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Digging Through The Science—And The Noise—On What Is Known About The Origin Of SARS CoV-2

Update: In a new post we find that Shi Zhingli of Wuhan Institute of Virology has provided convincing evidence to Scientific American that SARS CoV-2 is the result of a natural jump to humans from an animal host and was not accidentally released from her lab, which had no isolates of any viruses that match closely enough to be the outbreak virus.

Although it seems that all of this has been going on forever at this point, it’s important to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak probably began less than six months ago. In the context of how we develop an understanding of a disease like this one, and the virus that causes it, SARS CoV-2, that means that we really have only just begun our analysis. Nevertheless, because of the ongoing disastrous impact on global public health as well as the global economy, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can as fast as we can.

In this post, I want to take a deep dive into what virologists and epidemiologists have pieced together on the emergence of SARS CoV-2. The problem is that what might initially appear to be straightforward scientific and public health questions eventually get muddled by accusations of disinformation, accusations of hiding data and offerings of potential leaks of intelligence that also have a chance to be disinformation. These noisy battles relate to basic facts that have a direct bearing on our understanding of the virus’ origin.

As a result, it needs to be stated from the outset that because some of the needed basic information may be hidden or some of what we think we know might be wrong. Therefore, this analysis will be unable to come to a definite conclusion. With any luck, the discussion will help us to have a framework within which we can proceed as more facts become verified.

Overview Derived From SARS CoV-2 Genetic Sequence

I want to start with the science.  The very helpful graphic below is lifted from this paper in Current Biology. It is in three sections. The section on the left illustrates what we know from the genetic sequence of the virus when that is compared to other known viruses. What it shows is that the closest overall relative to SARS CoV-2, with a sequence identity of 96%, is RaTG13, another coronovirus isolated from a bat:

Let’s move to this Nature Medicine article from March 17 and this Cell article from April 16 for the narrative on diving into the distinguishing features of SARS CoV-2 from its genetic sequence.

From the Nature Medicine article, we get a description of the features of SARS CoV-2 that distinguish it from other known viruses (these features are what the center and right panels of the graphic address):

Our comparison of alpha- and betacoronaviruses identifies two notable genomic features of SARS-CoV-2: (i) on the basis of structural studies and biochemical experiments, SARS-CoV-2 appears to be optimized for binding to the human receptor ACE2; and (ii) the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 has a functional polybasic (furin) cleavage site at the S1–S2 boundary through the insertion of 12 nucleotides, which additionally led to the predicted acquisition of three O-linked glycans around the site.

To translate some of the terms and clarify a bit, there are four genera of coronaviruses, with alpha and beta infecting mammals and delta and gamma infecting birds. The genome is the genetic sequence of the virus. I would usually say the DNA sequence, but coronaviruses are RNA viruses. There has been much discussion of ACE2 on this blog in the comments, so for now let’s just say ACE stands for angiotensin converting enzyme and ACE2 is present on the surface of many cell types found in many different tissues within the body. So what stands out here is that the structure of the virus spike protein, as determined from its genetic sequence and tests in the lab, allows it to bind exceptionally well to ACE2 when compared to other coronaviruses.

The middle panel of the graphic shows us that although the overall sequence of SARS CoV-2 is very closely aligned to the bat virus, when we narrow it down to only compare the region where the spike protein binds to ACE2, it is a perfect match of that part of a pangolin virus, while it is very different from the bat virus. For the important stretch of the spike protein (these amino acids are not next to each other when the gene sequence is read from start to finish, but once the protein is assembled from amino acids, the amino acids are close to each other from the way the protein assumes its three dimensional structure), the gene encodes a string of five amino acids in the protein that matches exactly with the pangolin virus sequence but in only the first of the five positions on the bat virus sequence.

But that final panel and the second half of the Nature Medicine snippet goes further in what is different about this virus. The gene for the spike protein encodes two subunits, S1 and S2. Remarkably, SARS CoV-2 has acquired a site where the two subunits can be separated using a enzyme called furin that is found in mammalian cells. The right panel shows us that neither the bat sequence nor the pangolin sequence has a furin cleavage site.

The Cell paper tells us that a furin cleavage site has not been seen in the betacoronaviruses closely related to SARS CoV-2. It has been seen in other human coronaviruses, though. Of further significance is that a furin cleavage site also appears in the more pathogenic bird flu viruses.

Not A Lab Construct

From the Nature Medicine article, we get one of the most convincing arguments I’ve seen against the virus being created in a lab:

While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.

So, in other words, if someone in the lab wanted to set out to make a virus with the best possible ACE2 binding site, this is not the sequence the computer or the literature would have given them. That suggests that this very good binding sequence is a product of natural evolution instead. The Nature Medicine article also further noted that the genetic sequence of SARS CoV-2 differs too much from that of any other known coronavirus sequence for one of the known viruses to have been used as a starting point in engineering this stronger pathogen.

The Species Jump

Perhaps the most important step in the emergence of SARS CoV-2 is the jump from its initial host species to humans. This could have happened directly, or as in the case of MERS CoV, which went from bats to camels to humans, with an intermediate host. Note that MERS still has not adapted to efficient human to human transmission, and so when we see it, it’s usually from multiple camel to human events.

The problem here is that we don’t have proof of the host from which humans were first infected with SARS CoV-2. In other words, no virus isolated from an animal so far is related closely enough at the sequence level to SARS CoV-2 that we can say this is where humans were first infected, as we can tell from the MERS jumps from camels to humans. As we will discuss below, and as you are well aware, early suspicion on the origin of human infection centered on the wet market in Wuhan. Remarkably, authors of the Cell paper visited the market and took these pictures in October 2014 because they were concerned that wet markets in general, and this one in particular, represent a particularly large risk for bringing humans into contact with less commonly encountered hosts of potentially deadly viruses:

The caption properly notes that many early cases are linked to the market, but we don’t yet have proof of where and how the first human infection(s) took place. In discussing the jump and subsequent outbreak, the Cell authors continue:

The emergence and rapid spread of COVID-19 signifies a perfect epidemiological storm. A respiratory pathogen of relatively high virulence from a virus family that has an unusual knack of jumping species boundaries, that emerged in a major population center and travel hub shortly before the biggest travel period of the year: the Chinese Spring Festival.

/snip/

While our past experience with coronaviruses suggests that evolution in animal hosts, both reservoirs and intermediates, is needed to explain the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in humans, it cannot be excluded that the virus acquired some of its key mutations during a period of “cryptic” spread in humans prior to its first detection in December 2019. Specifically, it is possible that the virus emerged earlier in human populations than envisaged (perhaps not even in Wuhan) but was not detected because asymptomatic infections, those with mild respiratory symptoms, and even sporadic cases of pneumonia were not visible to the standard systems used for surveillance and pathogen identification. During this period of cryptic transmission, the virus could have gradually acquired the key mutations, perhaps including the RBD and furin cleavage site insertions, that enabled it to adapt fully to humans. It wasn’t until a cluster of pneumonia cases occurred that we were able to detect COVID-19 via the routine surveillance system. Obviously, retrospective serological or metagenomic studies of respiratory infection will go a long way to determining whether this scenario is correct, although such early cases may never be detected.

So, the sequence information comes to a dead end here until the details of the epidemiology are reconstructed. As the authors note, it likely will prove impossible to sample many of the most important animals and humans that would clarify the route and timing. It is further worth noting that the bat from which the RaTG13 sequence is derived was found in Yunnan province, a very long way from Wuhan.

Epidemiology

It appears that as of this writing, the earliest known infection may have been a shrimp seller in the wet market who first developed symptoms on November 17. Also, this Lancet article provides further details on some of the early studies showing a high concentration of cases affiliated with the market in December. The Lancet graphic suggests a case on December 1 not affiliated with the market and the start of the market cluster on the tenth, with 27 of the 41 early patients considered here being associated with the wet market. If that were indeed the earliest case, we might think we’ve seen the index case. But if the South China Post article is to be believed, the shrimp seller fell ill on November 17 and, according to the article, one to five people a day from that day forward had the disease. If we believe that information, then the virus appears to have already been circulating before the middle of November.

It is when we start getting into this information that accusations of hiding information are thrown about. Were there earlier cases that China suppressed or that simply went undetected? We have no way of knowing at this point.

A further point that comes from the Cell paper is that SARS CoV-2 has been circulating long enough that minor variations in the gene sequence are arising that don’t affect pathogenicity but allow for tracing of various lineages of the virus in its spread around the globe. They also note that the lineages allow them to go back in time over the evolution of those sequences and the diversity diminishes a lot as they get back to the early isolates from Wuhan. This is further confirmation for Wuhan being essential in the earliest part of the outbreak.

Accidental Release

It is here that the noise gets really loud. If we accept the really strong evidence that SARS CoV-2 was not deliberately made in a laboratory, there remains the possibility that the virus could have escaped from a laboratory that studies potential pandemic agents.

