one has produced evidence that anyone broke any law or even that someone did something wrong. Second, and more importantly, the vilification of Trump and Russia has been driven by a series of leaks that come from the very top of the national security apparatus, leaks that appear not to have been seriously investigated.
This involvement of FBI and CIA in the campaign, whether inadvertently or by design, was particularly evident in the various reports that surfaced and were leaked to the press during the campaign and right up to the inauguration. The leaks of that type of information, to include technical intelligence and Special Access Program “codeword” material, require top-level access as well as the ability to arrange clandestine contacts with major players in the media, something far beyond the reach of most employees at CIA or the FBI.
Similar leaks have been appearing since that time. I confess to finding Monday’s detailed account of what President Trump discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Lavrov, which included corroborating material that likely did more damage than the information that was actually shared, highly suggestive of the possibility that something like a conspiracy is, in fact, functioning. Given the really tight-security control of that transcript after it was determined that it contained sensitive information, one might reasonably assume that the leaks to the media came directly out of Donald Trump’s own National Security Council or from the highest levels of the office of the DNI, CIA, or FBI.
Yesterday, the anonymous sources struck again, revealing that “Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.” That sort of information had to come from the top level of the FBI and would have been accessible to only a few, but even though the leaks of what constitutes highly-classified information have been recurring for many months, no one has been fired or arrested.
The emphasis on Russia derives from the government and media consensus that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee (DNC) computers that led to the exposure of what the DNC was doing to destroy the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. There is also a related consensus that the Russian hacking was intended to damage American democracy and also to help the Trump campaign, a narrative that the president has described as a “made-up thing,” a view that I share. All of these assertions are regarded as unquestionably true as measured by inside-the-beltway groupthink, with even the White House now conceding that there was Russian interference in the election.
Sometimes the hysteria over Russia produces over-the-top stories in the mainstream media, including last week’s completely speculative piece wondering whether the entourage of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had sought to sneak a recording device into the White House during his White House visit. It was the type of tale that might have been inspired by a leak from someone in the National Security Council who personally observed the context of the meeting and was able to provide corroborating details.
Nevertheless, in spite of the overwhelming groupthink, it has been repeated ad nauseam by people like myself that no actual evidence has been produced to support any of the claims being made about Russia and Trump. There is more evidence that the White House was penetrated by Ankara—through the good services of Michael Flynn—than by Moscow, but Congress has not called for an investigation into Turkey’s lobbying. Ray McGovern, a former senior CIA analyst, is even speculating that the Agency might have been the actual hacker into the DNC, leaving a trail behind that would have suggested that it was done by the Russians. His concern arises from the recent WikiLeaks revelation that the CIA had developed cyberwarfare capabilities to do just that.
McGovern, like myself, is also asking why former CIA Director John Brennan has not been summoned by the Senate Committee looking into Russia-gate. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has testified twice, while former FBI Director James Comey, current NSA Director Mike Rogers, and former Justice Department senior official Sally Yates have all appeared once. Brennan’s absence is conspicuous as he was the senior national security official most closely tied to the Obama Administration, may have had the tools at hand to fake the Russian connection, and has also been plausibly linked to “encouraging” British Intelligence to provide damaging information on Michael Flynn.
I now suspect that there is indeed a group at the top of the U.S. national security system that wants to remove Donald Trump and has wanted to do so for quite some time. If that is true, I believe that they have been operating with that goal in mind for at least the past year. It is not a traditional conspiracy or cabal in that it does not meet and conspire together, but I suspect the members know what they are doing in a general sense and are intervening whenever they can to keep Trump off balance. Their program is simple: convince the nation that the president and his team colluded with the Russians to rig the 2016 election in his favor, which, if demonstrable even if not necessarily true, would provide grounds for impeachment. They are motivated by the belief that removing Trump must be done “for the good of the country” and they are willing to do what they consider correcting a mistake made by the American voters. They are assisted in their effort by the mainstream media, which agrees with both the methods employed and the overall objective and is completely on board with the process.
Saving the country from Trump is certainly an attractive notion. I suspect the Comeys, Clappers, and Brennans, together with a host of former senior officers who appear regularly on television, if they were involved, see themselves as great patriots. But they must understand that the blunt instrument they are using is far more dangerous than the current occupant of the White House. A soft coup engineered by the national security and intelligence agencies would be far more threatening to our democracy than anything Donald Trump or even the Russians can do.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
Intelligence agencies and senior government officials tend to use a lot of jargon. Laced with acronyms, this language sometimes does not translate very well into journalese when it hits the media.
For example, I experienced a sense of disorientation two weeks ago over the word “sensitive” as used by several senators, Sally Yates, and James Clapper during committee testimony into Russiagate. “Sensitive” has, of course, a number of meanings. But what astonished me was how quickly the media interpreted its use in the hearings to mean that the conversations and emails that apparently were recorded or intercepted involving Trump associates and assorted Russians as “sensitive contacts” meant that they were necessarily inappropriate, dangerous, or even illegal.
