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Five Data Points on the Sessions News

As you no doubt have heard, Jeff Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last year, then told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had either not talked about the election with any Russians (a written response to Patrick Leahy’s question) or not talked with Russians as a surrogate of the campaign (an oral response to Al Franken).WSJ describes the probe as reviewing stuff in spring of last year, so before the July contact with Kislyak. Thus far, Sessions, his spox, and anonymous Trump official have offered three conflicting explanations for Sessions’ non-disclosure, including Sessions’ own, “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”

Already, Democrats are demanding Sessions’ resignation and more Democrats and some Republicans are calling for him to recuse himself for the FBI counterintelligence investigation. The Twittersphere is calling for prosecution for perjury.

Update: WSJ had originally said Sessions and Kislyak spoke by phone, then corrected to in-person. According to this, he had one of each, with a phone followup several days after the in-person. Which means there’d be a transcript.

Jeff Sessions will almost certainly not be prosecuted for perjury

Which brings me to my first data point. Jeff Sessions is not going to be prosecuted for perjury. And that’s true for more reasons than that he is the AG.

First, it’s a hard crime to prove, because you have to prove that someone knowingly lied. Right now Sessions is all over the map, but he’s also dumb enough to be able to feign stupidity.

Plus, lying to Congress just doesn’t get prosecuted anymore. Remember, Alberto Gonzales lied in his own confirmation hearing in 2005, claiming there were no disagreements about Stellar Wind. It was always clear that was a lie, but even after Jim Comey confirmed that was the case with his May 2007 SJC hospital heroes performance, AGAG stuck around for another three months. And while his lie has often been cited as the reason for his departure in August 2007, I believe that the proximate reason is that he refused to do something Bush wanted him to do, at which point the White House threw him under the bus.

Plus, there are already at least three Trump officials who lied in their confirmation hearings — Mnuchin on his role in robosigning, DeVos on her role in the Prince family foundation, and Pruitt on his use of private emails. None of them are going anywhere.

Finally, in 2013, Holder’s DOJ went way out of its way to protect former DOJ official Scott Bloch from doing time after he lied to the House Oversight Committee. That precedent will make it all the harder to hold anyone accountable for lying to Congress in the future.

The timing of this roll-out gets more and more interesting

Now consider the timing of how all this rolled out.

In another blockbuster (revealing that the Obama Administration squirreled away information on Trump’s advisors to protect informants IDs from him, but also to ensure incriminating information would be available for others), NYT reveals that, after Putin’s non-response to Obama’s December 28 sanctions raised concerns, the FBI found Mike Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak on January 2.

On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.

On January 10, the Trump dossier began to leak. Al Franken actually used that as the premise to ask Sessions about contacts with the Russians.

On January 12, David Ignatius published the first word of the Flynn-Kislyak calls, alerting anyone dumb enough not to already know that the FBI was going through Kislyak’s ties with Trump officials.

This had the effect of teeing up Flynn as a target, without giving Sessions (and other Trump officials) that their contacts with Kislyak were being scrutinized. And only after Flynn’s departure has this Sessions stuff come out.

I imagine someone in the White House Counsel’s office is now reviewing all the metadata and transcripts tied to Kislyak to see who else had curious conversations with him.

The claim Kislyak is the top spy recruiter

CNN’s version of this story and a separate profile of Kislyak insinuates that Session’s contact with Kislyak by itself is damning, because he “is considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington.”

Current and former US intelligence officials have described Kislyak as a top spy and recruiter of spies, a notion that Russian officials have dismissed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said that “nobody has heard a single statement from US intelligence agencies’ representatives regarding our ambassador,” and attacked the “depersonalized assumptions of the media that are constantly trying to blow this situation out of proportion.”

Even aside from the fact that two Democrats — Joe Manchin of his own accord, and Claire McCaskill after she claimed never to have spoken with Kislyak — have also had contact with him, this seems like a red herring. No matter what Kislyak’s intention, it is still acceptable for someone to meet with a person presenting as a diplomat (for example, no one used to care that Saudi Arabia’s Bandar bin Sultan was running ops when he was Ambassador to the US).

Moreover, if current and former US intelligence officials are so sure Kislyak is the master spook in the US, why wasn’t he at the top of the Persona Non Grata list of 35 diplomats who got ejected at the end of December (though, as I’ve noted in the past, the Russian press was talking about him being replaced).

The delayed preservation request

Yesterday, AP reported that Don McGahn instructed White House officials on Tuesday to retain information relating to Russian contacts.

One official said McGahn’s memo instructs White House staff to preserve material from Trump’s time in office, and for those who worked on the campaign, relevant material from the election.

But the timing of this actually raises more questions. Preservation requests first went out February 17. Reince Priebus admitted knowing about it on the Sunday shows February 19. Sometime during the week of February 20-24, Sean Spicer with Don McGahn conducted a device check with White House staffers to see whether staffers were using Signal or Confide, the latter of which automatically deletes texts, the former of which can be set to do so (after Spicer warned everyone not to leak about the device check, it leaked).