As long ago as 2004, Rutgers scientist Richard Ebright spoke out against the massive amount of funding that was funneled into research on bioweapons after the 2001 anthrax attacks. From the New York Times:

Dr. Ebright disagrees with much of the security community about how best to protect the nation from attacks with biological weapons.

The government and many security experts say one crucial step is to build more high-security laboratories, where scientists can explore the threats posed not only by deadly natural germs, but also by designer pathogens — genetically modified superbugs that could outdo natural viruses and bacteria in their killing power. To this end, the Bush administration has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to erect such laboratories in Boston; Galveston, Tex.; and Frederick, Md., among other places, increasing eightfold the overall space devoted to the high-technology buildings.

Dr. Ebright, on the other hand, views the plans as a recipe for catastrophe. The laboratories, called biosafety level 4, or BSL-4, are costly, unnecessary and dangerous, he says.

”I’m concerned about them from the standpoint of science, safety, security, public health and economics,” he added in an interview. ”They lose on all counts.”

Ebright continues:

The labs, Dr. Ebright says, are a perilous overreaction to an inflated threat and will do more harm than good.

Although the threat of biological warfare is real, the weapons used by terrorists are unlikely to be the next-generation agents that the high-security labs are intended to study, he says. Yet by increasing the availability of such pathogens, Dr. Ebright argues, the labs will ”bring that threat to fruition.”

”It’s arming our opponents,” he said.

In addition, he says, the laboratories could leak. They could put deadly pathogens into irresponsible hands and they will divert money from other worthy endeavors like public health and the frontiers of biology. Moreover, their many hundreds of new employees would become a pool of deadly expertise that could turn malevolent, unleashing lethal germs on an unsuspecting public.

Note the “leak” bit. The article goes on:

But Dr. Ebright noted that the deadly SARS virus recently escaped from BSL-4 and BSL-3 labs in Taiwan, Singapore and Beijing, in each case setting off minor epidemics that killed or sickened people.

This 2014 paper from the Center for Arms Control goes into detail on two separate escapes of SARS from the same laboratory in Beijing,  along with four other documented cases of releases of possibly pandemic pathogens if you care to read further. Suffice it to say that Ebright was right that with the proliferation of these new labs, there would be leaks. So far, they’ve all been accidental instead of the type feared by Ebright where someone from inside a laboratory deliberately releases a pathogen.

With regard to the SARS CoV-2 outbreak, rumors from nearly the very beginning swirled about a lab in Wuhan. There is in fact a level 4 containment lab in Wuhan and there is also a level 2 lab as well, that I believe is very close to the wet market.

Should there have been an accidental release from either of these labs, at this point we would have to postulate that China has specifically quashed all information relating to this event and kept the laboratory personnel and any close family or other contacts who may have been infected out of the databases of patients.

But that hasn’t stopped the noise. Some aspects of the noise even begin to look to me like an information operation of sorts. Of course, since we don’t know the originator of the operation, we don’t know if it is actual intelligence being leaked or if it is disinformation being sown to add to the chaos.

At any rate, this April 2 column from David Ignatius put the idea of an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab into the Washington Post. Those who follow intelligence community news know that Ignatius is often thought of as a mouthpiece for information the CIA wants disseminated. Are they his source here? Was some other information operative his source?

Then things really heated up on April 15. Here is John Roberts of Fox News asking Trump a question during the April 15 “press conference”:

Wow. That’s an incredibly specific question. It assumes a female intern at the lab who infected a boyfriend and then she (or did he, not clear to me from Roberts’ phrasing) went to the market. Even though this was April 15, I’ve seen no further pushing of this specific version of the story.

But Trump’s response is a bit concerning. Note that he says they’re “hearing that story a lot”, but then makes a really big deal of the word “sources”. Given Trump’s history of spilling classified intelligence, and the constant warnings to him about such leaks compromising “sources and methods”, I almost wonder if that’s a genuine response of his lizard brain to all those warnings. We simply have no way of knowing that or knowing if perhaps those “sources” happen to lie outside the intelligence community and among circle of wingnuts who have the ears of Trump and Fox News and he’s really proud of them but doesn’t want to divulge them.

That same day, Josh Rogin put out a Washington Post column pushing the leak from a lab story, this time tying it directly to the State Department cables in 2018 about lax biosecurity protocols at the level 4 containment lab in Wuhan that Roberts mentioned. But Rogin didn’t include the specifics about the intern.

I’ve heard nothing further on the intern question, but the general idea of an escape from a Wuhan lab still gets tossed around. Ignatius returned to the idea of an accidental release on April 23. He even talked to Ebright:

“Science is not going to shift this from a ‘could have been’ to a ‘probably was,’ ” messaged Richard H. Ebright, a leading biosafety expert at Rutgers. “The question whether the outbreak virus entered humans through an accidental infection of a lab worker . . . can be answered only through a forensic investigation, not through scientific speculation.” Ebright told me the Chinese government should launch a forensic investigation by reviewing “facilities, samples, records, and personnel.”

Given Ebright’s history of predicting just such an accidental release, I find it very reassuring that he isn’t ready to say that’s what happened. As he rightfully points out, we can only know what happened when detailed information is assembled on the epidemiology of the earliest cases. Only Chinese medical investigators can know whether any laboratory personnel, and especially whether any family or other close contacts of them appear on the timeline of the early infections. It is also crucial to know where any such infections, if they exist, fall on the timeline in relation to cases affiliated with the wet market.

My gut feeling is that the evidence still very strongly points to the virus originating through the wet market, but I also think the index case there likely goes back even earlier than the November 17 case discussed above, since there are suggestions there were other cases appearing daily by then. Also, it’s hard to imagine that if the official intelligence community had a story as specific as the intern story and had evidence to back it up, that Trump wouldn’t be trumpeting it on a daily basis to deflect the criticism being heaped on his response to the outbreak.

Stay tuned. I suspect the story will take several more turns before we ever reach any level of certainty.

Judge Sullivan Already Ruled that Mike Flynn’s David Ignatius Story Doesn’t Help Him

When I noted that the John Durham investigation has been investigating the first 10 months of the Russian investigation for 11 months now (and seemed on track to continue for another four months at least), I didn’t include a number of details laid out in this government filing and this NYT story.

The government filing makes it clear that St. Louis US Attorney continues his second-guess review of the investigation into Mike Flynn, three months after he began.

The NYT story describes that, in addition to the DC AUSA on Durham’s team and two prosecutors from Connecticut, he’s also got an SDNY prosecutor.

Mr. Durham is relying on a team of prosecutors, including Nora R. Dannehy and Neeraj Patel, from Connecticut, as well as former and current F.B.I. agents to complete his investigation. Anthony Scarpelli, a top prosecutor from the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, was detailed to the team along with a federal prosecutor from Manhattan, Andrew DeFilippis.

Two former F.B.I. agents, Timothy Fuhrman and Jack Eckenrode, are also assisting. An F.B.I. agent who oversaw public corruption in Chicago and served in Ukraine as an assistant legal attaché, Peter Angelini, has also joined Mr. Durham’s team.

Arguably, Durham has more staffers than the investigation he is investigating had.

The NYT story also provides further evidence that Trump’s flunkies have been able to get Durham to chase down each of their grievances on command. Durham has been investigating something lifted out of a Sidney Powell filing — one already rejected by Emmet Sullivan — regarding the source of the leak to David Ignatius which led Mike Flynn to start lying, at first to the press.

Last year, Mr. Durham also started examining the 2017 column by The Post’s David Ignatius, said a person familiar with that line questioning. Mr. Ignatius revealed that Mr. Flynn had spoken in late 2016 with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time, as the Obama administration was about to place sanctions on Russia for its election sabotage.

Mr. Ignatius noted Mr. Flynn’s close contacts with the Russians and suggested that because Mr. Flynn was apparently conducting foreign policy while another administration was in power, he might have violated the Logan Act. The law is an obscure statute that bars private citizens from interfering with diplomatic relations between the United States and foreign governments and is widely considered to be essentially defunct.

The next month, Mr. Flynn resigned after lying to the vice president and other White House officials about the call with Mr. Kislyak. He eventually pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about the nature of his discussions with Mr. Kislyak but later backtracked, asking a federal judge to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea.

Powell asked for this last September as part of an elaborate claim that James Clapper — who, of course, fired Mike Flynn for cause — had it in for Flynn and therefore set him up to be ambushed by the FBI once he became National Security Advisor. In addition to asking for records of calls between Clapper and Ignatius, she asked for all records pertaining to Ignatius.

All FBI 302s or any notes of interviews of David Ignatius or any other reporter regarding the publication of information concerning Mr. Flynn and/or the reporters’ contacts with James Clapper, Andrew McCabe, John Brennan, Michael Kortan, or anyone in the FBI, DNI, DOD, DOJ, or CIA regarding Mr. Flynn.

[snip]

All FBI 302s, notes, memoranda of James Clapper regarding Mr. Flynn, and the cell phone and home phone records of Mr. Clapper and David Ignatius between December 5, 2016, and February 24, 2017.