When Yates and Clapper were using “sensitive” thirteen times in the 86 page transcript of the Senate hearings, they were referring to the medium rather than the message. They were both acknowledging that the sources of the information were intelligence related, sometimes referred to as “sensitive” by intelligence professionals and government insiders as a shorthand way to describe that they are “need to know” material derived from either classified “methods” or foreign-liaison partners. That does not mean that the information contained is either good or bad or even true or false, but merely a way of expressing that the information must be protected because of where it came from or how it was developed, hence the “sensitivity.”
The word also popped up this week in a Washington Post exclusive report alleging that the president had, in his recent meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, gone too far while also suggesting that the source of a highly classified government program might be inferred from the context of what was actually revealed. The Post describes how
The information Trump relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said. The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said that Trump’s decision to do so risks cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State.
The Post is unfortunately also providing ISIS with more information than it “needs to know” to make its story more dramatic, further compromising the source. Furthermore, it should be understood that the paper is extremely hostile to Trump, the story is as always based on anonymous sources, and the revelation comes on top of another unverifiable Post article claiming that the Russians might have sought to sneak a recording device into the White House during the visit.
No one is denying that the president discussed ISIS in some detail with Lavrov, but National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both of whom were present at the meeting, have denied that any sources or methods were revealed while reviewing with the Russians available intelligence. McMaster described the report as “false” and informed the Post that “The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation. At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.” Tillerson commented that “the nature of specific threats were (sic) discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods, or military operations.”
So the question becomes to what extent can an intelligence mechanism be identified from the information that it produces. That is, to a certain extent, a judgement call. The president is able on his own authority to declassify anything, so the legality of his sharing information with Russia cannot be challenged. What is at question is the decision-making by an inexperienced president who may have been showing off to an important foreign visitor by revealing details of intelligence that should have remained secret. The media will no doubt be seeking to magnify the potential damage done while the White House goes into damage control mode.
The media is claiming that the specific discussion with Lavrov that is causing particular concern is related to a so-called Special Access Program, or SAP, sometimes referred to as “code word information.” An SAP is an operation that generates intelligence that requires special protection because of where or how it is produced. In this case, the intelligence shared with Lavrov appears to be related to specific ISIS threats, which may include planned operations against civilian aircraft, judging from Trump’s characteristically after-hours tweets defending his behavior, as well as other reporting.
There have also been reports that the White House followed up on its Lavrov meeting with a routine review of what had taken place. Several National Security Council members observed that some of the information shared with the Russians was far too sensitive to disseminate within the U.S. intelligence community. This led to the placing of urgent calls to NSA and CIA to brief them on what had been said.
Based on the recipients of the calls alone, one might surmise that the source of the information would appear to be either a foreign-intelligence service or a technical collection operation, or even both combined. The Post claims that the originator of the intelligence did not clear its sharing with the Russians and raises the possibility that no more information of that type will be provided at all in light of the White House’s apparent carelessness in its use. The New York Times, in its own reporting of the story, initially stated that the information on ISIS did not come from an NSA or CIA operation, and later reported that the source was Israel.
The Times is also reporting that Trump provided to Lavrov “granular” information on the city in Syria where the information was collected that will possibly enable the Russians or ISIS to identify the actual source, with devastating consequences. That projection may be overreach, but the fact is that the latest gaffe from the White House could well damage an important intelligence liaison relationship in the Middle East while reinforcing the widely held impression that Washington does not know how to keep a secret. It will also create the impression that Donald Trump, out of ignorance or hubris, exhibits a certain recklessness in his dealing with classified information, a failing that he once attributed to his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton.
And President Trump has one more thing to think about. No matter what damage comes out of the Lavrov discussion, he has a bigger problem. There are apparently multiple leakers on his National Security Council.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
This article has been updated to reflect news developments.
President Barack Obama was a master at using the tools available through the Justice Department to silence whistleblowers and otherwise put a lid on developments that might embarrass his administration. He initiated numerous claims of the state-secrets privilege to stop lawsuits against the government, while also prosecuting leakers with a zeal previously unseen.
So perhaps it is not completely surprising to learn of a truly bizarre tale that surfaced last week regarding an Obama-era closed-door trial and imprisonment of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) translator, Daniela Greene, a German linguist who reportedly traveled secretly from Detroit to Syria to wed a leading ISIS terrorist whom she had been investigating but had never met.
The odd romance could have come straight out of a work of fiction. In fact, it has an uncanny resemblance to Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, where the Russian double agent Tatiana Romanova claimed that she had fallen in love with James Bond as a result of studying his KGB file. And just like in the Fleming novel, our FBI heroine experienced guilt and remorse before finally deciding to do the right thing, though in her case the right thing meant returning to her old allegiance rather than embracing a new one.
One interesting aspect of the trial and imprisonment of Greene is how it was all kept secret. Another notable fact is that she was convicted on a lesser charge that minimized her jail time, with the judge further being induced to give her the lightest possible sentence. This mitigation was reportedly due to her cooperation, but it might also be because the case was such an embarrassment, demonstrating that there are huge holes in the bureau’s security vetting and personnel-management procedures.