And yet, McGahn only gave preservation instructions on February 28?

Now it’s possible the White House didn’t receive one of the letters sent on February 17 (which would raise other questions), which seems to be the implication of the AP report. But if it did, then McGahn sat on that preservation request for over 10 days, even while being involved in activities reflecting an awareness that staffers were using apps that thwarted retention rules.

Some things can’t be prosecuted

Contrary to what you may believe, thus far none of these reports have confirmed a smoking gun, and the NYT pointedly makes it clear that its sources are not claiming to have a smoking gun (which may not rule out that they have one they’re not yet sharing).

The nature of the contacts remains unknown. Several of Mr. Trump’s associates have done business in Russia, and it is unclear if any of the contacts were related to business dealings.

But consider that smoking guns may be different depending on what they are. That’s true because somethings may be perfectly legal — such as investments from shady Russians — that nevertheless pose a serious counterintelligence risk of compromise going forward.

Its all the more true when you factor in the role of Sessions and Trump. For some of this stuff (including the September meeting with Kislyak) Sessions will be protected by Speech and Debate. It’d be very hard for DOJ to prosecute Sessions for stuff he did as a Senator, even assuming you had someone else in charge of the investigation or department.

Likewise, other crimes may not rise to the level of criminal prosecution but would rise to the level of impeachment. Which is why this passage from the NYT is so interesting.

Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.

If FBI judged it could not prosecute Trump or his close associates for something but nevertheless believed the evidence constituted something disqualifying, what they’d want to do is preserve the evidence, make sure SSCI could find it, and provide tips — laid out in the NYT, if need be — about where to look.

And any things that did rise to the level of criminal charges would be a lot easier to charge if someone besides Sessions were in charge.

This seems to be very methodical.

Update: February for January preservation date requests corrected. h/t TN.

Devin Nunes Doesn’t Think Donald Trump Should be Subject To the Kind of “Witch Hunt” He Conducted with Edward Snowden

We know what a Devin Nunes-led investigation into possible Russian compromise looks like. Just in December, after all, the House Intelligence Committee released their investigation into Edward Snowden.

Using the Snowden investigation as a guide, we know that HPSCI believes that if there’s an ongoing investigation, it should avoid speaking to anyone who knows evidence first-hand. It can instead rely on the impressions of people who don’t like the target of the investigation, as HPSCI did for claims that Snowden went to a hackers conference in China. It can also avoid reviewing official records, including public school records or even official Army records. Rather than do that, it may rely on imprecise citations of public reporting, interpreted in the light designed to be most damning. Any lies told — such as Snowden’s cover story that he’d be undergoing epilepsy treatment or Mike Flynn’s lies to Mike Pence — are themselves evidence of the worst possible guilt. Numbers are interpreted in the most damning possible light, even if more recent and informed numbers suggest something far less damning; those damning numbers came, in Snowden’s case, from a decision made by former DIA Director and recently fired National Security Advisor Flynn to assume any contact involved potential compromise.

Very importantly, HPSCI’s standard is that if anyone alleges contact between Russians and the target of an investigation, they should believed, even if that person is not in a position to know first hand. According to HPSCI standard, it is permissible to rely on dubious translations of Russian comments.

That’s the standard a Devin Nunes-led investigation holds to — or at last held to, with Snowden — before it deems an American citizen a traitor (irrespective of the very specific requirements of a treason charge).

Now, you can certainly argue that that’s a horrible standard for an intelligence committee investigation into allegations that an American citizen is spying for Russia. I have made that argument myself. But that is the standard HPSCI very recently set for serious allegations of possible intelligence compromises involving Russia.

Which is mighty curious, because Devin Nunes just gave a press conference claiming, categorically, that no Trump campaign personnel had any contact with any Russian official. That, in spite of public reporting relying on an interview with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that said his contacts with Trump campaign advisor Mike Flynn went back before November 8. That’s pretty good evidence that Trump’s campaign was in contact with a Russian official. (Later in his presser, Nunes acknowledged that Flynn spoke with Russia, though suggested that happened after Trump became President-Elect.)

And if Nunes applied the same standard to Trump’s associates he applied to Edward Snowden, then clearly the allegations in the Trump dossier should be presumed to be true (again, I’m not advocating for this, I’m talking about what would happen if HPSCI applied the same standard). That would mean Carter Page’s contacts with Kremlin Internal Affairs official Diyevkin would count as evidence of a contact. Carter Page’s other contacts were not named. Michael Cohen’s, which were alleged to be even more inflammatory, were done with Russian Presidential Administration figures working under cover, but would seem to meet the Nunes HPSCI standard. Paul Manafort’s contacts were with Ukrainians.

Finally, if HPSCI applied the same standards they did with Snowden, then the claims from Sergei Ryabkov that there were discussions before the election should amount to sufficient evidence to substantiate the claim.