The NYT reported that KT McFarland also was attributing the dramatically varied stories she told to the FBI to the Ignatius story.

Mr. Ignatius’s column “set off a chain of events that helped lead to the Russia probe,” K.T. McFarland, the former deputy national security adviser to Mr. Trump, wrote in her recent book, “Revolution: Trump, Washington and ‘We the People.’”

Mr. Durham has reviewed Ms. McFarland’s interviews with F.B.I. investigators in other inquiries, examining what she has said about Mr. Ignatius’s reporting and asked other witnesses about it, according to person familiar with elements of the investigation. She revised her answers to questions from investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, on elements of Mr. Flynn’s talks with Mr. Kislyak but has accused the investigators of trying to ensnare her in “perjury trap.”

Mr. Durham has not questioned Ms. McFarland.

Let’s run with this for a moment, shall we? In addition to criticizing the Obama Administration for not responding more aggressively to the Russian operation and asserting that we needed to find out whether the Russians had fed Christopher Steele disinformation (both assertions Republicans have made), Ignatius revealed that a Senior Government Official told him that Flynn had had multiple conversations with Sergei Kislyak in advance of Russia declining to respond to Obama’s sanctions.

Question 3: What discussions has the Trump team had with Russian officials about future relations? Trump said Wednesday that his relationship with President Vladimir Putin is “an asset, not a liability.” Fair enough, but until he’s president, Trump needs to let Obama manage U.S.-Russia policy.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, cultivates close Russian contacts. He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

If the Trump team’s contacts helped discourage the Russians from a counter-retaliation, maybe that’s a good thing. But we ought to know the facts.

Note, contrary to a lot of claims about this story, there’s no indication that the content of the conversation between Flynn and Kislyak got shared (and even just toll records showing the conversations did happen would be enough for a spooked up reporter like Ignatius to ask the question). In addition, the term, “government official,” is often used to hide the identity of members of Congress. It in no way is limited to someone like Clapper.

Nevertheless, let’s assume for the moment Flynn’s allegations are correct and Clapper was the guy who tipped off Ignatius to Flynn’s calls with Kislyak.

Clapper — and virtually all the other people who were part of discussions about this call early on — were Original Classification Authorities. He had just as much authority to declassify the existence of the Flynn calls as Ric Grenell had to declassify the Carter Page applications (arguably more so, since Clapper had obtained and sustained a security clearance on his own right for four decades, with none of the questionable conflicts Grenell has that remain unexamined). Even accepting Flynn’s claim that Clapper did leak the existence of the call, it would not be illegal. There’s an argument that says the intelligence community, with Clapper’s experience that Flynn was unsuited to run DIA and burgeoning questions about what Flynn had done for a frenemy government while serving as Trump’s foreign policy advisor, had to do something about the fact that the NSA designee had secretly worked for another government during the election, was still refusing to come clean about that, and had been caught on a wiretap undermining the official policy of the United States and arguing that Russia should face almost no punishment for interfering in the US election.

Trump would say Obama should simply have warned him. Except Obama did warn him, even before all the details of his work for Turkey had come out. And Trump ignored that warning.

Accepting Flynn’s allegation that Clapper did that (solely for the sake of argument), that would be a fairly quick way to figure out whether Flynn did what he did in contravention of Trump’s desires, something that Trump presumably would have wanted to know.

In response to the story, Flynn ordered his subordinates, including McFarland, to tell a series of lies, lies that conflicted with both what the intelligence community and the Russians knew.

UPDATE: The Trump transition team did not respond Thursday night to a request for comment. But two team members called with information Friday morning. A first Trump official confirmed that Flynn had spoken with Kislyak by phone, but said the calls were before sanctions were announced and didn’t cover that topic. This official later added that Flynn’s initial call was to express condolences to Kislyak after the terrorist killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara Dec. 19, and that Flynn made a second call Dec. 28 to express condolences for the shoot-down of a Russian plane carrying a choir to Syria. In that second call, Flynn also discussed plans for a Trump-Putin conversation sometime after the inauguration. In addition, a second Trump official said the Dec. 28 call included an invitation from Kislyak for a Trump administration official to visit Kazakhstan for a conference in late January.

That’s not a crime, but insanely stupid from a counterintelligence perspective. Then, when the FBI asked him about it (in a situation that would not become public, in which he could simply have said that the Trump Administration wanted to pursue a different strategy, which would make him stupid but probably not criminal), Flynn continued to lie about it. When McFarland was asked details about the events surrounding the call, she claimed to have no memory of details that she would later unforget; that’s what her perjury trap amounts to: she continued to tell a story she knew Flynn had been fired for.

Which is to say, even if Flynn’s suspicions are true, if Clapper told Ignatius about the existence of calls, it would be (for Clapper) a legal way to try to sort out whether someone hiding damning secrets about two foreign governments was about to be put in charge of US national security.

Nothing about doing so would have changed the fact that Flynn was unsurprised by the FBI to be asked about this, was friendly and relaxed when he met with the FBI, knew it was illegal to lie to the FBI, and nevertheless proceeded to tell an easily identifiable lie.

When rejecting Powell’s request for Clapper and Ignatius’ call record in December, Judge Emmet Sullivan pointed out that even if everything she alleged about Clapper was true, that wouldn’t change that her client lied to the FBI.

Request 35 seeks “[a]ll FBI 302s, notes, memoranda of James Clapper regarding Mr. Flynn, and the cell phone and home phone records of Mr. Clapper and David Ignatius between December 5, 2016, and February 24, 2017.” Id. at 7. The government responds—and the Court agrees—that each request is not relevant to Mr. Flynn’s false statements during his January 24, 2017 FBI interview or to his sentencing. Gov’t’s App. A, ECF No. 122-1 at 2-5. Mr. Flynn fails to make out a Brady claim for the requested information regarding any earlier investigations, the circumstances that led to the January 24, 2017 FBI interview, or the events surrounding his prosecution because Mr. Flynn fails to establish the favorability element. Even assuming, arguendo, that the information regarding the circumstances that led to Mr. Flynn’s January 24, 2017 FBI interview, the events surrounding his prosecution, and any earlier investigations were both exculpatory and suppressed, Mr. Flynn bears the burden of showing a reasonable probability of a different outcome. Strickler, 527 U.S. at 291. “[E]vidence is material only if there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Bagley, 473 U.S. at 682 (“A ‘reasonable probability’ is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.”). Mr. Flynn cannot overcome this hurdle.

Mr. Flynn appears to seek this information to: (1) support his claims of government misconduct; and (2) cast doubt on the legal basis for the FBI’s investigation. See Def.’s Reply, ECF No. 133 at 19, 19 n.13, 34-35. Mr. Flynn also asserts, without support, that the Special Counsel’s Office was “manipulating or controlling the press to their advantage to extort the plea.” Def.’s Br., ECF No. 109 at 4. Regardless of Mr. Flynn’s new theories, he pled guilty twice to the crime, and he fails to demonstrate that the disclosure of the requested information would have impacted his decision to plead guilty.

To be sure, Mr. Flynn was aware of the circumstances of the January 24, 2017 interview, and the allegations of misconduct against the FBI officials before he entered his guilty pleas. Sentencing Hr’g Tr., ECF No. 103 at 8-9. Mr. Flynn did not challenge those circumstances, and he stated, under oath, that he was aware that lying to the FBI was a crime. Id. In response to this Court’s questions, Mr. Flynn maintained his guilty plea. Id. at 9-10. None of Mr. Flynn’s arguments demonstrate that prejudice ensued. See Strickler, 527 U.S. at 291. The Court therefore finds that there was no reasonable probability that Mr. Flynn would not have pled guilty had he received the requested information in Requests 1, 3, 4, 11, 17, 21, 25, 28, and 35.

Earlier this month, Covington & Burling provided Flynn’s team with some materials they had overlooked when they transferred his case to Sidney Powell last summer. On Thursday, Covington & Burling gave the government over a hundred pages of declarations from four attorneys defending the competence of the legal advice they gave Flynn. Yesterday, the government provided Flynn reports that Jeffrey Jensen has done on the investigation into Flynn.

Beginning in January 2020, at the direction of Attorney General William P. Barr, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri (“USA EDMO”) has been conducting a review of the Michael T. Flynn investigation. The review by USA EDMO has involved the analysis of reports related to the investigation along with communications and notes by Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) personnel associated with the investigation.

The enclosed documents were obtained and analyzed by USA EDMO in March and April 2020 and are provided to you as a result of this ongoing review; additional documents may be forthcoming.

Hours later, Powell filed a supplement to her motion to dismiss Flynn’s case for government misconduct (again, Sullivan has ruled on virtually all of these issues), claiming to show proof that Brandon Van Grack had promised not to prosecute Flynn’s son, but instead providing an email stating, “The government took pains not to give a promise to MTF regarding Michael Jr., so as to limit how much of a ‘benefit’ it would have to disclose as part of its Giglio disclosures to any defendant against whom MTF may one day testify” — that is, to show that Flynn did not have a guarantee. Even if the email said what she claimed, it would be yet more proof that Flynn lied under oath to Sullivan in December 2018 when he said no such promise had been made.

