In late January 2017, President Obama’s deputy attorney general Sally Yates made a couple of urgent trips from the Department of Justice building to the White House, carrying information she believed to be critical to U.S. national security.
Yates was aware, likely through intercepts of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s communications, that the newly seated national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, had discussed with Kislyak Russia’s response to the Obama administration imposition of sanctions for Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 elections. According to news reports, Flynn had asked Kislyak to wait a few weeks and allow the incoming Trump administration a chance to review the issue before Russia retaliated. Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak occurred on December 29, the day Obama announced the sanctions.
Recall that this period between the election of Trump in early November and his inauguration in late January was characterized by a frenzy of questionable and as-yet unexplained actions taken by the Obama White House, intelligence agencies, and the State Department. The Steele dossier was in circulation at various levels of government and media officialdom; Carter Page’s communications—and those of anyone with whom he communicated, and anyone with whom they communicated—were being monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Security Agency.
The Great Unmasking had also begun, with unprecedented numbers of requests forwarded from various Obama administration officials to the NSA to reveal the identities of American citizens otherwise protected in their reporting and transcribing of intercepts of foreign official communications. Distribution regulations were relaxed to allow wider access to these NSA intercepts, and the word went out throughout the halls of every government agency to get everything into the system, lest these barbarians coming into office destroy evidence and deny their roles as Russian agents.
The David Ignatius Leak
It was inevitable, then, that David Ignatius of the Washington Post would publish a column on January 12 describing Flynn’s December 29 phone calls with Kislyak, information he attributed to “a senior U.S. government official.” Ignatius’ column began thusly:
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ mutters Marcellus as ghosts and mad spirits haunt Elsinore castle in the first act of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet.’
After this past week of salacious leaks about foreign espionage plots and indignant denials, people must be wondering if something is rotten in the state of our democracy. How can we dispel the dark rumors that, as Hamlet says, “shake our disposition”?
The “senior U.S. government official” who leaked both the name of a U.S. citizen captured in an intercept of a foreign government official’s communications, and the fact that the foreign official was under NSA surveillance, has not been identified. Nor has there been any indication that a thorough investigation has been, or is being, carried out in search of his or her identity.
The leak of Flynn’s conversation occurred two days after CNN published a separate leak from “U.S. officials with direct knowledge” and “two national security officials” that then-FBI director James Comey had briefed Trump on parts of the Steele dossier after a more expansive briefing on Russian meddling by the directors of the NSA, FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, and national intelligence. That CNN leak was the “hook” that provided journalistic license to publish the details of the unsubstantiated dossier, which media organizations hadn’t considered appropriately vetted and sourced to merit publication—until the leak.
The FBI and Yates were similarly galvanized by the “hook” the Ignatius leak provided on January 12. Less than two weeks later, on January 24, FBI agent Peter Strzok and his partner were in Flynn’s office, questioning him on the Kislyak phone call. Yates made her first trip to the White House two days after that, on January 26.
Her message? Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Kislyak, and the vice president was erroneously telling reporters Flynn didn’t discuss sanctions during those calls. Flynn was in great danger of being compromised by the Russians, who were aware of the true nature of the conversations.
Planting the Idea of Flynn Being Compromised
Don McGahn, the former White House counsel to whom Yates reported her concerns, asked a valid question: “Why does it matter to the Department of Justice that one White House official lied to another?” According to Yates, the answer to that question was simple: No administration should want its national security advisor to be in a position where he is compromised with the Russians.
Yates is right—no administration should want that, and it’s pretty safe to assume that none do. The only entity that seemed to “want that” was Yates’ Justice Department, as they had no legitimate reason to believe Flynn was either compromised or susceptible to compromise based on the facts at hand, yet they carried on as if it were so.
A compromise is a relatively simple concept. In this case, it would be a foreign government possessing derogatory information on a U.S. official, the threatened exposure of which would be embarrassing or damaging enough to compel the U.S. official to enter an illicit agreement with the foreign government to do their bidding when called upon. This could come in the form of passing classified information, favorably influencing foreign policy, or calling off the dogs in the event of a dispute between the two countries.