Devin Nunes invoked McCarthyism in insisting his committee shouldn’t just investigate American citizens without evidence. But he apparently extends that standard differently to men on whose transition team he served.

Susan Collins Implies She Could Be a Swing Vote in SSCI’s Investigation of the Russian Hack

The other day, I explained why we should remain skeptical of the congressional investigations into the Russian hack. Most importantly, I questioned Richard Burr’s seriousness. The investigation should be done by the House and/or Senate Intelligence Committee, and both Chairs of those committees have had Trump appointments in the last year.

That said, this Maine Public Radio interview with Susan Collins may provide reason for hope (see after 10 minutes and 39 minutes).

In it, she reiterated promises — made in the agreement on the inquiry — that the committee would do open hearings and release a public report.

I will encourage that there’ll be some public hearings as well as the closed hearings that we’re doing now and that we issue a report.

She also noted that she and others intend to call Mike Flynn to testify (though she didn’t say whether the interview would be open or not). Note, National Security Advisors cannot be subpoenaed (which is one basis why Devin Nunes said they couldn’t call Flynn).

I am going to request, many members are, that we call Steve Flynn–Mike Flynn, the former National Security Advisor to testify before us.

In addition, after 30 minutes, in response to a caller insisting that the inquiry be public, Collins noted that Republicans have just a one vote majority on the committee (though she didn’t point out that she could be the swing voter).

She was asked if she would subpoena Trump’s tax returns, and on that she said it would depend on Burr and Mark Warner. We shall see whether Warner has the chops to force that issue.

On both torture and drone memos, Collins has been willing to serve as a swing voter on SSCI before. If she does so here, it could make a difference.

 

Why We Should Remain Skeptical of the Five (!!) Congressional Investigations into the Russian Hack

I was interviewed (on Thursday) about the Flynn resignation and larger investigation into the Russia hack for Saturday’s On the Media. In what made the edit, I made one error (which I’ll explain later), but a key point I made holds. The leaking about Flynn and other Russian events are hypocritical and out of control. But they may create pressure to fix two problems with the current investigations into the Russian hack: the role of Jeff Sessions overseeing the DOJ-led investigations, and the role of Trump advisory officials Devin Nunes and Richard Burr overseeing the most appropriate congressional investigations.

In this post I’ll look at the latter conflicts. In a follow-up I’ll look at what the FBI seems to be doing.

As I noted in the interview, contrary to what you might think from squawking Democrats, there are five congressional investigations pertaining to Russian hacks, though some will likely end up focusing on prospective review of Russian hacking (for comparison, there were seven congressional Benghazi investigations). They are:

  • Senate Intelligence Committee: After months of Richard Burr — who served on Trump’s campaign national security advisory council — saying an inquiry was not necessary and going so far as insisting any inquiry wouldn’t review the dossier leaked on Trump, SSCI finally agreed to do an inquiry on January 13. Jim Comey briefed that inquiry last Friday, February 17.
  • House Intelligence Committee: In December, James Clapper refused to brief the House Intelligence Committee on the latest intelligence concluding Russian hacked the DNC with the goal of electing Trump, noting that HPSCI had been briefed all along (as was clear from some of the leaks, which clearly came from HPSCI insiders). In January, they started their own investigation of the hack, having already started fighting about documents by late January. While Ranking Democratic Member Adam Schiff has long been among the most vocal people complaining about the treatment of the hack, Devin Nunes was not only a Trump transition official, but made some absolutely ridiculous complaints after Mike Flynn’s side of some conversations got legally collected in a counterintelligence wiretap. Nunes has since promised to investigate the leaks that led to Flynn’s forced resignation.
  • Senate Armed Services Committee: In early January, John McCain announced he’d form a new subcommittee on cybersecurity, with the understanding it would include the Russian hack in its focus. Although he originally said Lindsey Graham would lead that committee, within weeks (and after Richard Burr finally capitulated and agreed to do a SSCI inquiry), McCain instead announced Mike Rounds would lead it.
  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee: In December, Bob Corker announced the SFRC would conduct an inquiry, scheduled to start in January. At a hearing in February, the topic came up multiple times, and both Corker and Ben Cardin reiterated their plans to conduct such an inquiry.
  • Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism: After Graham was denied control of the SASC panel, he and Sheldon Whitehouse announced they’d conduct their own inquiry, including a prospective review of “the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did take an active interest and play a role in the recent American elections.”

All the while, some Senators — McCain, Graham, Chuck Schumer, and Jack Reed — have called for a Select Committee to conduct the investigation, though in true McCainesque fashion, the maverick has at times flip-flopped on his support of such an inquiry.

Also, while not an investigation, on February 9, Jerry Nadler issued what I consider (strictly as it relates to the Russian hack, not the other conflicts) an ill-advised resolution of inquiry calling for the Administration to release materials relating to the hack, among other materials. Democrats in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation calling for an independent commission, but have gotten no support even from the mavericky Republicans.