Admittedly there is much that one does not know about the Greene saga, as considerable portions of the court records were sealed and remain unobtainable. But there are certain bits that can almost certainly be surmised from similar cases involving defections. Thirty-eight-year-old Daniela Greene was born in Czechoslovakia and raised in Germany. She married an American servicemember, from whom she has subsequently separated, and moved to the United States. She eventually obtained a master’s degree in history from Clemson University and was eventually hired in 2011 by the FBI as a German-language translator. As part of the hiring process, she was subjected to what was believed to be a thorough background check that included a polygraph. She was granted a top-secret clearance to provide translation support in highly sensitive terrorism-related investigations.
In January 2014 Greene was working in the bureau’s Detroit office, focusing on a German-born rapper who had converted to Islam and become a jihadist affiliated with ISIS. He was well-known for his propaganda and recruiting videos aimed at a German-speaking audience. His actual name was Denis Cuspert but his rapper name was Deso Dogg. Both in Syria and online he went by various other names, including Abou Mamadou and Denis Mamadou Cuspert. He also used an Arabic name, Abu Talha al-Almani (“Father of” Talha “the German”). In one video he is seen holding a newly severed human head while in another he is kicking a corpse on a battlefield near Homs in Syria.
Cuspert fled Germany in 2012, shortly after having posted a fake video on Facebook that allegedly showed American soldiers raping a Muslim woman. The video reportedly motivated a man to attack U.S. servicemen in Frankfurt, killing two of them. After stops in Egypt and Libya, Cuspert wound up in Syria where he was put to work in the ISIS propaganda department.
Greene’s professional interest in Cuspert apparently developed into a different type of obsession. She identified several phone and Skype accounts he used but also found a third account that she kept to herself, not reporting the information to her superiors. Shortly thereafter, she almost certainly made initial contact with Cuspert surreptitiously through that account. In June 2014, she filed a foreign-travel request claiming that she intended to visit her family in Munich, which was granted, but instead flew to Istanbul and made her way to the border, where she contacted Cuspert and he arranged for her onward travel into Syria. Once in Syria she immediately married Cuspert, even though she was still married to her American husband, but within two weeks she began to have serious concerns about what she had done.
On August 1, five weeks after Greene’s departure from the U.S., the FBI issued a secret arrest warrant for her. Increasingly distraught over her situation, Greene somehow escaped Syria and made her way back to the United States, where she was arrested on August 8. She was allegedly fully cooperative, her case was sealed, and a series of closed hearings followed through the end of the year, when she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison dating from her arrest in August. She was released in August 2016 and now lives in Syracuse.
Greene’s testimony regarding Cuspert apparently led to his being identified as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in February 2015. She also reportedly provided other information that was “significant, long-running and substantial.” Greene claimed during her interrogations in late 2014 that she had revealed little to her husband and his colleagues during her short time in Syria, an assertion the FBI may or may not have believed to be true. Shortly after Greene’s sentencing, the German media picked up on bits of the story, alleging that Cuspert had actually been duped into marrying an FBI “spy,” a spin that likely originated with the U.S. government to create suspicion regarding Cuspert among his colleagues in ISIS.
The handling of the Greene case is only partly discernible because so many of the relevant court documents are still sealed, but it does raise some serious questions beyond the procedures used to check out new employees. Greene might have been able to provide substantial information on Cuspert personally and on her surroundings at an ISIS stronghold in Syria. But she spoke no Arabic and it is safe to assume that she would not have been trusted, which would mean close monitoring of her activities was likely. And she admitted providing information to Cuspert on the investigation into him, so it is possible that she also was forthcoming on other FBI cases that she knew about.
FBI translators work closely with special agents on cases, so it is not as if they spend all day translating documents without any understanding of why texts are relevant. Greene might have had considerable information on terrorism investigations underway in Germany. She would certainly have been pressed by ISIS to establish her bona fides and she no doubt would have been cooperative, just as she was when she returned home to the United States and opted to help her FBI interrogators. And as ISIS would have been careful not to let her know too much while she was still being assessed, one has to be somewhat skeptical about the reliability or importance of the information that she proved willing to provide to the U.S. government.
Greene was plausibly a traitor. She provided classified information to an enemy of the United States (as defined by the 2016 Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force). She was tried in secret and received a slap-on-the-wrist sentence. Other American citizens or residents convicted of providing material assistance to terrorists or desiring to join ISIS and al-Qaeda have received much stiffer sentences. Terrorism or national-security cases produce an 87 percent conviction rate and the sentences have averaged 14 years, even when the accused did absolutely nothing beyond talking or sending money back home in one of the frequent FBI “sting” operations (referred to by some as entrapment). So there is a substantial difference in terms of how justice was served in the Greene case compared to what was normal for others who “provide material assistance to terrorism.”
Two other national-security cases involving CIA-officer whistleblowers sent to prison also illustrate how justice is not always blind. On January 23, 2012, John Kiriakou, a whistleblower who had exposed the secret and illegal Agency waterboarding program to Senate investigators, was charged with disclosing classified information to journalists, including the name of an undercover CIA officer who had already been exposed in the media. The government made no effort to demonstrate that any genuine national-security interests had actually been damaged by Kiriakou’s actions. To avoid a protracted trial held in secret, in October 2012, Kiriakou plea-bargained guilty to one count of passing classified information to the media, thereby violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. In January 2013, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison and is now free.
