Dwight Eisenhower warned that if we didn’t stay vigilant, the military-industrial complex would start creeping into politics with pernicious motives all its own. The intelligence community’s war of leaks against Trump before he’s even taken office is just the latest questionably politicized action in the decades since Eisenhower’s farewell address. And it’s safe to say that the intelligence community pushing unproven and absurd allegations about a president-elect’s sexual perversions is probably way worse than anything Ike imagined.
In order to understand how we got to this perilous place and get a handle on what’s going on, it’s worth taking a closer look at the motives and allegations of political operatives in intelligence agencies, as well as the basic timeline of allegations of Russian electoral interference in the last few months. Far from discrediting Trump, it paints a worrisome portrait of the deep state gone rogue, desperate to stop a man who, whatever his considerable flaws, is an outsider to Washington.
Trump’s made emphatic promises to dramatically alter America’s foreign policy priorities and governmental operations. Given all the craziness, we have to ask ourselves: Does the intelligence community genuinely believe Trump is a real-live Manchurian candidate, or are they simply trying to protect their power and bureaucracy? And at this point, do they even know the difference?
‘A Leakstorm Of Biblical Proportions’
Last week, Trump’s critics began warning him not to cast doubt on intelligence assessments or the motives of partisans in intelligence agencies.
According to The Hill:
New Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump is “being really dumb” by taking on the intelligence community and its assessments on Russia’s cyber activities.
“Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you,” Schumer told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
“So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.”
You can watch it here.
Presidential historian Timothy Naftali said on a CNN panel that Trump should stay “silent” lest harmful information be released against him. A former CIA operative warned Trump off on CNN as well:
Former George. W. Bush speechwriter David Frum said it, too:
These political operatives were telling the truth about a terrifying reality about the power of intelligence agencies. They were admitting that intelligence agencies will use their position to retaliate for political reasons.
This is a very curious way to get back at someone for saying that your work product is the result of political considerations more than objective reality.
A Spearfish, a Hack, and a Failed Oppo Research Dump
Following Trump’s suprise win in the 2016 election, the Left has struggled to accept reality. They have bounced around from raw riots and protests, to rage at FBI Director James Comey for publicly revealing the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, to a campaign to undermine the Electoral College, to an utterly bizarre obsession with something they called “fake news.”
Democratic operatives and allies in the media also returned to a theme that they’d failed to make stick during the general election race, which was the allegation of Trump’s close ties to Russia. This is a fertile area for allegations if for no other reason than Trump is reluctant to express even the faintest of criticism of the Putin regime, no matter how egregious the matter at hand. From the perspective of his team, this is best understood in the context of his desire to work with Russia on shared goals such as the fighting of Islamist terrorism and in general to forge a realigned posture toward the region.
On October 7, 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence officially blamed Russia for links to the hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s email, and the successful operation to get John Podesta to click on a link he shouldn’t have. Podesta clicking on a link he shouldn’t have resulted in embarrassing emails about the Clinton campaign being released through WikiLeaks. The hacked DNC information was also released on WikiLeaks. The official assessment reiterated that the shenanigans were typical behavior for the Russians and that there was little danger of the electoral system being compromised.
An opposition research dump happened on October 31 or thereabouts. Franklin Foer published a story in Slate headlined, “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” The story never quite explained what exactly was going on or why it was supposed to be disconcerting.
Julia Ioffe (then at Politico, now at The Atlantic, and a regular writer on Russia) uncritically accepted the report:
It turned out to be nothing. Like really nothing. Something like one computer trying to send marketing email to another. It was at this time that David Corn of Mother Jones also ran his report on the dossier that BuzzFeed published last week, a dossier that no one else ran with because it was so unverifiable. There were also two other stories published at the same time that dealt with anonymous leaks from intelligence officials about investigations into Trump and Russia.
The coordinated opposition dump didn’t work out. The New York Times and many other publications immediately debunked the server story, and the Corn report was taken as it was — a single source hit based on questionable information. But there was an attempt to resurrect the Russia talking point after the election. The general theme was that Russians were bad and in cahoots with Trump.
For instance, a couple of weeks after the election, the Washington Post‘s Craig Timberg put forth a serious allegation that “fake news” itself was a Russian operation designed to help Trump. From Columbia Journalism Review:
THE WASHINGTON POST’S November 24 report checked all the boxes: “The flood of ‘fake news’ this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign,” it began. Not only had American voters been influenced by a deliberate misinformation operation, the story suggested, but the Kremlin was largely to blame. Journalists and Democrats still searching for answers after Donald Trump’s out-of-left-field win quickly launched the piece into an accelerating November jet stream of fake news paranoia.
