Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Take a Memo

“Mueller: ‘Well, We Got The Liar. Probe’s Over’"
—Headline in The Onion, December 1, after former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI
Remember back in March when President Trump tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” and we all thought he was crazy?

Okay, lots of us still wonder if he is crazy. With the passage of time, though, the above tweet, amazingly, sounds a wee bit slightly less crazy than it did at the time. While there is no reason to believe that President Obama personally ordered Trump’s “wires tapped,” we do now know that the Obama Justice Department and FBI did go to a secret court—one set up over objections of civil libertarians for the purpose of spying on terrorist suspects—to get a warrant to spy on a then-recently departed Trump campaign volunteer.

That information has been confirmed by the Devin Nunes memo. Its release and the way various politicians have carried on over it has caused me to question whether everybody in Washington is not crazy. Some Democrats screamed that the memo would reveal all kinds of national security secrets. It didn’t. Some Republicans echoed the president in saying the memo totally vindicated him. It didn’t. Don’t they know that we can see the same things that they see and we can tell when they make stuff up? Apparently, they all hope enough people aren’t paying attention and are only absorbing the spin.

As is so often the case, the memo ends up raising more questions than it answers. Maybe the next memo with the Democrats’ alternative facts will answer some of them. Or maybe we will eventually get answers from somewhere else. In the meantime, here are some questions that come to my mind.

When the Christopher Steele dossier came to the attention of the FBI, did it occur to anybody that they should investigate why the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid a foreign agent to talk to Russians in an effort to dig up dirt on Donald Trump?

Probably not. After all, it is not a crime to talk to Russians. Nor is it a crime to dig up dirt on people. On the other hand, isn’t that precisely what a lot of people are saying is so scandalous about the Trump campaign? I have heard no serious or credible charge that the Russians actually changed the results of the 2016 election. As far as we know, their meddling amounts to hacking communications and submitting content to social media sites. If the Trump campaign cooperated with them on any of that, then that is a crime, but we have yet to see any serious indication that happened.

Why was the Steele dossier the main evidence—the only evidence, if you believe the Nunes memo—given to the FISA judge in order to get a warrant to spy on Carter Page?

The FBI was familiar with Page and his interest in all things Russian as far back as 2013. If they had probable cause to spy on him, then they surely had other evidence they could have presented. Why rely on a dossier that was all about Donald Trump—unless the purpose was to see what they could find out about Donald Trump by listening in on Page? If that was the case, were agents not concerned about the fact that they were essentially teaming up with the opposition research team of one political candidate to spy on another political candidate? To make it worse, the FBI was paying Steele at the same time that he was sharing his dossier with various news outlets. When they realized this, they severed ties with him, yet they continued to use his dossier as a basis to keep extending the Page warrant.

Is any of Robert Mueller’s investigation based on information obtained under the FISA warrant obtained with the Steele dossier?

There is no reason to believe that it is, but we simply don’t know. If it turns out it was, though, then that would be a big boost to those who charge that the Clinton campaign, the DNC and Mueller have all been working in tandem and that the investigation was politicized from the beginning.

Why was there such a flurry of unmasking requests in the Obama Administration (particularly on the authority of Susan Rice and Samantha Power) after the election?

Under the FISA law U.S. citizens who are caught up in surveillance of which they are not the specific target are meant to have their identities protected. Government officials with appropriate security clearance, however, can request to know the identities of such people, and the outgoing Obama crowd asked for a lot of those names. They were perfectly entitled to do this, but it does raise questions. Forget Trump and what you think of him. Doesn’t this demonstrate that the government’s ability to spy on its citizens—combined with the ability of appointees with political loyalties to peek into that information—present a huge temptation for abusing a system meant, after all, to protect the country from external enemies?

What’s in the Steele dossier anyway?

We actually know the answer to this. Because so much of its content was unverifiable, most news organizations would not touch the dossier when Steele shopped it around. A couple did, though. One was Michael Isikoff, who was previously best known for having his scoop on Monica Lewinsky killed by his employers at Newsweek, thereby allowing Matt Drudge to make his name by breaking the story. Isikoff wrote a story for Yahoo News based on Steele’s dossier. This was actually used as evidence in support of—and ostensibly separate from—the Steele dossier in obtaining the FISA warrant for spying on Carter Page.

More to the point, the BuzzFeed web site actually published the dossier itself—prompting a lawsuit from Donald Trump and no small amount of criticism from other news organizations on journalistic ethics grounds. So the good news is that the dossier is currently available to read on the internet. The bad news is it is all assertions without evidence. Maybe it’s all true. Maybe none of it is. It boils down to the following points. Trump was long anxious to do business in Russia. (If that’s a problem, someone should tell Pfizer, Ford, Boeing, Pepsi, GE, Morgan Stanley, Starbucks and Krispy Kreme.) The Russians provided Trump with compromising information on Clinton. (This is, of course, according to the compromising information Clinton paid someone to get from the Russians.) The Russians have compromising information on Trump which could be used to blackmail him. (Yes, we know because Clinton paid to get it for us. Really, come on, is there anything left to know about President Trump that could possibly embarrass him or put him under more scrutiny than he already is?) Russians were behind the hacking of the Clinton’s emails in order to help Trump. (Point taken. Russians are bad dudes who have been trying to subvert American democracy. But wasn’t one of your other points that they also had information compromising Trump? So weren’t they actually playing both sides?) Carter Page met with Russian officials. (Okay.) There’s more, but we get the idea. Lots of things can be tied together to concoct a Trump-Russia conspiracy if you’re inclined to see one, but the problem is that conspiracies by their nature are simply hard to prove or to disprove without some really good smoking-gun evidence. (My favorite bit in the memo is where we “learn” that the Kremlin at one point thought about pulling Trump out of the presidential race altogether. Sounds like a Richard Condon novel.)