Then there is Jeffrey Sterling, who is currently serving a three-and-a-half-year prison term for allegedly leaking information to New York Times journalist James Risen. Sterling first came to the media’s attention when in 2003 he blew the whistle on a botched CIA operation called Operation Merlin, telling the Senate Intelligence Committee staff that the CIA had mistakenly sent nuclear secrets to Iran. So it was perhaps inevitable that in 2006, when James Risen published a book that inter alia discussed the botched Operation Merlin, the Department of Justice focused on Sterling as the suspected source. In court the federal prosecutors relied almost entirely on Risen’s phone and email logs, which reportedly demonstrated that the two men had been in contact up until 2005. But the prosecutors did not provide the content of those communications, even though the FBI was listening in on some of them. Risen has claimed that he had multiple sources on Operation Merlin, and Sterling has always denied being involved. No evidence was ever produced in court demonstrating that any classified information ever passed between them.
Jeffrey Sterling could not even testify in the trial on his own behalf because he would have had to discuss Operation Merlin, which was and is still classified, meaning he could not reveal any details about it even if they are already known through the Risen book. Indeed, some of the information in Risen’s book relating to Merlin could not have been known by Sterling as he was no longer associated with the operation after mid-2000, a detail that could also not be presented as it too was considered classified. The jury convicted Sterling based on “suspicion,” a verdict that defense witness Col. Pat Lang, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s clandestine program, described as a “travesty.”
After conviction Sterling was sent to prison in Colorado—900 miles from his family’s home in St. Louis. According to his wife Holly, legal fees have wiped out the couple’s finances, leading some to believe that the government deliberately set out to make an example of Sterling. John Kiriakou observed that “The point wasn’t just to imprison Jeffrey. It was to ruin him. Utterly ruin him. The point was to demonize him. And frighten any other would-be whistleblowers.”
So much for equal justice in the United States. Joining a terrorist group to marry one of its leaders while sharing classified information merits little in the way of either publicity or consequences because it would embarrass the “system.” But blowing the whistle on wrongdoing causes a ton of bricks to descend—even when the government fails to demonstrate that any actual damage has been done. It is all a matter of perception. The contrite translator cooperates and gets a pass while those who expose government criminality can expect nothing but the worst, even if an essentially phony case has to be contrived to dole out the punishment.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
The firing of FBI Director James Comey may have been a surprise to some, most particularly in the media, but there was a certain inevitability about it given the bureau’s clear inability to navigate the troubled political waters that developed early last summer and have continued ever since. The initial reaction that it may have been triggered by Comey’s recent maladroit comments regarding the Huma Abedin emails would appear to miss the mark as that issue was not raised either by Attorney General Jeff Sessions or by the White House in their written explanations of what had taken place and why.
The most widely accepted explanation for the firing is that it was carried out by the White House to disrupt the ongoing investigation into apparent Russian meddling into the U.S. presidential election and suggestions that there may have been collusion between some Trump campaign officials and the Russians. But that argument lacks credibility in that the action will have the opposite effect, energizing both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to agitate for an independent counsel to look into the issue. And FBI professionals on the investigative team certainly will not stop their work now that Comey is gone. As Maine’s Republican Sen. Susan Collins put it, “The president didn’t fire the entire FBI. He fired the director of the FBI.” She added she had “every confidence” the investigation will continue apace.
The statements by the White House and Sessions cite two issues. The first is Comey’s unprofessional handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, where he first decided not to prosecute her over the mishandling of classified information and then subsequently revealed to the public that the investigation had been reopened shortly before the election, possibly influencing the outcome. This is a serious matter, as Comey broke with precedent by going public with details of bureau investigations that normally are considered confidential. One might argue that it is certainly an odd assertion for the White House to be making, as the reopening of the investigation undoubtedly helped Trump, but it perhaps should be seen as an attempt to create some kind of bipartisan consensus about Comey having overreached by exposing bureau activities that might well have remained secret.
The second issue raised by both Sessions and the White House is Comey’s inability to “effectively lead the Bureau” given what has occurred since last summer. That is a legitimate concern. When the Clinton investigation was shelved, there was considerable dissent in the bureau, with many among the rank-and-file believing that the egregious mishandling of classified information should have some consequences even if Comey was correct that a prosecution would not produce a conviction.
And the handling of “Russiagate” also angered some experienced agents who believed that the reliance on electronic surveillance and information derived from intelligence agencies was the wrong way to go. Some called for questioning the Trump-campaign suspects who had surfaced in the initial phases of the investigation, a move that was vetoed by Comey and his team. It would be safe to say that FBI morale plummeted as a result, with many junior and mid-level officers leaving their jobs to exploit their security clearances in the lucrative government contractor business.
There has been considerable smoke about both the Clinton emails and the allegations of Russian interference in last year’s election, but I suspect that there is relatively little fire. As Comey asserted, the attempt to convict a former secretary of state on charges of mishandling information without any ability to demonstrate intent would be a mistake and would ultimately fail. No additional investigation will change that reality.
As for the Russians, we are still waiting for the evidence demonstrating that Moscow intended to change the course of the U.S. election. Further investigation will likely not produce anything new, though it will undoubtedly result in considerable political spin to explain what we already know. It is unimaginable that Michael Flynn, for all his failings, agreed to work on behalf of Russian interests, while other names that have surfaced as being of interest in the case were hardly in a position to influence what the Trump administration might agree to do. There is no evidence of any Manchurian Candidate here.