It became apparent soon after that the Post had itself fallen for shoddy information. The story relied heavily on a report by PropOrNot, an anonymous internet group that bills itself as “Your Friendly Neighborhood Propaganda Identification Service, Since 2016!” While its study claimed to show how a deliberate Russian effort had unduly influenced American public opinion, it included in its calculations non-fake, left-wing sites like Naked Capitalism and Truthdig, among others.
An editor’s note was appended backing away from the report, some two weeks later.
In late December, the Washington Post‘s Juliet Eilperin and Adam Entous ran an even more incendiary story alleging that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electricity grid. A Forbes discussion of how this story promulgated falsehoods without journalistic due diligence began:
On Friday the Washington Post sparked a wave of fear when it ran the breathless headline “Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont, U.S. officials say.” The lead sentence offered “A code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by the Obama administration has been detected within the system of a Vermont utility, according to U.S. officials” and continued “While the Russians did not actively use the code to disrupt operations of the utility, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a security matter, the penetration of the nation’s electrical grid is significant because it represents a potentially serious vulnerability.”
Yet, it turns out this narrative was false…
In fact, by January 2 the story had turned into:
As in, it turned out to be a lone laptop, unconnected to the grid, that had some random malware on it.
The Intel Community Gets Going
The overt participation in the Russia narrative by intelligence operatives was noticed on December 9, which was 10 days prior to the Electoral College vote, when high-ranking intelligence officers leaked information to the Washington Post about a report it had put together regarding Russia’s involvement with WikiLeaks. “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House,” read the headline. It credited the leak to “a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators.”
Prominent Democrats ran with it. Here’s Hillary Clinton on December 16:
“Vladimir Putin himself directed the covert cyber attacks against our electoral system, against our democracy, apparently because he has a personal beef against me,” she said.
Holy schneike! Democrats would be forgiven for believing that a “cyber attack against our electoral system” happened when Clinton herself said it and no one in the media pushed back that it was completely and utterly false. A CNN report accompanying the statement didn’t note that her statement was false — not even in the storied chyron used to allege or note falsehoods by Trump — but just treated it as a totally legitimate thing to say.
Presumably because this was all a rather obvious and coordinated effort to hype Russia’s effect on the election in pursuit of delegitimizing his stunning victory, Trump fought back. His transition team said, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.'”
In general, Trump has responded to the leak campaign by belittling the top partisans at intelligence agencies. They responded by putting out reports designed to convince people of serious Russian meddling when they didn’t just take their word in the initial leak to the Washington Post.
In late December, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI put out a 13-page report touted as definitive proof of Russian state involvement in the DNC server hack and spearphishing of John Podesta. It was remarkably paltry — vague and non-specific in a way that really didn’t help shape American opinion on the precise nature of Russia’s involvement.
Cyber warfare expert Jeffrey Carr said the report “adds nothing to the call for evidence that the Russian government was responsible” for the campaign hacks. He said it merely listed every threat ever reported on by a commercial cybersecurity company that is suspected of being Russian-made and lumped them under the heading of Russian Intelligence Services without providing any supporting evidence that such a connection exists. Former Air Force cyberwarfare officer Robert Lee said the report is of limited use to security professionals, in part because of poor organization and lack of crucial details.
Senior intelligence appointees tried again in early January, with a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It was also lacking in specifics.
Trump kept pushing back on what he likely continued to interpret as a rather clumsy and obvious attempt by Obama operatives to delegitimize his election.
The Intelligence Appointees Retaliate
As Trump kept responding to the paltry reports with dismissals and a few begrudging admissions of minor Russian involvement, critics warned him partisans at intelligence agencies would retaliate.
Last week came the big reveal. “Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him,” blared the headline from CNN. This one was a doozy. Well-placed sources were spilling the goods that the current administration’s top intelligence appointees had briefed Obama, Biden, and Trump all about that Mother Jones dossier. And it sounded really bad, as the headline indicates. “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump” we learned. And this:
The allegations came, in part, from memos compiled by a former British intelligence operative, whose past work US intelligence officials consider credible. The FBI is investigating the credibility and accuracy of these allegations, which are based primarily on information from Russian sources, but has not confirmed many essential details in the memos about Mr. Trump.
We learned that the briefings were done by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers. The CNN report, which carried four bylines, said “it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations” in the 35-page dossier, an important point to remember.