We have gotten to a really interesting—and kind of scary—place in the whole Trump-Russia drama. There are basically only two places to go from here. If, after all this time, Mueller and his team come up with clear and incontrovertible evidence of subversion of the electoral process, they will justifiably be seen as heroes. If, on the other hand, it turns out that all their time and resources were spent on something inconsequential—or merely trapping a few individuals in “process crimes” that only arose out the investigation itself—while handicapping the first year or so of a duly elected administration, then it will look to many like Mueller and the FBI themselves were participants—witting or otherwise—in the subversion of the electoral process.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

More Light, Not Less

“Have you ever seen so many open-government groups and reporters argue to keep secret alleged government abuses against US citizens?”
—Journalist/author and former CBS investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, in a tweet about the infamous FBI memo, yesterday
In May 1975 three prominent anti-war activists paid a visit to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where they participated in a panel discussion about the Vietnam War. One was Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest who, as one of the Catonsville Nine, burned draft records in 1968. Another was David Dellinger, a longtime radical who was tried as one of the Chicago Seven. The third man was Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who provided a classified Defense Department study (popularly called the Pentagon Papers) to The New York Times, The Washington Post and 16 other newspapers.

The UCSB student newspaper Daily Nexus reported on Ellsberg’s reflections on how his illegal act affected the course of the Vietnam War:
 Ellsberg attributed the end of the war more directly to Nixon’s fall from power. He noted that most people now concede that the manner that the war ended was inevitable, but he added that this “was as true in 1945 as in 1975.”
 He said the Pentagon Papers raised many questions but gave few answers. They did show, he said, that all Presidents involved in the war said they were on the edge of victory although they all knew they were not.
 He said their goal was to avert a defeat in Vietnam, “which means they had 30 years of success.”
 He said that Nixon’s fall made the difference in American air power and troops in Indochina and that the lack of power and troops was crucial to the communist victory. He maintained that without the subsequent congressional action of preventing troops to be used in Southeast Asia, the war could have continued ten more years.
The quality of the student reporter’s writing could have been better, but give me a break. I was only 22 at the time.

I have been thinking back lately to my personal brush with Ellsberg and the other anti-war figures of the time for a couple of reasons. One is the release in December of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which dramatizes the story of that newspaper’s decision to report on the Pentagon Papers’ content despite threats of legal action by the U.S. government. Another reason is the current political debate raging in Washington over the imminent release of a House Intelligence Committee memo. The memo was classified because it includes classified government information. Democrats and the FBI strongly oppose the release, arguing it could compromise sensitive information on FBI operations and methods.

Interestingly Republicans, who normally err on the side of national security, want the memo want released. More interesting, though, is the fact that Democrats, who usually err on the side of exposing potential government abuse, are energetically arguing against its release. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that politics is the main motivator on both sides.

Personally, my instinct is always to err on the side of releasing information rather than keeping it secret. This is not to say that there are not things that the government should legitimately keep hidden, but it is well known that the ability to classify information is way over-used and employed too often for the purpose of avoiding embarrassment—or worse. Democrats also argue that the memo, which was drafted by the staff of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (who happens to represent the district adjoining my old home town in California), should not be released because it is one-sided. That is a silly reason. You can be sure that there will be plenty of rebuttal and that the memo will be dissected and discussed by people on all sides in the media for a long time to come. Democrats even drafted their own memo and then promptly began complaining that it had not gotten declassified like the Republican one—even while it continues to work its way through the same exact non-rushed process that the Republican one has gone through.

What are Democrats and the FBI so worried about? Is it related to the Justice Department’s inspector general investigation (as reported by The Washington Post) into why recently-departed Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, for three weeks in the days leading up to the November election, sat on the discovery of a bunch of Hillary Clinton emails found on the unsecured private laptop of former Congressman Anthony Weiner? (McCabe’s wife was a Democratic candidate for Virginia’s state senate and received a half-million-dollar donation from a PAC run by close Clinton associate Terry McAuliffe.) Or does it have to do with what some conspiracy theorists think were dodgy grounds—tied to Clinton campaign opposition research—that the FBI used to get FISA warrants to spy on the Trump transition team?

There could reasonably be nothing at all to any of this, but frankly, the way Democrats are carrying on only makes it all seem more—not less—suspicious.

It’s enough to make you want to buy a ticket to a Spielberg movie and lose yourself in the fantasy of a time when the political left—and more than a few journalists—thought that throwing sunlight on government secrets was less risky in the long run than not being curious.