As you can see from these descriptions, it took pressure from other committees, especially Lindsey Graham getting control of one of the inquiries, before Richard Burr let himself be convinced by SSCI Vice Chair Mark Warner to conduct an inquiry. Thus far, Mitch McConnell has staved off any Select Committee. As soon as SSCI did claim to be launching an investigation, a bunch of Republicans tried to shut down the others, claiming it was all simply too confusing.

Let me be clear: as I noted in the OTM interview, the intelligence committees are the appropriate place to conduct this investigation, as it concerns really sensitive counterintelligence matters — people who could be witnesses to it are getting killed! — and an ongoing investigation. The only way to conduct a responsible inquiry is to do so in secret, and unless a select committee with clearance is formed, that means doing so in the dysfunctional intelligence committees.

That’s made worse by Nunes and Burr’s obvious conflicts, having served on Trump’s pre-inauguration advisory teams (at a time when Mike Flynn was chatting about ongoing sanctions with Russia), and their equally obvious disinterest in conducting the investigation. Remember that the intelligence committees successfully bolloxed up the independent investigation into Iran-Contra. While neither Nunes nor Burr is as smart as Dick Cheney, who had a key role in that intentional bolloxing, Democrats should be cognizant of the ways that such bolloxing has happened in the past.

And now that SSCI has finally started its inquiry, Ali Watkins published an uncharacteristically credulous report on Burr’s role in the investigation, slathering on the colorful vocabulary — “brutally yanked;” “underground cohort;” “dark shadow of Langley;” “Wearily, they’re trudging forward on a probe littered with potential political landmines;” — before portraying the allegedly difficult position Burr is in:

That he’s now in charge of the sweeping Russia inquiry puts the North Carolina Republican in between a rock and a hard place. Since taking over the helm of the intelligence committee, Burr has pressed for more active and aggressive oversight, and has kept a rigorous travel schedule to match. But his decisive reelection victory in November came at a cost — throughout the contentious race, Burr towed Trump’s line, and hasn’t yet directly criticized the White House publicly.

But Burr has shown no indication that he’s ever angled for a Trump administration job, and says he’s not running for re-election. How seriously he takes his obligation to carry his president’s water remains to be seen.

Burr has been slammed by colleagues in recent days, who fear he’s slow-rolling an investigation into a fast-moving story. But much of the inquiry’s slow start was due to bureaucratic wrangling — some intelligence agencies insisted products be viewed on site rather than sent to the Hill, and some of the intelligence was so tightly controlled that it was unclear if staffers could even view it.

This is just spin. There is abundant public record that Burr has thwarted oversight generally (he has said things supporting that stance throughout his history on both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee, even ignoring his role in covering up torture, and Watkins’ earlier incorrect claims about Burr’s open hearings remain only partly corrected). There is no mention in this article that Burr was on Trump’s national security advisory committee. Nor that SSCI had reason to do hearings about this hack well before January 2017, back when it might have made a difference — at precisely the time when Burr apparently had time to advise Trump about national security issues as a candidate. Plus, it ignores all the things laid out here, Burr’s continued equivocation about whether there should even be a hearing.

There is no reason to believe Burr or Nunes intend to have a truly rigorous investigation (bizarrely, Warner seems to have had more success pushing the issue than Schiff — or Dianne Feinstein when she was Vice Chair — though that may be because the Ranking position is stronger in the Senate than in the House). And history tells us we should be wary that their investigations will be counterproductive.

As I noted, on Friday — the Friday before a recess — Jim Comey briefed the SSCI on the Russian hack. That briefing was unusual for the date (regular SSCI meetings happen on Tuesday and Thursday, and little business of any kinds happens right before a recess). Reporters have interpreted that, along with the presumed silence about the content of the briefing, as a sign that things are serious. That may be true — or it may be that that was the only time a 3-hour briefing could be scheduled. In the wake of the briefing, it was reported that the SSCI sent broad preservation requests tied to the inquiry (that is, they sent the request long after the inquiry was started). And while the press has assumed no one is talking, the day after the briefing, Reuters reported outlines of at least three parts of the FBI investigation into the Russian hack, attributed to former and current government officials.

David Ignatius’ Curious Role in the Mike Flynn Story

I’m traveling again, so I’m running on delayed coverage of the Trump circus.

But I wanted to point out something that has been puzzling me: David Ignatius’ curious role in the events leading up to the forced resignation of Mike Flynn as President Trump’s National Security Adviser.

After all, Ignatius set off the events with this article. The article included two curious details. First, in an update to the story, Ignatius stated as fact that the Russian plane carrying a military choir to Syria had been shot down.

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.

Perhaps this was a mistake, but no cause for the crash has been reported (and it’d be even more curious if Trump’s people knew this was a shoot-down right away, given the lack of public accounting for it). There has been no follow-up about who shot down this plane (and little claim that it was terrorism).

More importantly for the Flynn story, Ignatius reported the December 29 calls between Sergey Kislyak and Flynn, the first public mention of them.