Within an hour, BuzzFeed went and published the dossier that had been floating around. And it was just as explosive as CNN hinted. According to this report, the one that intelligence agencies were taking very seriously, a senior advisor to Trump and three of his colleagues had met with Kremlin operatives in Prague in late August or early September to undermine the Clinton campaign. And the Russians had a file of “kompromat” on Trump, including an amazing story about him renting a hotel room that the Obamas had used and paying prostitutes to urinate on the bed.
Further reports on the ex-spy make him sound like a highly partisan nutcase, for what it’s worth. And that spy was hired by a Democratic opposition research firm called Fusion GPS, which received attention in 2012 for its dumpster diving in pursuit of damaging information on Republican donors that President Barack Obama had personally called out.
But with the BuzzFeed publication, the story deflated. That’s because people could see for themselves how ridiculous, how preposterous, and how immediately debunkable some of the most important claims were. For instance, it turned out that Michael Cohen, the lawyer alleged to have gone to Prague for a clandestine meeting with Kremlin operatives, had never been to Prague. In fact, no media organization has been able to confirm a single, solitary claim made in the dossier that BuzzFeed published.
The revelation of how fever-dreamed and sophomoric the dossier was, at least in major parts, cast doubt on the wisdom of the top political brass at intelligence agencies, much less their propriety and ability to handle information with any discretion. Obviously they were leaking like sieves in an ongoing war against the president-elect. BuzzFeed pulled the curtain back, showing how the partisan appointees at political agencies — to be clear, not the intelligence officers who do good work — use the media to punish or destroy their political enemies or advance a political agenda. It’s really not such a great look!
How To Frame A Phone Call
The big reveal was the dossier operation. But it kept going. On Friday, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius dropped what many in the media decided was a bombshell about Trump’s choice for national security adviser Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn:
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.
I had trouble finding record of David Ignatius raising concerns of Logan Act violations when members of the Barack Obama transition team, up to and including the president-elect and vice-president elect themselves, were calling countless foreign leaders and dignitaries in preparation of the peaceful transition of power from President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama.
Even before he was elected president in 2008, Obama’s advisors reached out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to notify him they’d be changing the United States’ approach to the country. Perhaps Ignatius did raise Logan Act violation concerns, though I suspect he’s far too serious of a person to make such a preposterous claim at any other time. Even mentioning the Logan Act is utterly bizarre and downright silly here, since it’s not been enforced since it was passed in 1799 and is widely considered to be unconstitutional.
There are a thousand reasons why members of the Trump transition would be calling Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, from condolences for recent tragedies hitting the nation, to discussions of a peace conference regarding Syria that is take place just a few days after inauguration.
In fact, there are so many non-nefarious reasons why Flynn might be talking to Kislyak at this time, that the only interesting thing about this story becomes “a senior U.S. government official” trying to plant the idea that the call had to do with an effort to undermine sanctions when, if that senior U.S. government official had any evidence whatsoever that the call was about that, one could safely assume he’d lead with that information.
Surveilling the phone calls of Russian ambassadors is beyond expected. Given his background in intelligence, Flynn would know that. So we’re left with very little other than yet another data point that our top levels of the intelligence agencies are leaking information to friendly journalists in an attempt to discredit the incoming administration. CIA 101, basically.
But it is somewhat surprising that more journalists aren’t just kind of acknowledging that, no? Instead we got headlines such as:
Journalists and anti-Trump political operatives on Twitter suggested that these allegations were explosive:
Incidentally, Trump officials responded to the story by saying that while sanctions weren’t discussed, other things were, such as the assassination of a Russian ambassador by a terrorist in Ankara, the downing of a Russian plane carrying a choir to Syria, the beginning of plans for a Trump-Putin conversation, and an invitation for a Trump administration official to visit Kazakhstan shortly after the inauguration.
Which, you know, actually makes sense. Was the framing of sanction talk provided by the high-ranking intelligence officer in order to support a false narrative as part of a political campaign of delegitimization? Was it something more? Do our media care?
It would be one thing if this were the only anti-Trump leak, presented in just-so fashion, to emanate from the political appointees at intelligence agencies. It’s more like the 100th. It increasingly seems like part of a campaign on the part of Democratic political operatives inside and outside the administration.
Trump Knows Top Brass Are Leaking
In his press conference last week, a reporter asked Trump, “But why did you spend weeks undermining U.S. intelligence community before simply getting the facts and then making a public statement?”