I believe that the simplest explanation for the firing of Comey is the most likely: Donald Trump doesn’t like him much and doesn’t trust him at all. While it is convenient to believe that the FBI director operates independently from the politicians who run the country, the reality is that he or she works for the attorney general, who in turn works for the president. That is the chain of command, like it or not. Any U.S. president can insist on a national-security team that he is comfortable with, and if Trump is willing to take the heat from Congress and the media over the issue he certainly is entitled to do what he must to have someone he can work with at the FBI.
The United Nations Charter, to which all member states are signatories and which prevails over all other treaties and agreements, states that the organization is obligated to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” and to take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.”
The justices at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 concluded that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
The U.S. Constitution’s Article I states that only Congress has the authority to declare war, with the understanding that, per Article II, the president is empowered to respond to a “sudden” or imminent threat only if there is no time to pass such a declaration. An Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) amended in 2016 grants the president blanket authority to respond militarily to threats against the United States, but only if they originated with al-Qaeda and “associated forces.”
So how is it that on April 6 the United States attacked a fellow member state in the United Nations that has an internationally recognized sovereign government? That member state posed no imminent threat, had not attacked the United States, and was not at war with Washington. Nor did that member state consist of or support al-Qaeda or an associated group, and it was not under sanction from the United Nations Security Council to authorize any other member state to act against it. On the contrary, that member state was actively fighting several terrorist groups as defined by the U.S. government that had occupied its sovereign territory.
I am, of course, referring to the cruise-missile attack on Syria, which many critics are belatedly recognizing to be illegal under both international and U.S. law. But illegality being related to the ability to enforce the law, there has been little apparent desire on the part of the United Nations to bring Washington to heel, and the U.S. would surely use its Security Council veto to stop any undesirable UN action.
The United States has been backing various schemes to undermine and force “regime change” on Baathist rule in Syria since 2006, well before the so-called Arab Spring brought protests to the streets of Damascus. More recently, Washington has been arming and training so-called rebels against the Bashar al-Assad regime, ostensibly in unrealistic hopes that some kind of transition to a moderate, pro-Western regime might take place. Current White House policy appears to consist of putting pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked al-Ansar, which the Syrian government is fighting, while also demanding the replacement of Assad to permit resumption of all-party peace talks. Apart from those general markers, there has been little attention paid to what might happen on day two, after Assad is gone. Reasonable concerns that the vacuum created might be filled by radical Islamists have largely been ignored.
But even if the United States policy is a muddle, there are others in the region who know what they want and are pretty sure what they have to do to get there. Saudi Arabia and Qatar also have been fighting an unsanctioned and illegal war against Syria with very little in the way of pushback from the international community. They have been hostile to Syria’s government for two decades and began bankrolling and arming dissidents inside the country after fighting began in 2011. Their reasoning is that Syria has become an ally of Iran and Lebanese Shi’ites, including Hezbollah, threatening to create a ring of Shi’ite-dominated territories that will cut across the middle of the Arab Middle East and empower the government in Tehran, which the Saudis in particular see as their regional enemy. It is also possible that the Saudi export of militant Wahhabism also plays a role; Syria, which like Iraq before it is tolerant of most religions, is often accused of being both unacceptably secular and supportive of heretics.
So the Saudis would like to see a Syria in which the Sunni Arabs are dominant, which will presumably lead to discrimination against Shi’ites, Alawites, and Christians—as well as a severing of political ties with Iran. In reality, a broken Syria would likely turn out much like neighboring Iraq, with minorities in trouble and a lack of effective central control. But that would be all right with Riyadh, as it would mean the alliance with Iran would be de facto dissolved. Whether the Syrians would benefit from the change is immaterial as perceived through the optic of Saudi interests.
Turkey would also like to see Assad gone and a Syria in chaos. On April 25, Ankara attacked Kurdish targets in both Syria and Iraq, including members of the YPG militia, who are U.S.-trained and -supplied allies against ISIS. Twenty YPG militiamen were reported killed. The Turks claim that virtually all armed Kurdish groups are terrorists, allied with Turkey’s domestic terrorism problem, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey particularly fears that Syria will permit the creation of a Kurdish-dominated entity along their mutual long and difficult-to-defend border. It wants Assad out because it has accused him, perhaps rightly, of supporting the incursions of Kurdish terrorists, but it chooses to ignore the fact that the current problems with the Kurds were in part initiated by the government of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader needed a credible enemy for internal political reasons, to discredit a largely Kurdish party that opposed him.
Turkey has supported ISIS in the past, including treating their wounded in Turkish hospitals and allowing them to regroup in safe havens inside Turkey, mostly because the terrorist group is a foe of the Kurds. It has also been plausibly claimed that Ankara supplied the sarin that was used in several attacks on Syrian civilians that have been conveniently blamed on the government in Damascus. The shoot-down of a Russian fighter bomber in December 2015 may have also been a crude attempt to draw the U.S. and NATO into a war against Assad and Moscow. Ironically, playing both sides in an all-too-visible attempt to bring down Assad has destroyed any credibility that Erdogan has. And weakening Syrian central-government control and de facto handing power over to a ragtag of rebels and local tribesmen will virtually guarantee the emergence of a Kurdish statelet, but Ankara is apparently not thinking that far ahead.