She also claimed the reports from Jensen included,

stunning Brady evidence that proves Mr. Flynn’s allegations of having been deliberately set up and framed by corrupt agents at the top of the FBI. It also defeats any argument that the interview of Mr. Flynn on January 24, 2017 was material to any “investigation.”

Maybe she does have proof the FBI agents fucked up. The NYT reports that someone briefed on them claimed, “the documents indicated that F.B.I. agents did not follow standard procedures as they investigated Mr. Flynn,” which is different than framing Flynn. 

But Powell has made such claims over and over, and each time thus far, the claims have proven to be not only way overblown, but full of embarrassing factual errors.

And unless she can show Sullivan something new, something that changes the fact that Flynn told obvious lies in his original interview with the FBI, he risks not just the original charge, but additional perjury referrals from Sullivan.

Meanwhile, Flynn has rejoined Twitter (he even blocked me finally, after following me for four years!), posting a declaration from January as if it was news. The declaration, along with these new emails, strongly suggests his son was in legal trouble as well.

It would be unwise to underestimate Bill Barr’s ability to interfere with DOJ’s normal processes (precisely the allegation being waged against the FBI). Still, Judge Sullivan still gets a vote, and on some of this stuff, he already voted against it.

Hope Hicks Had More Awareness of the Flynn-Kislyak Aftermath Than the Mueller Report Discloses

As I noted in this post, even though the reporting on Hope Hicks’ testimony last week focused on the White House’s efforts to prevent her from fully testifying, she clearly did what she could to protect Trump even regarding his actions during the election and transition.

Which is why I want to look at two of her comments on matters more central to Mueller’s investigation — in this post, her elaboration of some comments she made about Mike Flynn.

Norm Eisen walked Hicks through something that shows up in this footnote of the Mueller Report:

Several witnesses said that the President was unhappy with Flynn for other reasons at this time. Bannon said that Flynn’s standing with the President was not good by December 2016. Bannon 2/12/18 302, at 12. The President-Elect had concerns because President Obama had warned him about Flynn shortly after the election. Bannon 2/12/18 302, at 4-5; Hicks 12/8/17 302, at 7 (President Obama’s comment sat with President-Elect Trump more than Hicks expected). Priebus said that the President had become unhappy with Flynn even before the story of his calls with Kislyak broke and had become so upset with Flynn that he would not look at him during intelligence briefings. Priebus 1/18/18 302, at 8. Hicks said that the President thought Flynn had bad judgment and was angered by tweets sent by Flynn and his son, and she described Flynn as “being on thin ice” by early February 2017. Hicks 12/8/17 302, at 7, 10.

As I pointed out earlier, Eisen was hired to make sure questioning of witnesses is conducted professionally. It’s also worth noting that some House Judiciary Committee members and staffers have seen backup documents on the Mueller Report and the Hicks’ 302s were among the documents requested; both of these exchanges seem to reflect non-public information.

Eisen has Hicks describe how, even before the FBI interviewed Flynn, Trump had some concerns about him. At first, Hicks tries to spin Trump’s response to President Obama’s counterintelligence warning about Flynn as a reaction about the importance Obama assigned the warning, rather than anything having to do with Flynn himself.

Q Okay. Who was Michael Flynn?

A Michael Flynn was somebody that supported Mr. Trump. He was at one point in time considered a possible Vice Presidential candidate. And he became somebody who frequently traveled with the candidate and introduced him at rallies.

Q And are you aware that President Obama made comments about Mr. Flynn to the —

A Yes.

Q — the President-elect?

A Yes.

Q And how did the President-elect receive those comments?

Mr. Purpura. You can answer.

Ms. Hicks. I think he was a bit bewildered that, you know, of all the things that the two of them could have been discussing, that that was something that came up.

Mr. Eisen. And did you feel that President Obama’s comments sat with the President-elect more than you expected?

Ms. Hicks. I did, yes.

Mr. Eisen. Can you — go ahead. Sorry. I cut you off.

Ms. Hicks. That’s okay. I feel like it maybe tainted his view of General Flynn just a little bit.

Mr. Eisen. Did there come a time when the President formed the opinion — during the transition; I’m asking now about the transition — that Flynn had bad judgment?

White House lawyer Pat Philbin interrupts here to invite Hicks to read the footnote. (Note, I find it weird that Philbin did this, and not Hicks’ attorney Robert Trout.)

Mr. Philbin. Could you give us a moment there?

[Discussion off the record.]

Mr. Eisen. Can you read the question back, please? Okay. I’ve asked the court reporter to read the question back. [The reporter read back the record as requested.]

Ms. Hicks. Yes.

Mr. Eisen. Tell me about that.

Having just reviewed the footnote, Hicks nevertheless tries to minimize Trump’s concerns. So Philbin asks her to read the footnote again, which leads her to blame all this on Flynn’s spawn setting off a media frenzy that came to incorporate Flynn himself.

Ms. Hicks. I don’t think this was an overall characterization. I think that this was something where he felt like there were a few things that maybe caused him to think that he was capable of being a person who exercised bad judgment.

Mr. Eisen. What were those things?

Mr. Philbin. I’m sorry. Can I again suggest that, since the  question seemed to be based on footnote 155, page 32, Ms. Hicks have a chance to review that footnote?

Ms. Hicks. Yeah. I mean, primarily the comment by President Obama and the incident with General Flynn’s son concerning a fake news story and some of the tweets that were posted surrounding that.

BY MR. EISEN: Q Posted by?

A I believe they were posted by his son, and then it led to reporters also looking back at tweets that General Flynn had posted.

From here, Eisen moves on to the response to David Ignatius’ revelation that the Obama Administration had identified Flynn’s calls with Sergei Kislyak. He establishes that Hicks was on the email thread discussing the response, though she claims she wasn’t involved in the messaging surrounding it.

Q Do you recall David Ignatius writing a column about a Michael Flynn phone conversation with the Russian Ambassador during the transition?

A Yes.

Q And what do you remember about that?

A I don’t remember much about the substance of the column, to be honest, but I remember several email exchanges between the National Security Advisor, General Flynn at the time, and some of his national security staffers, a desire to perhaps have David Ignatius clarify some things in that column, and a failure to do so.

Q Were you involved in the clarification efforts?

A I was on the email thread, so I was following the discussion that ensued, but I was not involved in any kind of message development or outreach to Mr. Ignatius.

Note that the Mueller Report does not mention Hicks at all in its discussion of the Flynn-Kislyak response. In addition to KT McFarland (who called Ignatius to push back), it cites just Reince Priebus and Stephen Miller.

On January 12, 2017, a Washington Post columnist reported that Flynn and Kislyak communicated on the day the Obama Administration announced the Russia sanctions. 122 The column questioned whether Flynn had said something to “undercut the U.S. sanctions” and whether Flynn’s communications had violated the letter or spirit of the Logan Act. 123

President-Elect Trump called Priebus after the story was published and expressed anger about it. 124 Priebus recalled that the President-Elect asked, “What the hell is this all about?”125 Priebus called Flynn and told him that the President-Elect was angry about the reporting on Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak. 126 Flynn recalled that he felt a lot of pressure because Priebus had spoken to the “boss” and said Flynn needed to “kill the story.” 127 Flynn directed McFarland to call the Washington Post columnist and inform him that no discussion of sanctions had occurred. 128 McFarland recalled that Flynn said words to the effect of, “I want to kill the story.” 129 McFarland made the call as Flynn had requested although she knew she was providing false information, and the Washington Post updated the column to reflect that a “Trump official” had denied that Flynn and Kislyak discussed sanctions. 130

When Priebus and other incoming Administration officials questioned Flynn internally about the Washington Post column, Flynn maintained that he had not discussed sanctions with Kislyak.131 Flynn repeated that claim to Vice President-Elect Michael Pence and to incoming press secretary Sean Spicer. 132 In subsequent media interviews in mid-January, Pence, Priebus, and Spicer denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions, basing those denials on their conversations with Flynn. 133

13 1 Flynn 11117/17 302, at I, 8; Flynn 1/19/18 302, at 7; Priebus 10/13/17 302, at 7-8; S. Miller 8/3 I /17 3 02, at 8-1 I.

And that’s interesting because — as Eisen goes on to establish — Hope Hicks learned about the Flynn-Kislyak call at a minimum just days afterwards and (per her initial response) possibly the day it was made.

Q Did you have any advance knowledge of a phone call between Mr. Flynn and the Russian Ambassador that was the subject of this Ignatius reporting?

A I believe I was aware of it the day that it took place. I don’t know if it was before or after. But I recall being at Mar-a-Lago, and Flynn, I think — sorry. Off the record.

[Discussion off the record.]

Ms. Hicks. I think it was afterwards. Perhaps even several days afterwards.

