Russiagate’s Unasked Questions
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?
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.