Finally, there is Israel. Israel, unlike Syria’s other adversaries, has been seeking to destabilize its neighbor for more than 20 years and has little or nothing to do with either Iran or the Kurds. The Yinon Plan of 1982, drafted when hard-right politician Menachim Begin was prime minister, was outlined in a paper entitled “A Strategy for Israel in the 1980s.” It maintained that Israel’s security would be guaranteed only if its neighbors were to be somehow forced or otherwise induced to come apart and return to their tribal, ethnic, and religious constituencies, which had been arbitrarily combined into individual nation-states by the imperial powers after World War I. The Yinon Plan included recommendations for military action to accomplish what might not be done more clandestinely, including an Israeli invasion of Syria to break the country down into Alawite, Druze, Sunni, and Christian communities. A fragmented Arab world creating a “Balkanized” weak-state system for the region, combined with relocation of the Palestinians to Jordan, would remove all the threats to Israel’s survival.
The Yinon Plan never became official Israeli government policy. But it might be seen as a blueprint for the regional actions subsequently undertaken by Tel Aviv, which have persistently sought to weaken Arab governments perceived as being too powerful or threatening. A second paper, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” followed in 1996, during the prime ministry of Benjamin Netanyahu. It was authored by a group of American neoconservatives that included Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and Meyran and David Wurmser. It advocated a policy of preemption for Israel and was particularly focused on Iraq and Syria as enemies. Once critic described the document as endorsing “a mini-cold war in the Middle East, advocating the use of proxy armies for regime changes, destabilization and containment.”
More recently, Israeli officials have made clear that they would prefer to have “moderate rebels” in control in Syria than the Assad government. They have reportedly provided medical care for wounded militants, possibly including ISIS. It would appear that there is a de facto truce between the Israeli military and ISIS, as ISIS reportedly apologized when one of its associated groups fired on IDF units in the Golan Heights back in November.
Israel has carried out a number of air strikes against Syrian bases and military units, most recently a missile attack near Damascus on April 27. There are also reports that it is already using its new U.S.-provided F-35 stealth fighters for combat missions against Syria.
Israel would prefer to have a fragmented political situation across its border rather than a unified and capable government. The former constitutes an easily containable threat, while the latter will no doubt continue efforts to regain most of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967 and continues to hold. So the choice for the Israeli government is a simple one—and it does not include whatever the United States might currently be envisioning. It is, in fact, much closer to what Turkey and the Saudis want.
Daniel Larison has frequently warned that the U.S. is encumbered with allies that are allies in name but not in reality. In terms of actual national interests, it should be observed that the Saudis, Qataris, Turks, and Israelis are all currently (or have been recently) in bed with terrorist groups that the United States is pledged to destroy. All of them have either directly attacked or arranged for surrogates to attack the legitimate Syrian government, which is opposing ISIS and al-Ansar on the battlefield. Turkey has also attacked Kurdish militiamen allied with and trained by Washington.
The Trump administration will certainly not pressure Israel to change course when the president travels to Jerusalem later this month. Apart from anything else, Trump will be aware that Republicans in Congress have launched an Israel Victory Caucus and that all 100 senators have recently signed a letter to the United Nations demanding that it abandon its “anti-Israel bias.” So there is no wiggle room there. Nor will The Donald squeeze President Erdogan when he arrives in Washington next week, for fear that the already feckless and foundering Syria policy will become even more unmanageable. And the Saudis are always there in the background, using their money weapon to buy influence and manage the narrative.
So the answer to the question “Who is destroying Syria?” must be “Pretty much everyone.” Though there are different motives surfacing regularly by the key players to justify the continued carnage. From the commentary coming out of the foreign and defense ministries in Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and Tel Aviv, it is more than a bit hard to discern if there might be a way out of this quagmire. Otherwise, it appears that it will continue to be business as usual until everyone gets tired, declares victory, and goes home.
On the morning of April 4, a Syrian Air Force Russian-made Sukhoi-22 fighter bomber dropped or fired something at a target in rebel-held Idlib Governorate. A cloud of some chemical substance subsequently materialized and drifted to the adjacent inhabited village of Khan Shaykhun, where it killed between 50 and 100 people. We also know that the Russians used a “hotline” prior to the attack to alert the United States military that the strike would be taking place against what was apparently described as an arms depot.
We also know about what might be considered collateral damage. The deaths and alleged use of chemical weapons were described by President Donald Trump as a “vital national-security interest” and served as the pretext for a strike by 59 U.S. cruise missiles two days later, which was directed against the Syrian air base at al-Shayrat. The U.S. attack did little damage and the base was soon again operational. The White House also reversed itself regarding possible Syrian peace talks, declaring that Bashar al-Assad must be removed as a condition for any political settlement of the ongoing crisis. It also described Russia as complicit in protecting the Syrian president. Secretary of State Tillerson declared that bilateral relations with Moscow cannot improve as long as Russia is supporting al-Assad. The relationship with Russia is, according to President Trump, at an “all-time low.”