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.

Ignatius not only knew of the calls, but he knew enough to ask the question — which the FBI would later pose to Flynn in an interview — about whether Flynn had undercut US sanctions. In response to his mention of the calls, other journalists followed up with Mike Pence, which ultimately led to the excused reason for Flynn’s firing, that he had lied to Pence about the calls. Frankly, that questioning also clearly led to Flynn correcting his story between February 8 and 9, which suggests he may have reviewed the transcripts in the interim.

While Ignatius’ report is mentioned in a WaPo timeline of these events, he’s not bylined in either of the two big bombshells from WaPo on this, even though up to seven journalists are mentioned.

There are two obvious explanations. First, that Ignatius’ column, which serves as a mouthpiece for the IC (and especially CIA), is not generally treated in the same way other journalism at the WaPo is. And possibly, specifically in this case, if that reference were treated as reporting rather than speculation, it might lead Trump’s leak investigation back to the source that kicked off this leak fest. But by posing it as speculative questioning, it protects that original source.

Whatever the explanation is, I think the odd circumstances surrounding the story invite further attention to two of the other questions Ignatius poses in that column. He asked, for example, whether Obama delayed his response to the Russian out of fears Russia would do something worse to Hillary.

Did the administration worry that the Russians would take additional steps to hurt Clinton and help Trump, and might disrupt balloting itself?

According to public reports, Obama twice raised probes of registration databases directly with Putin; after the election the IC included them among Russia’s roles. What exactly was the Obama Administration worried about here?

And Ignatius also asked a question I’ve heard floated (which is one reason I focused so intently on the curious forensic details about the dossier): that the Russians themselves released the anti-Trump dossier compiled by Christopher Steele to sow further chaos (and, presumably, to hurt Trump).

Finally, what’s the chance that Russian intelligence has gamed its covert action more subtly than we realize? Applying a counter-intelligence lens, it’s worth asking whether the Russians hoped to be discovered, and whether Russian operatives fed the former MI6 officer’s controversial dossier deliberately, to sow further chaos.

Clearly, Ignatius’ source on the Flynn call with Kislyak advanced the story in a direction that led to Flynn’s firing. What else were Ignatius’ source or sources for the this story trying to lead reporting to?

Four Details about Surveillance and the Flynn Ouster

It turns out Trump is on pace to fire a person every week, just like in his reality show. As you surely know, Mike Flynn has been ousted as National Security Advisor, along with his Deputy, KT McFarland.

There has been some confusion about what intelligence the spooks who just caused Flynn to be fired relied on. So let’s start with this detail from last night’s WaPo story:

After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec. 30 that there would be no response. Trump praised the decision on Twitter.

Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general with years of intelligence experience.

From that call and subsequent intercepts, FBI agents wrote a secret report summarizing ­Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak.

That is, in response to questions elicited by Putin’s response, analysts actually read the intercepts of the Flynn-Kislyak call, which led to further monitoring of the conversations. And contrary to what HPSCI Chair Devin Nunes is whining, FBI would have access to Flynn’s side of the call right away, because they would own the tap (and in any case, they’d get unminimized copies of anything from NSA).

Some have pointed to this passage to suggest that the FBI was always listening in.

U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 presidential campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, officials said. Communications between the two continued after Trump’s victory on Nov. 8, according to officials with access to intelligence reports on the matter.

It’s quite likely that’s not the case. After all, even Michael McFaul (who served as Ambassador to Russia at the beginning of the Obama Administration) said it was normal to have such calls before inauguration. Moreover, the FBI wouldn’t need to access the content of communications to learn that they were taking place. The metadata would be enough. And the actual content of the contacts would remain in some server in Utah.

Also, some have suggested that Flynn must be the Trump associate against whom a single FISA order was obtained in October. That’s unlikely, first of all, because if there were a FISA order on Flynn, then the FBI wouldn’t have needed the weird Putin response to lead them to read the actual content of calls (not to mention, the WaPo is clear that the contacts were collected as a result of normal monitoring of a foreign diplomat). Furthermore, most reports of that FISA order suggest the FBI first asked for four orders (in June and July) but only got one, in October. So it’s likely that FISA order covers another of Trump’s Russian buddies.

Finally, remember that for a great deal of SIGINT, FBI wouldn’t need a warrant. That’s because Obama changed the EO 12333 sharing rules just 4 days after the IC started getting really suspicious about Flynn’s contacts with Russia. That would make five years of intercepts available to FBI without a warrant in any counterintelligence cases, as this one is.

Update: Corrected KT McFarland instead of KC. Also, I’ve been informed she’ll stick around until Trump names a new NSA.

Charles Cooper, Who Sanctioned Delayed Notification of Covert Ops to Congress, Reportedly to Be Solicitor General

Update: According to the Hill, Cooper has withdrawn from consideration.

Yesterday, SCOTUSblog reported that Charles Cooper is likely to be named Trump’s Solicitor General.