Again, the Mueller Report describes a conversation Flynn had with Steve Bannon in the aftermath of the call, but not Hicks. The Report also mentions a discussion between Flynn and Trump, but Flynn doesn’t “have a specific recollection” of telling Trump about the call.

Flynn recalled discussing the sanctions issue with incoming Administration official Stephen Bannon the next day. 10° Flynn said that Bannon appeared to know about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak, and he and Bannon agreed that they had “stopped the train on Russia’s response” to the sanctions. 101 On January 3, 2017, Flynn saw the President-Elect in person and thought they discussed the Russian reaction to the sanctions, but Flynn did not have a specific recollection of telling the President-Elect about the substance of his calls with Kislyak. 102

And that’s important because, even before Eisen started pursuing these questions, Congressman Steve Cohen had gotten Hicks to admit (after first denying it) that she had knowledge of Russian sanctions that apparently included Trump.

Mr. Cohen. All right. So with all those caveats, before January 20, 2017, did you have any knowledge of any discussions of Russian sanctions?

Ms. Hicks. No.

Mr. Cohen. There was no discussions at all with Mr. Trump and you weren’t privy to them about Russian sanctions that we had issued? You’re sure of that? Think about it.

Ms. Hicks. I am thinking. Thank you. You know, there was — there was a phone call obviously between General Flynn and the Russian ambassador. There was news reports after that where it was unclear what was discussed, but that would have been the only context in which Russian sanctions were brought up in my capacity as communications adviser. [my emphasis]

When Eisen followed up about when Hicks learned that Flynn had lied about sanctions, Hicks claimed to have no recollection of learning that during the transition.

Mr. Eisen. When did you first learn that there was an issue about — if you learned — actually, let me rephrase that question. Did Mr. Flynn talk to you after the column was published about the column?

Mr. Philbin. And we’re still asking —

Mr. Eisen. We’re asking transition. We’re about to come to the post-transition period.

Ms. Hicks. I don’t recall any direct conversations with him, only the email thread that I described.

Mr. Eisen. During the transition, did you develop any additional information about the truth or falsity of anything in the Ignatius column?

Ms. Hicks. Not to my recollection.

Predictably, when Eisen asks about how Hicks came to learn more about this after the Transition, Philbin objected.

Mr. Eisen. What about after the transition?

Mr. Philbin. Objection.

Let me be clear: even with this questioning, the record on what Hicks knew when is inconclusive (and she appears to want to keep it that way). Which may be one reason why Hicks doesn’t appear in any of the discussions in the Mueller Report about this incident, because even Mueller doesn’t find her answers completely credible. As far as is known, she was first interviewed in December 2017, after Flynn’s guilty plea would have made it clear he had relayed some of this, though some FBI interviews that happened the summer before don’t appear in the Mueller Report. So at least given the public record, Hicks would have been able to temper her answers based off what Flynn was known to have admitted in his plea.

The public record certainly sustains a version akin to the public version about Priebus: that he knew about the call to Kislyak in real time, but only came to learn that they talked about sanctions after the FBI interview.

But Hicks’ answers and evasions — and her constant access to Trump — leave open another possibility.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation (Part Four)

In this series, I’m analyzing the Mueller questions as understood by Jay Sekulow and leaked to the NYT to show how they set up a more damning investigative framework than commentary has reflected.

This post laid out how the Agalarovs had been cultivating Trump for years, in part by dangling real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin. This post shows how during the election, the Russians and Trump danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in. This post laid out how, during the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions they attempted to keep secret that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted.

This post will look at Mueller’s reported investigative interest in Trump’s reaction to discovering the “Deep State” was investigating the election year operation, including the actions his team had tried to keep secret. Note, I have put all of the events leading up to Flynn’s firing here (not least because I think the firing itself often gets treated improperly as obstruction), though just some of the Jim Comey events. I will repeat the timeline of events in the next post, which overlaps temporally, for clarity.

January 6, 2017: What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?

This is a baseline question for Trump’s firing of Jim Comey. At a minimum, Trump would need to explain his decision to keep Comey. It also provides Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey’s claim that, in the January 6 meeting, Trump told Comey he:

had conducted myself honorably and had a great reputation. He said I was repeatedly put in impossible positions. He said you saved her and then they hated you for what you did later, but what coice did you have? He said he thought very highly of me and looked forward to working with me, saying he hoped I planned to stay on. I assured him I intended to stay. He said good.

January 6, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?

One key detail Comey (and the other representatives of the intelligence community) would have detailed for Trump that day is not just that Russia interfered in the election, but their basis for concluding that “We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” a conclusion Republicans have objected to repeatedly.

In his book, but not his memos, Comey describes that immediately after the briefing, Trump first asked for assurances Russian interference hadn’t affected the outcome and then, with his team, started strategizing how to spin the conclusions so as to dismiss any outcome on the election.

‘I recall Trump listening without interrupting, and asking only one question, which was really more of a statement: “But you found there was no impact on the result, right?” The intelligence team said they had done no such analysis.

‘What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be.’

Instead, Trump and his team immediately started discussing how they would “spin” the information on Russia as if the intelligence officers were not in the room. ‘They were keen to emphasize that there was no impact on the vote, meaning that the Russians hadn’t elected Trump.’

This reflects the same concern expressed in the KT McFarland email from just days earlier (which probably reflected detailed Trump involvement) that acknowledging Russian involvement would “discredit[] Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

January 6, 2017: What was your reaction to Mr. Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?

In its analysis of the questions, NYT takes this question to be exclusively about Comey’s briefing on the Steele dossier, and it may be. But in Obama’s January 5 briefing covering the same issues, according to Susan Rice, Comey and others discussed concerns about sharing classified information with the Trump team, especially Mike Flynn.

The memorandum to file drafted by Ambassador Rice memorialized an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Even though concerns about Flynn came up in that Obama briefing, the FBI counterintelligence investigation did not. It’s possible that this passage from Comey’s memo, which describes the main part of the briefing and not that part dedicated to the Steele dossier, pertained to the counterintelligence concerns about Flynn,which Obama had already shared with Trump the previous fall; such a warning may or may not have included Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak.

If Comey briefed anything to do with Flynn, it would significantly change the importance of subsequent events.

As for the Steele dossier conversation, which surely is included with this question, Comey has claimed that Trump first tried to convince Comey is wasn’t true that he would need to “go there” to sleeping with prostitutes, “there were never prostitutes,” even though Trump’s reference to “the women who had falsely accused him of grabbing or touching them” actually undermined his defense.

Comey has also claimed that Trump seemed relieved when he said (in the context of the Steele briefing), that the FBI was not investigating him. Importantly, this took place after Comey had said he didn’t want people to claim the information came from the FBI.

I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them an excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold.

[snip]

I responded that we were not investigating him and the stuff might be totally made up but that it was being said out of Russia and our job was to protect the President from efforts to coerce him. I said we try to understand what the Russians are doing and what they might do. I added that I also wanted him to know this in case it came out in the media.

He said he was grateful for the conversation, said more nice things about me and how he looks forward to working with me and we departed the room.

January 12, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017?

On January 12, in the context of a discussion of Trump aiming for better relationships with Putin, David Ignatius reported revealed that Flynn had called Sergey Kislyak “several times,” asking whether but not asserting that it might be an attempt to undercut sanctions.

Trump said Wednesday that his relationship with President Vladimir Putin is “an asset, not a liability.” Fair enough, but until he’s president, Trump needs to let Obama manage U.S.-Russia policy.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, cultivates close Russian contacts. He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act(though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report neither revealed the FBI had intercepts of the conversation nor confirmed an investigation. But it may have alerted Trump that the actions he was probably a party to weeks earlier might have legal consequences.

January 24: FBI interviews Mike Flynn and he lies about talking about sanctions

January 26 and 27, 2017: What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?

According to Sally Yates’ public testimony, she met with Don McGahn to discuss Mike Flynn’s interview with the FBI on January 26, 2017. She framed it by describing that DOJ knew Mike Pence’s January 15 comments about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were not correct.

YATES: So I told them again that there were a number of press accounts of statements that had been made by the vice president and other high-ranking White House officials about General Flynn’s conduct that we knew to be untrue. And we told them how we knew that this – how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew that it was untrue.

And we walked the White House Counsel who also had an associate there with him through General Flynn’s underlying conduct, the contents of which I obviously cannot go through with you today because it’s classified. But we took him through in a fair amount of detail of the underlying conduct, what General Flynn had done, and then we walked through the various press accounts and how it had been falsely reported.

We also told the White House Counsel that General Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on February [sic] 24. Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that. And we then walked through with Mr. McGahn essentially why we were telling them about this and the first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.

Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn’t true. And we wanted to make it really clear right out of the gate that we were not accusing Vice President Pence of knowingly providing false information to the American people.

And, in fact, Mr. McGahn responded back to me to let me know that anything that General Flynn would’ve said would have been based — excuse me — anything that Vice President Pence would have said would have been based on what General Flynn had told him.