Trump responded by talking about how he knows how political some intelligence officials are and also how bad they are at their main job of keeping secrets. Here’s what he said:
Well, I think it’s pretty sad when intelligence reports get leaked out to the press. I think it’s pretty sad. First of all, it’s illegal. You know, these are — these are classified and certified meetings and reports.
I’ll tell you what does happen. I have many meetings with intelligence. And every time I meet, people are reading about it. Somebody’s leaking it out. So, there’s — maybe it’s my office. Maybe in my office because I have a lot of people, a lot of great people. Maybe it’s them. And what I did is I said I won’t tell anybody. I’m going to have a meeting and I won’t tell anybody about my meeting with intelligence.
And what happened is I had my meeting. Nobody knew, not even Rhona, my executive assistant for years, she didn’t know — I didn’t tell her. Nobody knew. The meeting was had, the meeting was over, they left. And immediately the word got out that I had a meeting.
So, I don’t want that — I don’t want that. It’s very unfair to the country. It’s very unfair to our country; what’s happened.
Yes, our president-elect ran a successful sting operation to learn where leaks were coming from. This wasn’t even big news in America, though it did attract notice at foreign media outlets.
This weekend, Trump responded to CIA Director John Brennan’s emotional interview against Trump on Fox News Sunday by reminding Brennan of various intelligence failures during the Obama administration and asking if he was “the leaker of Fake News.”
Clapper and Brennan are high-profile political opponents of Trump. Both have denied being leakers. Technically, Clapper said he does “not believe the leaks came from within the IC,” meaning “intelligence community.” Then again, knowledgeable observers say that at least one of these two men appears credited or uncredited in most stories related to the leaks.
Clapper is also known for lying to Congress about whether he was spying on them and lying under oath about whether intelligence agencies were collecting any kind of data on hundreds of millions of Americans. He said they weren’t. They were. Here’s Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon on Clapper’s “deception spree” while serving as a top Obama official in intelligence agencies.
The bottom line is that these leaks are almost certainly coming from a very small pool of Obama political appointees at intelligence agencies.
Our Media Are Whipping People Into Frenzies About Trump
On December 12, President Obama went on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah and said of the Russian efforts, “None of this should be a big surprise. This was reported on before the election. I don’t think there was any doubt among anybody in the media or among members of Congress as to who was being advantaged or disadvantaged by the political gossip that was being put out in drip-drip-drip fashion leading up to the election.”
He also said, “Russia trying to influence our elections dates back to the Soviet Union. What they did here — hacking some emails and releasing them — is not a particularly fancy brand of espionage or propaganda. We were frankly more concerned in the run-up to the election to the possibilities of vote tampering, which we did not see evidence of and we’re confident we can guard against. But Trevor, I think what everybody has to reflect on is what is it about our political eco-system, what is it about the state of our democracy where the leaks of what were frankly not-very-interesting emails that didn’t have any explosive information in them, ended up being an obsession. And the fact that the Russians were doing this was not an obsession.”
Heck, on August 2, President Obama said, “I don’t think that [the hacking] wildly swings what is a tough difficult relationship that we have with Russia right now.” Unfortunately, President Obama’s political appointees in intelligence agencies seem to be following different orders about how to litigate the issue domestically.
The Russia information operation, in which different parts are played by high-ranking Democrats inside and outside intelligence agencies with the help of a compliant media, has caused something approaching hysteria. There have been so many headlines and so many tweets and so many minutes spent discussing Russia that by late December, more than half of Democrats believed “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected President.”
I repeat, a majority of Democrats believe that Russia stole the election for Donald Trump. This is crazier than the craziest heights of birtherism. Yet it’s being aided by major media and high levels of political operatives. It’s classic “stray voltage” — the Obama method summed up as “Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation, and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in the public consciousness.”
On the one hand, this effort at delegitimization of Trump has been successful in some regard. The Left is currently in stage 12 of an unending cycle of refusing to deal with the reality that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States.
But the price in this case was to further tarnish the credibility of intelligence agencies, already suffering from a history of politicizing information. “Don’t disparage the integrity of the intelligence agency or they will unethically leak info and destroy you!” is a message that doesn’t necessarily hurt Trump, but it does hurt the intelligence agencies.
The campaign in which the media are too compliant also can hurt the media’s efforts to hold Trump accountable because it causes people who aren’t already histrionic about the president-elect to tune out a media establishment they see as overly compliant in pushing partisan political narratives.
Also, oddly enough, it could serve to scandal-proof Trump. Pushing outlandish suggestions that are proven false makes it more difficult to convince the American public of any real threats or scandals that could arise.
Heckuva job, everyone.