“The strange sight of liberal America participating in a neo-McCarthyite assault on Trump appointees, not on the grounds of their inherent racism and stupidity, but because they have contacts with Russia, is among the more surreal spectacles of modern political history.”
— John Steppling, Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, a Secret Agent of Vladimir Putin?, CounterPunch
If Donald Trump is found guilty of illegal behavior in his connections with Russia, then he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But shouldn’t the same rule apply to Obama? Shouldn’t Obama be held responsible if he authorized an illegal investigation of the Trump campaign in order to destroy a political enemy?
A widely-circulated article in the New York Times casts suspicion on the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. The article titled “Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking” strongly insinuates that Russian “tampering” might have helped the campaign “tip the election in Mr. Trump’s favor.”
These are serious charges and Congress is currently taking steps to investigate whether there’s any substance to the allegations or not.
But a careful reading of the Times article also reveals disturbing details about the overzealous manner in which the White House attempted to build its case against Trump. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
“In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government.” (“Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking”, New York Times)
The opening sentence sounds innocent enough until we get more background later in the article. Halfway through the piece, we see that things are much more murky than they seem. Check it out:
“At intelligence agencies, there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government — and, in some cases, among European allies. This allowed the upload of as much intelligence as possible to Intellipedia, a secret wiki used by American analysts to share information….There was also an effort to pass reports and other sensitive materials to Congress.” (New York Times)
Let’s paraphrase and readers can decide whether they think my analysis is fair or not:
In the final days of the Obama administration, White House officials made a concerted effort to spread unsubstantiated information about Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the 2016 election. The administration also tried to uncover contacts between associates of Trump and Russia that could be used in future investigations or impeachment proceedings. Presumably, the contacts would be used to create the impression that Trump or his lieutenants were guilty of criminal wrongdoing even though, so far, there is no evidence of any impropriety. Since there was no proof that Trump or his colleagues were involved in anything nefarious, most people would be inclined to call the Obama investigation a “fishing expedition” which is an unfocused probe aimed at uncovering incriminating evidence.
Aside from the fact that the Intel agencies were spying on the members of a presidential campaign without probable cause and without any evidence of criminal wrongdoing; the fact that they decided to release “raw intelligence” that was re-classified so that it could be disseminated as widely as possible, suggests that someone may have acted improperly if not illegally. At the very least, we must assume that higher-ups in the administration (The DOJ?) authorized the Intel agencies to “dig up dirt” on a political enemy in order to roll back the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Is that a fair reading of the two paragraphs in the Times?
More from the NYT: “There was also an effort to pass reports and other sensitive materials to Congress” (and to) ” European allies.”
Who made that decision? Someone (Obama, the DOJ, the CIA?) sought to disseminate as much damaging information as possible to as many people as possible to undermine the new administration and create a legal foundation for impeachment proceedings. The fact that the information they were disseminating was “raw intelligence”– which was not necessarily reliable– suggests that the primary objective was not to reveal the truth, but to use whatever tools that were available to sabotage the Trump presidency.
More from the NYT:
“Mr. Trump has denied that his campaign had any contact with Russian officials, and at one point he openly suggested that American spy agencies had cooked up intelligence suggesting that the Russian government had tried to meddle in the presidential election. Mr. Trump has accused the Obama administration of hyping the Russia story line as a way to discredit his new administration.”(New York Times)
Trump has denied the allegations because, so far, there’s been no evidence to verify the claims. None of the Intel agents who leaked to the media have identified themselves. None of the Intel agencies have come forward and verified the claims of their agents. None of the alleged connections with Russia suggest that a felony or even a misdemeanor was committed. And none of the leaks provide any proof that Russia was behind the alleged “hacks” at the DNC. So far, there is no proof of anything; no eyewitnesses, no corroborating evidence, and no indication that Trump or anyone in his campaign broke the law.
The whole fiasco appears to be a very desperate and sloppily constructed smear campaign based on the flimsy belief that Trump and his team collaborated with Moscow to steal the election. The Times even admits as much in this one revealing sentence in the article:
“It also reflected the suspicion among many in the Obama White House that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia on election email hacks — a suspicion that American officials say has not been confirmed.” (New York Times)
The Obama administration (or someone at the DOJ?) launched a full-blown investigation including the wiretapping of phones– on the mere “suspicion” of foul play? (Note: The New York Times admitted in a February 14, 2017 headline article that intelligence officials had “intercepted calls” and “communications” from members of the Trump campaign. Then, again, in a January 19, 2017 article the Times admitted that “wiretapped communications had been provided to the White House” although investigators had “found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, the officials said.”)
Can the president spy on a political opponent because he has a ‘hunch’ that his opponent might be up to something? Is that the standard we apply in authorizing the tapping of phones or other unknown types of electronic surveillance that might have been used in this case? Whatever happened to “probable cause”? Has that legal concept been jettisoned along with the rest of the Forth Amendment?
If the Obama administration was spying on Trump or members of his campaign, the Loretta Lynch Justice Department would have had to have gotten a warrant from the secretive FISA court first. But according to George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley, “the standards for FISA are so low and easily satisfied that it is difficult to establish any illegality under the law.”
“The President can technically request the warrant but it still has to go through the process. Obama couldn’t authorize it on his own. The Attorney General still has to sign off and the FISA judge still has to authorize the warrant,” said Bradley Moss, an attorney and national security expert.
So there is a legal process that prevents the president from acting independently, but the standards for procuring a warrant are considerably lower those of a normal court, which means that someone’s civil rights are going to be violated. The FISA system is, in fact, a shadow justice system that was created to protect the interests of the state. Now it is being used to target political enemies. (Note: NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, thinks that Trumps phones were bugged by the NSA without a warrant. Also, when former Attorney General Michael Mukasey was asked on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday whether Donald Trump had been the “the target of surveillance ordered up by his predecessor”? Mukasey said that he thought Trump was “right in that there was surveillance and that it was conducted at the behest of the attorney of the Justice Department through the FISA court.” In other words, Mukasey believes that Trump Tower was bugged via some form of electronic surveillance.)
What we need to know is whether Obama or the DOJ had probable cause for the extraordinarily intrusive investigation that was authorized. We also need to know who was involved in the decision to allow the Intel agencies to disseminate “raw intelligence” not only to other government officials and the European allies, but also to members of the media who were expected to compose unsourced articles that would inflict maximum damage on Trump and his administration.
Like I said earlier, if Trump is found guilty of illegal behavior in his connections with Russia, then he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But if Obama or the DOJ abused their authority by using the Intelligence agencies and the media to conduct a politically-motivated witch hunt aimed at crushing a political rival and reversing the results of the election, then they should be held accountable.
Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.