Cooper is a close friend of Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama lawmaker whom Trump has nominated to serve as attorney general, and helped to prepare Sessions for his confirmation hearings. Like Sessions, Cooper could prove to be a controversial pick. In addition to his role defending California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Cooper also signed a brief on behalf of the federal government supporting Bob Jones University in its challenge to the constitutionality of an Internal Revenue Service policy denying tax exemptions to religious institutions that discriminate based on race. The university had argued that its ban on interracial dating was based on its sincere religious beliefs, but the Supreme Court upheld the IRS policy, by a vote of 8-1. And in 1986, as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Cooper signed an OLC opinion that argued that employers could reject job applicants with AIDS if they were concerned about contracting the disease.

I take this solace out of the fact that a soul mate to Jeff Sessions will be appointed to Solicitor General. In Cooper’s most public recent work, the Prop 8 case, Cooper got his ass handed to him by facts and law. If he were to argue as poorly for Trump’s policies, it might help the courts keep the President’s excesses under check.

That said, there are things I’m gravely concerned about, with regards to the Cooper pick. I’m trying to figure out whether he is the author of the OLC memo stating that a President can ignore his own Executive Orders, the original pixie dust opinion.

But he is definitely the author of this Iran-Contra related opinion, stating that the President can delay notification on covert ops to Congress.

Section 501(b) of the National Security Act of 1947 must be interpreted in the light of § 501 as a whole and in light of the President’s broad and independent constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy. The requirement that the President inform certain congressional committees “in a timely fashion” of a foreign intelligence operation as to which those committees were not given prior notice should be read to leave the President with discretion to postpone informing the committees until he determines that the success of the operation will not be jeopardized thereby. Because the recent contacts with elements of the Iranian government could reasonably have been thought to require the utmost secrecy, the President was justified in withholding § 501(b) notification during the ongoing effort to cultivate those individuals and seek their aid in promoting the interests of the United States.

Effectively, Cooper came in, after the fact, and said it was no big deal that Ronald Reagan didn’t tell Congress he was negotiating with a sworn enemy of the United States to get around funding restrictions they had put into place. The opinion has been used since to keep Congress in the dark about things it should know — including, ironically, some of Obama’s negotiations with Iran.

Hawks should be most concerned, however, that Trump would use this to free Mike Flynn to negotiate with Russia and Syria without notice to Congress. Me, I’d be more worried that it would be used (again) to hide a torture program from Congress.

Our Syrian Rebels Are Issuing Threats Via WaPo

This is a striking article in the WaPo. It deals extensively with setbacks rebels in Syria have already suffered at the hand of Russia’s campaign. But it bears this headline, as if Trump’s administration, not Russian intervention (and Obama’s mixed commitment), is the key change.

Fearing abandonment by Trump, CIA-backed rebels in Syria mull alternatives

As I said, the story provides plenty of evidence the real change here stems from Russian involvement, not Trump’s election. But Trump’s election provides a way for a bunch of people to issue threats about what rebels might do in response to their fading fortunes.

The story quotes some anonymous US officials which likely includes Adam Schiff, who is also quoted by name, as well as an anonymous “U.S.-vetted rebel commander” who apparently speaks for the thousands the article claims to represent, and Qatar’s foreign minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Jassim al-Thani, suggesting that if rebels aren’t helped more America’s alliance with the Gulf States may be in trouble. It also lays out what Trump’s incoming team, including Mike Flynn and James Mattis, might feel about how a Syrian win would help Iran.

I’m most interested in this part of the article, in which a single US official lays out a certain narrative about the US backed rebels — basically pretending that the covert program has worked.

The possibility of cutting loose opposition groups it has vetted, trained and armed would be a jolt to a CIA already unsettled by the low opinion of U.S. intelligence capabilities that Trump had expressed during his presidential campaign.

From a slow and disorganized start, the opposition “accomplished many of the goals the U.S. hoped for,” including their development into a credible fighting force that showed signs of pressuring Assad into negotiations, had Russia not begun bombing and Iran stepped up its presence on the ground, said one of several U.S. officials who discussed the situation on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The United States estimates that there are 50,000 or more fighters it calls “moderate opposition,” concentrated in the northwest province of Idlib, in Aleppo and in smaller pockets throughout western and southern Syria, and that they are not likely to give up.

“They’ve been fighting for years, and they’ve managed to survive,” the U.S. official said. “Their opposition to Assad is not going to fade away.”

Not only does this passage far overstate the success of US efforts, but it — like Qatar’s foreign minister — threatens that these armed men won’t go away if the US backs Assad.

No matter what you think of US efforts in Syria, this kind of narrative from the people who’ve backed an unsuccessful covert program is fairly disturbing, as if even the US officials in the story are siding with the more explicit threats from Qatar against the US.

Yes, if Trump really remains committed to his promised partnership with Russia (assuming he and the nutjobs he has hired can manage that relationship, which I doubt), the rebels will side with Qatar (and the Saudis and who knows what Erdogan will do?) against Assad — which has basically been what they’ve been doing all this time anyway. Yes, if that happens, the US will lose its leverage over Qatar, with potentially dangerous consequences.