We told him the third reason was — is because we were concerned that the American people had been misled about the underlying conduct and what General Flynn had done, and additionally, that we weren’t the only ones that knew all of this, that the Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done.

And the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others, because in the media accounts, it was clear from the vice president and others that they were repeating what General Flynn had told them, and that this was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information.

And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians. Finally, we told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.

I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action, and that was the first meeting.

Then there was a follow-up meeting on January 27. Among the five topics discussed, McGahn asked if Flynn was in legal jeopardy, and if “they” (presumably meaning he and the Associate WHCO in the meeting) could see the underlying intelligence.

WHITEHOUSE: Did you discuss criminal prosecution of Mr. Flynn — General Flynn?

YATES: My recollection is that did not really come up much in the first meeting. It did come up in the second meeting, when Mr. McGahn called me back the next morning and asked the — the morning after — this is the morning of the 27th, now — and asked me if I could come back to his office.

And so I went back with the NSD official, and there were essentially four topics that he wanted to discuss there, and one of those topics was precisely that. He asked about the applicability of certain statutes, certain criminal statutes and, more specifically,

[snip]

And there was a request made by Mr. McGahn, in the second meeting as to whether or not they would be able to look at the underlying evidence that we had that we had described for him of General Flynn’s conduct. And we told him that we were inclined to allow them to look at that underlying evidence, that we wanted to go back to DOJ and be able to make the logistical arrangements for that. This second meeting on the 27th occurred late in the afternoon, this is Friday the 27th. So we told him that we would work with the FBI over the weekend on this issue and get back with him on Monday morning. And I called him first thing Monday morning to let him know that we would allow them to come over and to review the underlying evidence.

By the time the materials for review became available on January 30, Yates had been fired, nominally because she refused to defend Trump’s Muslim ban.

The HPSCI report (particularly content newly unredacted on May 4; see PDF 63 ff) reveals there were several concerns about Flynn’s contradictory comments (which Republicans bizarrely present as conflict). First, there had been a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn still active in December 2016, though FBI may have been moving to shut it down. The interview may have been sparked by Logan Act concerns, or it may have been Flynn’s public comments to Pence (the Republican report ignores that this would pose a blackmail problem). Comey told HPSCI that the agents found Flynn — a lifetime intelligence officer — exhibited no physical signs of deceit, but made it clear the Agents did find his statements plainly conflicted with known facts.

When Mueller asks the President what he knew about the meetings, he likely wants to know (and already has answers from McGahn and likely the Associate) whether they told him about the Flynn interview, if so when, and in how much detail. If they did tell Trump, Mueller may also want to know about whether McGahn’s questions on the 27th (including whether Flynn was in legal jeopardy) reflect Trump’s own questions.

Obviously, one other subtext of this question pertains to whether Yates’ pursuit of Flynn contributed to her firing.

The other critical point about whether and what Trump knew of Yates’ meetings with McGahn: on January 27, he had his first creepy meeting with Jim Comey. Then, on January 28, he had his first phone call with Vladimir Putin, a call Flynn attended.

January 27, 2017: What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

At lunchtime on January 27 — so after McGahn had called Yates to set up a follow-up meeting and indicated concerns about Flynn’s legal jeopardy, but before that meeting happened — Trump called Comey and set up dinner that day. According to Comey, several minor things that would recur later came up, including questions about Andrew McCabe and Trump’s exposition of the Hillary email investigation.

In addition, five other key things happened at the meeting.

He invited the FBI to investigate “the Golden Showers” thing to prove it was a lie:

At this point, he turned to what he called “the golden showers thing”

[snip]

He said he had spoken to people who had been on the Miss Universe trip with him and they had reminded him that he didn’t stay over night in Russia for that. [this is not true]

[snip]

He said he thought maybe he should ask me to investigate the whole thing to prove it was a lie. I did not ask any questions. I replied that it was up to him, but I wouldn’t want to create a narrative that we were investigating him, because we were not and I worried such a thing would be misconstrued. Ii also said that is very difficult to disprove a lie. He said ‘maybe you’re right,’ but several times asked me to think about it and said he would also think about it.

He asked if the FBI leaks:

He asked whether the FBI leaks and I answered that of course in an organization of 36,000 we were going to have some of that, but I said I think the FBI leaks far less than people often say.

He asked if Comey wanted to keep his job, even though they had discussed it twice before:

He touched on my future at various points. The first time he asked “so what do you want to do,” explaining that lots of people wanted my job (“about 20 people”), that he thought very highly of me, but he would understand if I wanted to walk away given all I had been through, although he thought that would be bad for me personally because it would look like I had done something wrong, that he of course can make a change at FBI if he wants, but he wants to know what I think. There was no acknowledgement by him (or me) that we had already talked about this twice.

I responded by saying that he could fire me any time he wished, but that I wanted to stay and do a job I love to and think I am doing well.

He asked for loyalty:

He replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.

[snip — this comes after the request for an investigation]

He then returned to loyalty, saying “I need loyalty.” I replied that he would always get honesty from me. He paused and said that’s what he wants, “honest loyalty.” I replied, “you will get that from me.”

He claimed to suspect Mike Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed in telling Trump about Putin’s congratulatory phone call:

He then went on to explain that he has serious reservations about Mike Flynn’s judgment and illustrated with a story from that day in which the President apparently discovered during his toast to Teresa May that [Vladimir Putin] had called four days ago. Apparently, as the President was toasting PM May, he was explaining that she had been the first to call him after his inauguration and Flynn interrupted to say that [Putin] had called (first, apparently). It was then that the President learned of [Putin’s] call and he confronted Flynn about it (not clear whether that was in the moment or after the lunch with PM May). Flynn said the return call was scheduled for Saturday, which prompted a heated reply from the President that six days was not an appropriate period of time to return a call from the [President] of a country like [Russia]. (“This isn’t [redacted] we are talking about.”) He said that if he called [redacted] and didn’t get a return call for six days he would be very upset. In telling the story, the President pointed his fingers at his head and said “the guy has serious judgment issues.” I did not comment at any point during this topic and there was no mention or acknowledgement of any FBI interest in or contact with General Flynn.

Trump would be hard pressed to argue the meeting was unrelated to the Yates meeting and the FBI investigation. Which would mean one thing Trump did — in a meeting where he also lied to claim he hadn’t had sex in Moscow — was to disclaim prior knowledge of the Putin meeting the next day (even while emphasizing the import of it).

Of course, the claim he thought Flynn had poor judgment didn’t lead him to keep Flynn out of the phone call with Putin the next day.

January 28: Trump, Pence, Flynn, Priebus, Bannon, and Spicer phone Vladimir Putin

February 9, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Feb. 8-9, 2017?

According to Jim Comey, he went for a meet and greet with Reince Priebus on February 8. While he was waiting, Mike Flynn sat down to chat with him though didn’t mention the FBI interview. Then, after clarifying that the conversation with Comey was a “private conversation,” he asked if there was a FISA order on Flynn. Comey appears to have answered in the negative. Priebus then took Comey in to meet with Trump, who defended his answer in an interview with Bill O’Reilly released on February 6) that “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” After Comey criticized that part of the answer, Trump, “clearly noticed I had directly criticized him.” (h/t TC for reminding me to add this.) Since Yates had told McGahn how they knew Flynn had lied, Priebus’ question about a FISA order suggests the White House was trying to find out whether the collection was just incidental, or whether both sides of all Flynn’s conversations would have been picked up.

On February 9, the WaPo reported that Flynn had discussed sanctions, in spite of public denials from the White House that he had.

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday [February 8] denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday [February 9], Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Officials said this week that the FBI is continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.

In addition to tracking Flynn’s changing claims, it also noted that on January 15, Mike Pence had denied both any discussion of sanctions in the December call and discussions with Russia during the campaign.

On February 10, Trump was asked by reporters about Flynn’s answer. Trump played dumb: “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.” (h/t TC)

Presumably, Mueller wants to know how surprised Trump was about this story (which actually builds on whether McGahn told him about the Yates conversation). But given Trump’s earlier question about FBI leaks, I also wonder whether Mueller knows that Trump knew this was coming. That is, some of the leaks may have come from closer to the White House, as an excuse to fire Flynn, using the same emphasis that the story (and Yates) had: the claim that Flynn had lied to Pence.

Except Mueller probably knows that the effort to soothe Russia’s concerns about sanctions made in December were a surprise to few top aides in the White House, least of all Trump.

February 13, 2017: How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?

We have remarkably little reporting on how and why Flynn was actually fired — mostly just the cover story that it was because Flynn lied to Pence — though after Flynn flipped last year, Trump newly claimed he had to fire Flynn because he lied to the FBI (something that, if the claims about the original 302 are correct, FBI hadn’t concluded at the time Trump fired him).

The thing is, neither story makes sense. It’s virtually certain that many people in the White House knew what Flynn had said to Sergey Kislyak back in December 2016; Tom Bossert was included in KT McFarland’s emails to Mike Flynn, and he sent it to Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, Sean Spicer, and at least two other people. All of those people, save Bossert, are known to have provided testimony to Mueller’s team.

