We Need to Know What the Intelligence Community Knows

I am getting a little frustrated with how elements of the #TrumpRussia story are continually confirmed and expanded upon without giving us much more clarity. For example, today’s Guardian story provides more insight into which countries were observing disturbing and suspicious contacts between Trump figures and known or suspected Russian spies, but it doesn’t do anything to help us understand why these contacts were so concerning.

For example, we now know that Australia, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Estonia, and the British were all bothered enough by observed Trump/Russia meetings and communications that they separately shared information about it with our intelligence community. But we’re left in the dark about what any of these countries learned.

All these countries are continually tracking Russians who they suspect or know to be covert operators. All of them noticed people of this type coming into contact with folks in Trump’s orbit. All of them found these contacts to be suspicious enough to warrant sharing the information with the Americans. And, of course, Christopher Steele discovered the same thing even though he was retired from MI6 and working in the private sector without the benefit of the signals intelligence or satellite technology, etc., that the national agencies could employ.

In Steele’s case, we have some of his so-called dodgy dossier, which is mostly un-redacted. But we don’t have the transcripts of intercepted electronic communications or geo-positioning data or other travel records. We don’t have the results of any forensic financial investigations.

What we can easily surmise is that a pattern was widely observable of Trump folks coming into contact with Russian operatives. This could result if Russia was the instigator of all these contacts, and we might pick up in this way on a concerted effort on their part to penetrate Trump’s inner circle even if the effort was ultimately unsuccessful.

This would be the innocent explanation. It’s now clear, though, that at least in the case of Carter Page, our intelligence community was successful in convincing a FISC judge that he was acting wittingly as a Russian spy. This indicates that the penetration effort was remarkably successful, since Page was named by Trump as one of only a small handful of his foreign policy advisers. Michael Flynn was a potentially gigantic penetration, as he went on to be named the National Security Adviser. Paul Manafort came forward with an offer to work for the Trump campaign for free, despite being a highly paid mercenary political consultant in all other areas of his career. We know Manafort was in the pay of Putin-controlled oligarchs and Ukrainian officials and subject to blackmail the entire time he was working for Trump.

This is all very substantial penetration, and it seemed to have had obvious results in terms of the positions Trump took throughout the campaign. It was too obvious, in my opinion. Perhaps this is why many analysts suspect the goal was less to control an administration they had little reason to believe would ever be formed than it was to split the Republican foreign policy establishment and sow discord, with the hope of undermining support for the sanctions.

Still, we’re stuck at this level of speculation because we know that there were extensive contacts but we know little about what was communicated during these contacts, or who initiated them, or what the Trump folks actually did after making these contacts.

If you step back for a minute, though, you can try to imagine how our intelligence community must have felt when Trump simply refused to believe them when they presented him with evidence of Russian meddling and efforts to penetrate his campaign. Imagine what they thought when he named Michael Flynn as his National Security Adviser despite the fact that he was one of the main suspects and had been since at least 2015. And, finally, imagine how they felt when they caught Flynn repeatedly communicating with the Russian ambassador (on the day the Obama administration announced reprisals for election interference) and sending the message not to respond or retaliate because the policy would soon be reviewed and probably reversed.

The first step was for the intelligence community to leak to David Ignatius of the Washington Post that they were aware of Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador. The second step was to the contact the White House Counsel’s office directly and not so gently suggest that Michael Flynn was lying about his contacts and now subject to Russian blackmail. When neither hint was taken, the third and final step was to leak the content of Flynn’s call which promptly resulted in his resignation.

That was some pretty extreme stuff to do to an incoming administration, but fully justified based on their investigation of Flynn. I’m not sure why they didn’t cut him off at the pass by revoking his security clearances before he could take the job in the first place. That’s the step they took with Robin Townley, one of Flynn’s top appointments to the National Security Council.

Our allies are now saying that our intelligence community was too slow to heed their warnings, but the explanation is that they’re trained not to investigate American citizens or to get too close to ongoing political campaigns. You can see why by how Trump’s supporters react to each new revelation, as if Obama was coordinating all this surveillance of Team Trump himself. Personally, I think everyone was lulled into complacency by the polls which indicated all along that Trump had little chance of actually winning. That made people more inclined to think the problem would in some ways resolve itself and in others could be addressed later on when it was not going to be such a sensitive matter.

When Trump actually won, that’s when the intelligence community finally got serious. But their drip-drip-drip leaks are not enough. We need the details.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.