The U.S. government, in support of its narrative justifying the cruise-missile attack, has issued a four-page assessment entitled “The Assad Regime’s Use of Chemical Weapons on April 4, 2017.” The report was issued by the National Security Council, which is part of the White House, and was authored by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national-security advisor, rather than Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. The provenance suggests that it might not be what it is touted as, a “Summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Assessment …” It makes a number of claims, some of which might be considered fact-based, while others seem questionable.
Bear in mind that nearly all the information and physical evidence available from the attack site in Syria has come from anti-Assad sources linked to al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra, which controls the area. This includes the so-called White Helmets, who are opposition surrogates. The established narrative derives from this material as well as from bipartisan assertions of Assad’s “certain” guilt, even from normally liberal Democrats, which are being presented as fact.
The four-page White House report is supplemented by commentary provided by McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis (also a former general) on the day of the U.S. attack, as well as a more recent interview with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, which describes the decision-making process and the military options. Each official, as well as President Trump, took it as a given that Syria had carried out the attack. Regarding the motive for such an attack, the report claims that Damascus was seeking to halt a rebel advance. Others in the media have claimed that it was done to “test” the United States or intimidate the Syrian population, but some other observers find those explanations elusive. After all, Bashar al-Assad would have had no good reason to stage a chemical attack when he was winning the war, while the rebels theoretically had plenty of motivation to stage a “false flag” attack to alienate Damascus from Western Europe and the Americans.
There is considerable repetition in the White House report describing Syrian involvement, rebel inability to mount a chemical attack, physical remains, and symptoms of the dead and injured. It says that the U.S. government is “confident” that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack using “a neurotoxic agent like sarin … against its own people” on the morning of April 4, and that it would have been impossible for the rebels to fabricate the incident because it would be too complicated for them to do so. The alleged U.S. intelligence relating to understanding the attack included Sigint, geospatial monitoring, and physiological examination. Plus “Credible open source reporting … tells a clear and consistent story.” This included commercial-satellite imagery, which shows the impact sites of the weapons used, and opinions registered by civilian agencies like Medecins Sans Frontieres and Amnesty International.
The U.S. government report also maintains that Syria has violated its international obligations by retaining chemical-weapons capabilities even though it agreed to destroy all stocks in 2013. The narrative also insists that the still highly controversial attack made on Ghouta in 2013 was, in fact, carried out by Damascus. Syrian chemical-weapons experts were probably “involved in planning the [current] attack.” Symptoms of the victims were consistent with exposure to sarin.
Since the attack, per the report, the Russians and Syrians have been spinning out “false narratives” employing “multiple, conflicting accounts [of what took place] in order to create confusion and sow doubt within the international community.”
As noted above, beyond the bare bones of the Syrian attack, the U.S. retaliation, and the casualties, there is little in the incidents and the surrounding analysis that can be regarded as hard fact. Little in the National Security Council report is unassailable, and one should note that almost none of it is based on U.S. intelligence resources. The possibility that a Syrian chemical-weapons expert was “probably” involved expresses uncertainty, suggesting that an intercepted telephone call is being generously interpreted. And the geospatial monitoring is either a satellite (or even a drone) overhead, or possibly an AWACS plane operating along the nearby Turkish border, which would register the flight path of the Su-22 and the subsequent explosion(s), hardly conclusive evidence of anything beyond what we already know to be true.
The thinness of the U.S. intelligence came through in an April 13 talk by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who described the pressure from the White House to come up with an “assessment.” As a bottom line, he commented that “Everyone saw the open-source photos, so we had reality on our side.” One might observe that that reality was derived from Google satellite photography possibly adjusted by the rebels and freely interpreted by the media, not from the $80 billion per year intelligence community.
Observers should also reexamine the assumption that rebels would be unable to either mount a chemical attack or create a “false flag” operation. There have been numerous instances of ISIS and al-Nusra use of chemicals both in Syria and Iraq, the most recent being just this past week in western Mosul. And the similar Ghouta “false flag” in 2013 almost succeeded, apparently aided by Turkish intelligence, stopped only when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper paid a surprise visit to President Obama in the Oval Office to tell him that the case against Damascus was not a “slam dunk.”
And the physical evidence that the Syrians launched a chemical attack from the air has been challenged. The only eyewitness to surface, a 14-year-old, has described how she saw a bomb drop from an airplane and hit a nearby building, which produced a mushroom cloud. It is just as the Russians and Syrians described the incident and rules out sarin, which is colorless. And then there is the testimony of Professor Theodore Postol, professor emeritus of science, technology, and national-security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Postol has examined the evidence in the photos and concluded that the toxin was fired from the ground, not from the air, adding that no competent analyst would believe otherwise—suggesting that there was a rush to judgment. Postol concluded that “it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the U.S. government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack.”
Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter has also disputed the findings in the White House report, noting that what evidence there is points to the use of conventional weapons by the Syrians. He also notes that the Su-22’s available weapons cannot deliver a chemical or gas attack from the air, something which Donald Trump and his advisers might not have been aware of.
And then there are the victims. The tests confirming the presence of sarin were carried out in Turkish hospitals and Ankara is far from a neutral party, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan having demanded repeatedly that al-Assad be removed.