But it also makes little sense to argue that Trump had to fire Flynn because he lied. If so, he would have done so either immediately, before the Putin meeting, or much later, after FBI actually came to the conclusion he had lied.

One logical explanation is that Flynn lied because he was told to lie, in an effort to continue to hide what the Trump Administration was doing in the transition period to pay off its debts to Russia. But faced with the prospect that the FBI would continue to investigate Flynn, Trump cut him out in an effort to end the investigation. Which explains why things with Comey proceeded the way they did.

Update: This post has been updated with new details surrounding February 8-10 and newly unredacted details from the HPSCI report.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

Look Closer to Home: Russian Propaganda Depends on the American Structure of Social Media

The State Department’s Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Richard Stengel, wanted to talk about his efforts to counter Russian propaganda. So he called up David Ignatius, long a key cut-out the spook world uses to air their propaganda. Here’s how the column that resulted starts:

“In a global information war, how does the truth win?”

The very idea that the truth won’t be triumphant would, until recently, have been heresy to Stengel, a former managing editor of Time magazine. But in the nearly three years since he joined the State Department, Stengel has seen the rise of what he calls a “post-truth” world, where the facts are sometimes overwhelmed by propaganda from Russia and the Islamic State.

“We like to think that truth has to battle itself out in the marketplace of ideas. Well, it may be losing in that marketplace today,” Stengel warned in an interview. “Simply having fact-based messaging is not sufficient to win the information war.”

It troubles me that the former managing editor of Time either believes that the “post-truth” world just started in the last three years or that he never noticed it while at Time. I suppose that could explain a lot about the failures of both our “public diplomacy” efforts and traditional media.

Note that Stengel sees the propaganda war as a battle in the “marketplace of ideas.”

It’s not until 10 paragraphs later — after Stengel and Ignatius air the opinion that “social media give[s] everyone the opportunity to construct their own narrative of reality” and a whole bunch of inflamed claims about Russian propaganda — that Ignatius turns to the arbiters of that marketplace: the almost entirely US-based companies that provide the infrastructure of this “marketplace of ideas.” Even there, Ignatius doesn’t explicitly consider what it means that these are American companies.

The best hope may be the global companies that have created the social-media platforms. “They see this information war as an existential threat,” says Stengel. The tech companies have made a start: He says Twitter has removed more than 400,000 accounts, and YouTube daily deletes extremist videos.

The real challenge for global tech giants is to restore the currency of truth. Perhaps “machine learning” can identify falsehoods and expose every argument that uses them. Perhaps someday, a human-machine process will create what Stengel describes as a “global ombudsman for information.”

Watch this progression very closely: Stengel claims social media companies see this war as an existential threat. He then points to efforts — demanded by the US government under threat of legislation, though that goes unmentioned — that social media accounts remove “extremist videos,” with extremist videos generally defined as Islamic terrorist videos. Finally, Stengel puts hope on a machine learning global ombud for information to solve this problem.

Stengel’s description of the problem reflects several misunderstandings.

First, the social media companies don’t see this as an existential threat (though they may see government regulation as such). Even after Mark Zuckerberg got pressured into taking some steps to stem the fake news that had been key in this election — spread by Russia, right wing political parties, Macedonian teenagers, and US-based satirists — he sure didn’t sound like he saw any existential threat.

After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading. These are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right. I want to do my best to explain what we know here.

Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.

[snip]

This has been a historic election and it has been very painful for many people. Still, I think it’s important to try to understand the perspective of people on the other side. In my experience, people are good, and even if you may not feel that way today, believing in people leads to better results over the long term.

And that’s before you consider reports that Facebook delayed efforts to deal with this problem for fear of offending conservatives, or the way Zuckerberg’s posts seem to have been disappearing and reappearing like a magician’s bunny.

Stengel then turns to efforts to target two subsets of problematic content on social media: terrorism videos (definedin a way that did little or nothing to combat other kinds of hate speech) and fake news.

The problem with this whack-a-mole approach to social media toxins is that it ignores the underlying wiring, both of social media and of the people using social media. The problem seems to have more to do with how social media magnifies normal characteristics of humans and their tribalism.

[T]wo factors—the way that anger can spread over Facebook’s social networks, and how those networks can make individuals’ political identity more central to who they are—likely explain Facebook users’ inaccurate beliefs more effectively than the so-called filter bubble.

If this is true, then we have a serious challenge ahead of us. Facebook will likely be convinced to change its filtering algorithm to prioritize more accurate information. Google has already undertaken a similar endeavor. And recent reports suggest that Facebook may be taking the problem more seriously than Zuckerberg’s comments suggest.

But this does nothing to address the underlying forces that propagate and reinforce false information: emotions and the people in your social networks. Nor is it obvious that these characteristics of Facebook can or should be “corrected.” A social network devoid of emotion seems like a contradiction, and policing who individuals interact with is not something that our society should embrace.

And if that’s right — which would explain why fake or inflammatory news would be uniquely profitable for people who have no ideological stake in the outcome — then the wiring of social media needs to be changed at a far more basic level to neutralize the toxins (or social media consumers have to become far more savvy in a vacuum of training to get them to do so).

But let’s take a step back to the way Ignatius and Stengel define this. The entities struggling with social media include more than the US, with its efforts to combat Islamic terrorist and Russian propagandist content it hates. It includes authoritarian regimes that want to police content (America’s effort to combat content it hates in whack-a-mole fashion will only serve to legitimize those efforts). It also includes European countries, which hate Russian propaganda, but which also hate social media companies’ approach to filtering and data collection more generally.

European bureaucrats and activists, to just give one example, think social media’s refusal to stop hate speech is irresponsible. They see hate speech as a toxin just as much as Islamic terrorism or Russian propaganda. But the US, which is uniquely situated to pressure the US-based social media companies facilitating the spread of hate speech around the world, doesn’t much give a damn.

European bureaucrats and activists also think social media collect far too much information on its users; that information is one of the things that helps social media better serve users’ tribal instincts.

European bureaucrats also think American tech companies serve as a dangerous gateway monopolizing access to information. The dominance of Google’s ad network has been key to monetizing fake and other inflammatory news (though they started, post-election, to crack down on fake news sites advertising through Google).

The point is, if we’re going to talk about the toxins that poison the world via social media, we ought to consider the ways in which social media — enabled by characteristics of America’s regulatory regime — is structured to deliver toxins.

It may well be that the problem behind America’s failures to compete in the “marketplace of ideas” has everything to do with how America has fostered a certain kind of marketplace of ideas.

The anti-Russian crusade keeps warning that Russian propaganda might undermine our own democracy. But there’s a lot of reason to believe red-blooded American social media — the specific characteristics of the global marketplace of ideas created in Silicon Valley — is what has actually done that.

Update: In the UK, Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary, Tom Watson, is starting a well-constructed inquiry into fake news. One question he asks is the role of Twitter and Facebook.

Update: Here’s a summary of fake news around the world, some of it quite serious, though without a systematic look at Facebook’s role in it.

Ignatius Has Become a “Choice between Security and Privacy” Stenographer

David Ignatius should be ashamed about this column. Even by his standards, it serves simply as stenography for the buzzwords top security officials have fed him, such that he repeats lines like this without any critical thinking.

Gen. Keith Alexander and other top NSA officials are considering ways they could reassure the public without damaging key programs, according to U.S. officials. They think that forcing Congress to decide between security and privacy is an unfair choice, since the country would lose either way. They’d like an agreement that protects both, but that’s a tall order. [my emphasis]

Remember: we’re talking about the Section 215 dragnet, not the (according to all players) far more valuable Section 702 collection. Even according to the government, it has only come into play in 13 terrorist cases. The only one the government can describe where it has been crucial involves indicting a man the FBI determined was not motivated by terrorism but rather tribal affiliation sending less than $10,000 to al-Shabaab three and a half years earlier.

And yet Ignatius uncritically repeats that requiring the government to use more specificity with its collections would present Congress the “unfair choice” of “deciding between security and privacy.”

So it should be no surprise that Ignatius uncritically repeats other details of the program. For example, Ignatius claims this involves only two-hop analysis, when we know it can go three hops (and therefore millions of people) deep.

When the agency identifies a suspicious number in, say, Pakistan, analysts want to see who that person called in the United States and who, in turn, might have been contacted by that second person.

Ignatius doesn’t note the descriptions — from both Edward Snowden and James Clapper — that they then use this metadata to index previously collected communications. That’s because he’s too busy repeating that we don’t “record” these collections, as if we’d have to.

Then finally there’s Ignatius’ claim that SWIFT (the record of international financial transfers) presents a viable alternative to the dragnet program. As I have reported, when the EU finally got to audit what the US had been doing with SWIFT, they discovered the real content of the queries was transmitted verbally, making it impossible to audit the use.

