Mike Allen has an interesting take on why Donald Trump decided to accuse President Obama of having tapped the phones in Trump Tower late in the campaign. He provides some interesting reporting, too, including the news that “some — though definitely not all — members of President Trump’s inner circle share” his conspiratorial view. What Allen doesn’t seem to get, however, is how to assign risk to the move. For example, this is incomplete at best:
But the risk is that there’ll be a day of reckoning — perhaps after documents are subpoenaed and testimony demanded — when a Republican Congress embarrasses the White House by saying the president was flat wrong when he accused his predecessor of a crime.
That Trump might get exposed as having been aggressively wrong is a small risk, and one he seems to weather routinely. The real risk is that he’s partially right and an investigation will turn up who, why, and how senior members of his campaign and other close associates were put under surveillance at various points during the campaign.
If he hadn’t asked Congress to investigate this, they would have had a much easier time not getting the answers simply by not asking the right people the right questions. But if they do now investigate this, and they actually subpoena documents and testimony, they’ll have to share the resulting information with at least the Democrats and their staffs on the investigating committees.
The reporting on these matters has been all over the place, and sometimes as clear as mud. But it seems pretty clear, at least, that the intelligence community has been investigating Trump associates for about a year now. Here’s how it began:
Last April, the CIA director was shown intelligence that worried him. It was – allegedly – a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into [Trump’s] presidential campaign.
It was passed to the US by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States. The CIA cannot act domestically against American citizens so a joint counter-intelligence taskforce was created.
The taskforce included six agencies or departments of government. Dealing with the domestic, US, side of the inquiry, were the FBI, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of Justice. For the foreign and intelligence aspects of the investigation, there were another three agencies: the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency, responsible for electronic spying.
That the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was involved tells you that it was probably considered as much a counterintelligence investigation as a criminal one. The head of counterintelligence for our country is William Evanina. He’s responsible for catching moles or double agents. He’s the guy who was put in charge of pulling together “a White House-ordered review of election year cyber-intrusions.” Here’s what he had to say about his task back in December:
“It gets characterized as the ‘government of Russia,’ ” he says. “Well, in our world, it’s a little bit more complicated than that.”
An investigation by the private cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike has attributed the hacks to Russia’s military and domestic security agencies. Evanina is probing that further.
“There’s an intense competitiveness within the Russian intelligence services,” he notes. “The GRU [main intelligence directorate] and the SVR [foreign intelligence service] and the FSB [federal security service] are competing for resource dollars and for activity here in the U.S.”
That presents both challenge and opportunity for American spy agencies. Knowing which specific adversary they’re dealing with, Evanina says, helps to inform the response.
Meanwhile, he estimates that more than 100 Russian spies are operating on U.S. soil right now.
“They’re here to do their country’s bidding,” he says. “Acquiring plans and intentions of our country, and stealing our trade secrets and proprietary information. Our job is to identify them and track them down, surveil them and neutralize their efforts.”
You could see some of the fruits of his labors when President Obama expelled 35 Russian “diplomats” from the country on December 29th.
Now, try to imagine how Mr. Evanina felt when he learned on January 2nd that President Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn had been on the phone repeatedly December 29th reassuring the Russian ambassador that there need be no reciprocal American expulsions from Russia because the new administration would take a different approach.
Imagine how he felt when he listened to Donald Trump later explain that he hadn’t ordered Flynn to do this but that he would have ordered him to do it if he hadn’t already done so.
Evanina’s former boss, James Clapper, left his position on Inauguration Day. He went on Meet the Press yesterday and said some significant things. First, in a careful, measured way, he denied that any surveillance of the type Trump had suggested had been placed on Trump Tower in the time frame that Trump had suggested. He also said that although he was confident in Russia’s culpability in hacking, he did not have proof of collusion with the Trump campaign at the time he left the government. And then he called for more investigation, including from Congress.
There is at least some reason to believe that more information has been gathered since Clapper stepped down. The British reporter Louise Mensch spent all weekend on Twitter trying to make this point, asking us to look at an article that CNN published in February that included this:
For the first time, US investigators say they have corroborated some of the communications detailed in a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent, multiple current and former US law enforcement and intelligence officials tell CNN…
…None of the newly learned information relates to the salacious allegations in the dossier. Rather it relates to conversations between foreign nationals. The dossier details about a dozen conversations between senior Russian officials and other Russian individuals. Sources would not confirm which specific conversations were intercepted or the content of those discussions due to the classified nature of US intelligence collection programs.
But the intercepts do confirm that some of the conversations described in the dossier took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier, according to the officials. CNN has not confirmed whether any content relates to then-candidate Trump.
The corroboration, based on intercepted communications, has given US intelligence and law enforcement “greater confidence” in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier as they continue to actively investigate its contents, these sources say.
All of that corroboration occurred after Clapper was no longer our Director of National Intelligence. And, of course, any things that add credence to the British dossier also add credence to the theory that there was collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.
If I were to try to document all the evidence that the intelligence community sought to surveil associates of Trump during the campaign, it would make this too long of a post, so I’ll try to do that in a follow-up piece. For now, I’ll just point you to reporting done by Louise Mencsh at Heat Street, Paul Wood at the BBC, and Julian Borger at the Guardian, all of which supports the idea that there was a FISA court warrant issued in October to look at connections between the Russians and members or associates of the Trump campaign.
It should be kept in mind that Donald Trump’s allegations didn’t accurately reflect what these articles reported, so Clapper’s denials aren’t necessarily refutations of what the articles say. In any case, Clapper isn’t exactly a credible source since he lied to Congress himself, and he’s known for his well-developed ability to parse.
Whether or not a FISA Court warrant was issued in mid-October or not may be relevant to what Trump has claimed, both as to whether surveillance occurred and whether it was illegal. But the broader question of surveillance during the campaign shouldn’t be in question. What, after all, do you call a task force that “included six agencies or departments of government” that was set up (in April or shortly thereafter) to look into allegations of collusion?
It’s obvious that collusion is suspected and even believed as an article of faith within a broad segment of the intelligence community, and they’ve been leaking like a sieve about it for months because they’re desperate to keep the investigation alive. But, until Trump invited this congressional investigation, none of these folks had permission or the ability to speak on the record or to testify as to what they know or suspect.
Now they not only have that permission, but they may be called to justify the surveillance they conducted. They will be ecstatic to have that opportunity.
Trump may have been goaded into making this mistake or he just may have acted without foresight, but he will probably regret opening up avenues of disclosure that he had locked down pretty tight.