But this sounds awfully close to Americans turning against American policy, no matter how untutored Trump is.

The Purge, the Benghazi Report, and Trump’s Claim Obama Created ISIS

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When I learned yesterday that, in addition to “purging” Mike Rogers, Trump had added Devin Nunes and Crazy Pete Hoekstra to his transition team (thus replacing Rogers with both his predecessor and successor as House Intelligence Chair), I wondered whether the Benghazi report had something to do with the exchange. As I noted when the House Intelligence Committee’s report came out, Nunes repeatedly asked questions that Rogers cut short.

The NYT confirms that that is, indeed, one of the reasons Rogers got purged.

One member of the transition team said that at least one reason Mr. Rogers had fallen out of favor among Mr. Trump’s advisers was that, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he had overseen a report about the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which concluded that the Obama administration had not intentionally misled the public about the events there. That report echoed the findings of numerous other government investigations into the episode.

The report’s conclusions were at odds with the campaign position of Mr. Trump, who repeatedly blamed Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent and the secretary of state during the attacks, for the resulting deaths of four Americans.

In point of fact, the Additional Views that Rogers released with three other Republicans on the committee (but not Nunes) did find,

Senior U.S. officials perpetuated an inaccurate story that matched the Administration’s misguided view that the United States was nearing victory over al-Qa’ida.

The Additional Views also blamed State for ignoring safety concerns in Benghazi.

So that may not be the key difference between Rogers and Trump with regards to the Benghazi report.

Instead, consider what the report did not say about CIA’s facilitation of Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish arms transfers to Syria during this period — and Nunes’ attempts to push this issue further.

The report concludes that, “The CIA was not collecting and shipping arms from Libya to Syria.” It then explains how it proved this, noting that all witnesses (it sourced its reports only to security personnel and the Benghazi base chief, not the officers at the Annex) said they had not seen any non-CIA weapons at the Annex. But then it said:

From the Annex in Benghazi, the CIA was collecting intelligence about foreign entities that were themselves collecting weapons in Libya and facilitating their passage to Syria.

Here’s what the transcript of the committee’s interview with Mike Morell and the other intel bosses actually shows (page 15):

Mr. [Devin] Nunes: Are we aware of any arms that are leaving that area and going into Syria?

Mr. Morell: Yes, sir.

Mr. Nunes: And who is coordinating that?

Mr. Morell: I believe largely the [redacted–right length for Saudis] are coordinating that.

Mr. Nunes: They are leaving Benghazi ports and going to Syria?

Mr. Morell: I don’t know how they are getting the weapons from Libya to Syria. But there are weapons going from Libya to Syria. And there are probably a number of actors involved in that. One of the biggest are the [redacted–could be Qataris]

Mr. Nunes: And were the CIA folks that were there, were they helping to coordinate that, or were they watching it, were they gathering information about it?

Mr. Morell: Sir, the focus of my officers in Benghazi was [redacted], to try to penetrate the terrorist groups that were there so we could learn their plans, intentions and capabilities

Mike Rogers then interrupts because not everyone in the room is cleared to hear about what the CIA was doing in Benghazi. (Note, Fox’s Catherine Herridge also covered this here.)

Four months later, in a follow-up interview of Morell (file one, file two, at the break), Nunes picked up that line of questioning again. Having gotten Morell to state that there were weapons for security folks at the annex, he tries to clarify that none of these were being sent on. Mike Rogers again interrupts to offer “clarification,” though it becomes clear that on at least one occasion the CIA facility was used to transfer weapons.

The Chairman: There may be an exception, but that was not the rule.

So at the very least CIA was watching its allies send weapons from Libya to Syria, which given the clusterfuck in Syria — most notably the possibility that these weapons are now in the hands of ISIL — may be one reason to moderate the report.

That is, the interviews behind the report include clear evidence that the CIA was watching our allies run arms to Syria (and note, even there, Morell stopped short of saying the CIA wasn’t directly involved). Evidence that Nunes had a particular interest in pursuing.

Now consider a pair of rather famous DIA reports — reports done at a time that Trump advisor Mike Flynn was running the agency — on how the US ended up on the same side as al Qaeda in Syria.

What did the CIA know and when did they know it?

That’s the real question that ought to be raised by a recently declassified Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report, obtained by Judicial Watch in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The August 2012 document describes how the U.S. ended up on the same general side in the Syrian Civil War as Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS. “AQI supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning,” the report explained. Meanwhile, “[w]estern countries, the Gulf states, and Turkey are supporting” rebel efforts against the Assad regime in a proxy war, putting them on the same side as, if not working together with, the terrorists now overrunning Iraq.

Some outlets have concluded that this means “the West intentionally sponsored violent Islamist groups to destabilize Assad.”