Thus far, no one has explained whether the queries and underlying articulable suspicion gets automatically recorded or — as happened with one of the precursors to this program — manually in hardcopy form. If it’s the latter (which I will assume until someone asserts differently) it is prone to the same kind of large scale documentation lapses that could hide a great deal of improper use of the dragnet. Which, given Ron Wyden and Mark Udall’s insistence that the problems have been more problematic than James Clapper lets on, could well be the case.

All of these are issues anyone with Ignatius’ access might want to answer.

Alternately, that access may now serve to do no more than produce “security or privacy” automatons, repeating the obviously false cant Ignatius has here.

 

Day of Surprises in Afridi Case: Conviction Not Related to CIA Help; Ignatius Chastises CIA

There are many developments today surrounding Pakistan’s sentencing of Dr. Shakeel Afridi to 33 years in prison, including two that are quite unexpected. According to documents released today to multiple news agencies, it turns out that Afridi’s conviction is not on the treason charges relating to his work with the CIA in finding Osama bin Laden that many thought were the basis of the charges against him. Instead, the documents indicate that Afridi was convicted for aiding the outlawed group Lashkar-e-Islam, which is said to be in open conflict with Pakistan. Equally unexpected is today’s column by CIA spokesman reporter columnist David Ignatius in the Washington Post where he chastises the CIA for using Afridi in a vaccination ruse, citing the resultant danger to public health as vaccination programs come more generally under suspicion in the areas where they are needed most urgently.

Reuters gives us the basics on the documents released today by the court:

A Pakistani doctor who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden was imprisoned for aiding militants and not for links to the CIA, as Pakistani officials had said, according to a court document released on Wednesday.

Last week, a court in the Khyber tribal region near the Afghan border sentenced Shakil Afridi to 33 years in jail. Pakistani officials told Western and domestic media the decision was based on treason charges for aiding the CIA in its hunt for the al Qaeda chief.

But in the latest twist in the case, the judgment document made available to the media on Wednesday, states Afridi was jailed because of his close ties to the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Islam, which amount to waging war against the state.

Dawn fills in more details:

The order said intelligence reports had indicated that the accused had close links with the defunct LI and “his love for Mangal Bagh, Amir of Lashkar-i-Islam, and his association with him was an open secret”.

Referring to the report submitted by the JIT, it said the accused had paid Rs2 million to LI when he was serving at the Tehsil Headquarters Hospital Dogra, Bara, Khyber tribal region.

The court also accused Mr Afridi of providing medical assistance to militant commanders like Said Noor Malikdinkhel, Hazrat Sepah, Wahid Shaloberkhel and others at the hospital which he headed.

It also referred to statements by some people that militant commanders used to visit the hospital and hold private meetings with the accused. “These meetings were usually of longer duration and most often those meetings were followed by attacks by militants on security forces’ checkposts and other places at night,” the order read.

It said LI’s design to wage war against the state of Pakistan was a reality known to all and that those attacks were planned in the office of the accused. Being a public servant, the involvement of the accused in subversive activities and his role in facilitating the waging of war and attacks on security forces made him liable to be proceeded against, it added.

There is one more point that stands out in the Dawn article: Read more

We Drone Strike, Ergo We Are at War

Check out the logic top pundit David Ignatius employs here:

The United States just decided to step up its drone war [in Yemen], which is a sure sign that al-Qaeda poses a significant, continuing threat.

Ignatius has long served as a mouthpiece for the CIA, so it’s not like he lacks sources he could ask about why we’re going to start using signature strikes in Yemen. If he asked, he might find out that we’re using signature strikes because the civil war Ali Abdullah Saleh’s leadership failures incited is considered a threat to the US (or to the Saudis), independent of any threat AQAP might represent.

But instead, David Ignatius, DC insider, says we’re ramping up drone strikes, ergo al Qaeda must pose a significant, continuing threat.

The line actually serves as the punch line of a larger, equally poorly argued piece “proving” that because people are rebelling against the dictators who used the war on terror as yet another excuse to oppress their people, Osama bin Laden has won.

Egypt is a case in point: This has been a year of mostly nonviolent democratic revolution. But it has brought to power some Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood groups that share common theological roots with bin Laden. And the al-Qaeda goal of driving the “apostate,” pro-American President Hosni Mubarak from power has been achieved.

I would dismiss all this as more beltway inanity. But Ignatius wields this (il)logic even while he waves around those OBL documents he got in an authorized, exclusive leak from the Administration.

As Wednesday’s anniversary of bin Laden’s death approaches, I have been going back over my notes of these messages. I found some unpublished passages that show how bin Laden’s legacy is an ironic mix: His movement is largely destroyed, but his passion for a purer and more Islamic government in the Arab world is partly succeeding. In that sense, the West shouldn’t be too quick to claim victory.

The message the Administration has deemed Ignatius solely worthy to interpret and read is that OBL turned to unifying Muslims behind reformed governance at the end of his life, and therefore reformed governance must be opposed because it would represent a victory of what he calls “electoral bin Ladenism.”

And by pointing to documents that have purportedly been declassified but the rest of us aren’t permitted to see, and deploying the logic that says just because we’ve resumed targeting drones at people whose identity we don’t know, Ignatius “proves” there must be a reason to target those people and that reason must ultimately be OBL.

As Bush Did with Judy Miller, Obama Insta-Declassifies for David Ignatius

One more point about the David Ignatius wankfest today.

In his story pitching OBL as a still-ambitious terrorist rather than an out-of-touch idiot, David Ignatius claimed the documents he based his article on had already been declassified.

The scheme is described in one of the documents taken from bin Laden’s compound by U.S. forces on May 2, the night he was killed. I was given an exclusive look at some of these remarkable documents by a senior administration official. They have been declassified and will be available soon to the public in their original Arabic texts and translations. [my empahsis]

But National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor says that’s not yet the case.

A White House spokesman confirmed that the documents found in the raid are in a declassification process that is “still ongoing,” and National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said it “would likely be a few months before they’re fully available” to the media and public. (The CIA had no comment.) [my emphasis]

Either these documents are declassified, in which case the White House should be handing them out to anyone who asks, or they’re not yet declassified, in which case, someone should be prosecuted for handing them to Ignatius.

The most likely explanation, however, is that the Administration is playing the same game the Bush Administration played with Judy Miller, sharing still-classified documents with a reporter who will spin things in a favorable light, so as to pre-empt any response a
more open assessment of the documents will have. That the Obama Administration is doing it to support his reelection and not an illegal war doesn’t make the ploy any less cynical.

David Ignatius and Bin Laden’s Biden Judgment

Presumably to buck up their campaign theme–“Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive“–the Administration pre-leaked some documents to David Ignatius taken from OBL’s compound revealing that OBL hoped to attack President Obama. Ignatius described the aspirational plot as a “bold” command

Before his death, Osama bin Laden boldly commanded his network to organize special cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan to attack the aircraft of President Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus.

“The reason for concentrating on them,” the al-Qaeda leader explained to his top lieutenant, “is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make [Vice President] Biden take over the presidency. . . . Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis. As for Petraeus, he is the man of the hour . . . and killing him would alter the war’s path” in Afghanistan. [my emphasis]

And even while Ignatius admits OBL was never going to be able to shoot Petraeus and Obama out of the air, he offers it as proof that the terrorist still wanted to launch spectacular attacks.

The plot to target Obama was probably bluster, since al-Qaeda apparently lacked the weapons to shoot down U.S. aircraft. But it’s a chilling reminder that even when he was embattled and in hiding, bin Laden still dreamed of pulling off another spectacular terror attack against the United States. [my emphasis]

Politico–that arbiter of beltway conventional wisdom–has described Ignatius’ acceptance of a motivated leak to be a scoop of such proportions to solidify his position as the “preeminent writer on national security affairs.” Politico even offers a quote from its own anonymous Administration source explaining what they got by leaking stuff to Ignatius.

“David is not only influential, he’s a serious journalist who is taken seriously,” an Obama administration official told POLITICO. “His byline gives [the bin Laden] story instantaneous cachet, credibility and, yes, visibility.”

Which Politico accompanies with fawning quotes from Jeff Goldberg, Evan Thomas, Steve Clemons and Sally Quinn (Sally Quinn!?!?!) affirming Ignatius’ magnificence as national security status.

There’s just one problem with all that.

Ignatius, this purportedly brilliant commenter, doesn’t even notice, much less mention, how stupid OBL was.

OBL was going to kill Obama not for the sake of killing the US President, but because Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, almost 12 of which he served as one or another powerful committee Chair, “is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis.”

Really?

Joe Biden may be many things: but he is as prepared to be President as just about any person in this country. And in a number of key debates during this Administration–notably, what to do with Afghanistan–Biden proved to be right two years before the rest of the Administration copped on.

OBL’s plans to attack Obama, then, show not just how unhinged from reality about al Qaeda OBL was by this point, but also how completely ignorant he was about America.

You’d think that DC’s crack national security correspondent would note just how laughable OBL’s plots were late in life.

But I guess if he did, the Administration wouldn’t come to him anymore for his purported “instantaneous cachet, credibility and, yes, visibility.”