It is all too easy to forget that the rebels and their associates are killers, with little to differentiate them from the crimes that are being laid at Bashar al-Assad’s door. Two recent examples of rebel brutality include the beheading of a child and the recent bombing of Syrian refugees waiting to cross into government-controlled territory. The latter attack killed more people—including women, children, and babies—than the incident at Khan Shaykhun, but it was not so much as mentioned by President Trump. It was only briefly reported in the U.S. media before being dropped down the memory hole, presumably because it did not fit the prevailing narrative.
Other videos and pictures of Khan Shaykhun victims cited by the White House show survivors being assisted by alleged medical personnel, who appear not be wearing any protective garb. If the chemical agent had actually been sarin, they too would have been affected. And the symptoms of sarin are similar to the symptoms experienced with exposure to other toxins, including chlorine and smoke munitions. One survivor noted a smell of rotten food and garlic. Sarin is, in addition to being colorless, odorless.
And then there is the question of al-Assad’s chemical-weapons supply. It is now being asserted by the White House that the Syrians retained a significant capability, but that is not what Secretary of State John Kerry said in July 2014, when he claimed everything was destroyed: “We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out.” The United States, working with Russia, was instrumental in destroying the Syrian chemical stockpile.
It certainly appears that there was a rush to judgment on the part of the White House and the top presidential advisors. It is possible that al-Assad did what he has been accused of, but the Trump administration decided to assign guilt to the Syrians before they could have known with any clarity what had happened. As in the case of Iraq, the available intelligence was made to fit the preferred narrative. All that remained was to call a meeting of top advisors to determine exactly how to punish Damascus. The truth about what occurred in Syria on April 4 remains to be discovered, and is almost certainly possessed by many in the U.S. intelligence community. Perhaps someday, someone who understands what happened will feel compelled to reveal what he or she knows.
Meanwhile, the fallout from the incident and the U.S. retaliation is severe and potentially catastrophic. As Princeton Professor Stephen Cohen, America’s leading expert on Russia, put it recently:
I think this is the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations, at least since the Cuban missile crisis. And arguably, it’s more dangerous, because it’s more complex. … So the question arises, naturally: Why did Trump launch 50 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian Air Force base, when, God help us, he did kill some people, but was of no military value whatsoever? Was this meant to show ‘I’m not a Kremlin agent?’ Because, normally, a president would have done the following. You would go to the United Nations … and ask for an investigation about what happened with those chemical weapons. And then you would decide what to do. But while having dinner at Mar-a-Lago with the leader of China, who was deeply humiliated, because he’s an ally of Russia, they rushed off these Tomahawk missiles.
Wars and rumors of wars have been dominating news cycles of late. No one should be surprised that there is a “former intelligence officer” subculture that is particularly noticeable in the Washington, DC, area. We stay in touch, communicate regularly, have lunches to discuss the “old days,” and sometimes organize to raise objections to some of the foreign follies pursued by the U.S. government. Though we often try to stay under the radar, making personal but discreet contact with sympathetic congressmen and journalists, we sometimes work together to get letters to the editor or articles placed in national publications. More rarely we appear on television or radio to discuss our own perspectives on current events.
There is an additional element that helps shape our perceptions—namely, that many of us are in contact with friends who are still in harness with the Intelligence Community or who are working as post-retirement contractors. Though current employees generally are highly cautious about what they are doing, and we are acutely aware that it is not a good idea to ask anything specific, frustration over specific governmental policies and actions is occasionally vented.
Recently, with the cruise missile attacks on a Syrian airfield, there has been a considerable loosening of the normal restraints that employees exercise regarding their duties. Even more than the invasion of Iraq, which was viewed skeptically by many in the community, the decision by President Trump to retaliate with force against Damascus has been met with dismay among many of those closest to the action in the Middle East.
Many officers have expressed frustration and anger over what has taken place—not to challenge national-security policy, which they leave up to the politicians, but because they are perceiving a tissue of lies, as in Iraq. They have expressed their concerns in very specific ways to former fellow officers and friends. For the first time, people on the inside of the process are really talking. And we have been listening, astonished at the level of anger.
The insiders note that no evidence has been produced to demonstrate convincingly that Syrian forces dropped a chemical bomb on a civilian area. U.S. monitors, who had been warned by the Russians that an attack was coming, believe they saw from satellite images something close to the Russian account of events, with a bomb hitting the targeted warehouse, which then produced a cloud of gas. They also note that Syria had absolutely no motive for staging a chemical attack. In fact, it was quite the contrary, as Washington had earlier that week backed off from the U.S. position that President Bashar al-Assad should be removed from office. The so-called rebels, however, had plenty of motive. Many intelligence officials have concluded that the White House is lying and concealing what it knows.
Some employees have even expressed a desire that a whistleblower might step forward to demolish the administration’s casus belli, though none has yet offered to do so. Most of all, those on the ground are alarmed over ongoing preparations for expanding the war, including seemingly active plans to establish no-fly zones and safe havens. The uncompromising demand that al-Assad must go will lead, in their opinion, to a rapid escalation of military activity that inevitably will result in conflict with Russia.
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.
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.
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.