But as Juan Cole counters, the report that western powers supported rebels “doesn’t say that the US created sectarian groups and it does not say that the US favors al-Qaeda in Syria or the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq.’” Cole continues, “It says that those powers (e.g. Turkey and the Gulf monarchies) supporting the opposition wanted to see the declaration of a Salafi (hard line Sunni) breakaway statelet, in order to put pressure on the al-Assad regime.”

In a nutshell, Cole argues that the U.S. didn’t support Al-Qaeda in Syria directly. But its allies certainly did.

Two months after the report laying out AQI support for the rebels — another of the documents obtained by Judicial Watch shows — the DIA provided a detailed description of how weapons got shipped from Benghazi to Syria, presumably for rebel groups. “During the immediate aftermath of, and following the uncertainty caused by, the downfall of the [Qaddafi] regime in October 2011 and up until early September of 2012,” the report explained, “weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya, to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria.”

The report obtained by Judicial Watch says that the weapons shipments ended in “early September of 2012.” But note what event this second report conspicuously does not mention: The Sept. 11 attack on the State Department and CIA facilities in Benghazi at the same time that the flow of weapons stopped.

By all appearances, the Benghazi attack interrupted a CIA effort to arm the rebels in Syria that the US government acknowledged were allied with al Qaeda.

That’s what the Rogers-directed HPSCI report did not include.

Just as importantly, this fits in with what Flynn has said during the campaign [RT link intentional]. which is where Trump got the claim that Obama (and Hillary) “created” ISIS.

In addition, recall that in Flynn’s wake, DIA whistleblowers revealed that their more pessimistic take on ISIS was getting softened before it got to CentCom bosses.

Two senior analysts at CENTCOM signed a written complaint sent to the Defense Department inspector general in July alleging that the reports, some of which were briefed to President Obama, portrayed the terror groups as weaker than the analysts believe they are. The reports were changed by CENTCOM higher-ups to adhere to the administration’s public line that the U.S. is winning the battle against ISIS and al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the analysts claim.

That complaint was supported by 50 other analysts, some of whom have complained about politicizing of intelligence reports for months. That’s according to 11 individuals who are knowledgeable about the details of the report and who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.

You can see where this is going. One of the first things Trump has done has been to ensure agreement in its national security team on this point: that by letting our Middle Eastern allies arm al Qaeda-allied fighters, the Obama Administration created the mess that is in Syria.

And unanimity on that point — accompanied by what is sure to be a very ugly campaign of recriminations against the Obama Administration for cooking intelligence (even aside from the merit of this claim, Flynn has been bitter about his firing for what he sees as objecting to this cooked intelligence) — will provide the basis for Trump to work with Putin on ending the civil war in Syria to Bashar al-Assad’s advantage.

Mike Flynn Invokes OUR Anthrax and Calls Them the Terrorists

In an interview to mark his departure from the Defense Intelligence Agency, General Mike Flynn talks about the increased threats facing the United States.

Here’s one:

For instance, we’re doing all we can to understand the outflow of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq, many of them with Western passports, because another threat I’ve warned about is Islamic terrorists in Syria acquiring chemical or biological weapons. We know they are trying to get their hands on chemical weapons and use what they already have to create a chemical weapons capability.

Remember anthrax was used in 2001 [killing five people] and pretty much paralyzed Capitol Hill. If that anthrax had been dispersed more efficiently, it could have killed a quarter million people.

That is, Flynn points to an anthrax terror attack officially blamed on a defense lab employee, not actually solved convincingly at all, but almost certainly carried out by a US government employee or contractor, and says that’s proof terrorists are more dangerous than they used to be.

And he does so to make sure we’re scared. He uses political violence to make sure we treat what is admittedly expanding crises as war.

But he says the mindset of jihadists fighting perpetual wars is something the US cannot understand.

JK: You also said recently that terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden represent the leadership of al-Qaeda, but that “core al-Qaeda” is its ideology of perpetual jihad.

Flynn: Yes, and unfortunately the core ideology and belief system is spreading, not shrinking. Look at the unbelievably violent videos [of beheadings, executions and the destruction of religious places] coming out of Iraq just in recent days. I’ve physically interrogated some of these guys, and I’ve had the opportunity to hear them talking about their organizations and beliefs. These are people who have a very deeply-rooted belief system that is just difficult for Americans to comprehend. Just think about the mindset of a suicide bomber.

Nowhere besides America’s domestic anthrax attacker does Flynn mention our own actions, not even in his discussion of Ukraine — unless you count extremist adaptation to our attacks.

JK: When the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria routed the Iraqi Army recently, the terrorists also appeared to have become much better organized, disciplined and led.

Flynn: These various groups have learned from fighting the U.S. military for a decade, and they have created adaptive organizations as a means to survive.

Which Flynn immediately follows with this observation about how crafty those Islamic extremists are:

They write about and share ‘Lessons Learned’ all the time. That was something Bin Laden taught them before he died. 

Those crafty terrorists. Actually learning lessons!