For a compromise to be effective, two things must exist: A secret, significant act worthy of treason to keep hidden from exposure; and an individual whose lack of character and integrity allow for the possibility of becoming a traitor.
As Yates was and is aware, neither of those elements were present in the Flynn case. Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were no longer secret—they were public knowledge. Everyone in government knew it, and everyone on earth who followed U.S. news knew it. The exposure element was gone. There was no hook for Russia to employ against Flynn, nothing secret to threaten to expose to gain his cooperation. So the first element was missing.
The second element—the susceptibility of an individual to commit an act of treason to protect himself from embarrassment or dismissal from his position—is perhaps the most offensive and ridiculous piece of this manufactured madness.
Flynn is a complicated man, with some questionable judgement in business dealings after he retired from military service. His consulting engagements with Turkey and other foreign entities, while not illegal, required Foreign Agents Registration Act and other notifications that he apparently failed to complete in a timely manner. While he seems to dispute the charge, he has nonetheless pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversation with Kislyak. All of this suggests he was certainly susceptible to occasional lapses in judgement, worthy of whatever penalty and punishment may come his way.
What it does not suggest, by any stretch of the imagination, is that this retired lieutenant general with 33 years of distinguished service to his country, including multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, directorship of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and numerous national-level intelligence leadership positions—a highly decorated and admired military intelligence professional—would be willing to commit treason against the country he had dedicated his life to serving in order to keep the Russians from telling the world he asked their ambassador to hold off on taking adverse action against the United States until the Trump administration had a chance to weigh in.
It is, quite literally, a notion worthy of ridicule. Yet, for some reason, Yates chose to run to the White House and get it on the record that she believed Flynn to be in imminent danger of becoming a compromised national security liability, despite being fully aware that such compromise was impossible. The very fact that she was having that conversation with McGahn eliminated the clandestine element necessary for a compromise. Everybody knew.
Yates Explained Her Motivations to Rachel Maddow
One can speculate as to what was really driving Yates those three or four days in January 2017. Perhaps she saw the Flynn affair as a last stand against an administration she’d come to despise in the very short time she served under Trump’s leadership. Perhaps she needed one last scalp before she moved on to private life. Who knows?
What we do know, however, is the level of contempt with which she viewed Flynn, and her willingness to assassinate his character in her quest for whatever satisfaction she sought. We know this because she made it clear in this conversation with Rachel Maddow in July of last year:
Maddow: ‘What are the potentially practical consequences of the kind of compromise you were worried about with Flynn?’
Yates: ‘Well, you know, the Russians are pretty crafty with this – they can do the overt type of threats that you described there, but they can also do the more subtle forms, where they can just let you know that they have evidence that would be embarrassing and troubling to you. And here, where this had become a big public thing about whether or not General Flynn had been talking to the Russians about sanctions – it had become such a big, public thing and there were denials out there by various members of the White House all the way up to the Vice President, saying that this had not happened. Then, when the Russians had what we expected were recordings that would prove that it did, that’s the kind of thing you can hang over someone’s head. You know, no administration should want their National Security Advisor to be in a position where he or she is compromised with the Russians.’
Maddow: ‘Because what they could do with that leverage is to get him, theoretically, to hand over intelligence that they shouldn’t have, to hand over the names of spies in Moscow that are working for U.S. intelligence that they could then go take out and kill. Is that – ?’
Yates: ‘Any number of things, or, even more subtly, not necessarily a specific quid pro quo, but they could put the National Security Advisor in a position where he never wants to get cross-wise with the Russians.’
Maddow: ‘And so he inclines himself towards the Russian point of view (Yates nodding head) almost as a matter of course rather than any individual transactional thing.’
One would expect such an outrageous, shameless attack on Flynn’s character from Maddow—after all, Flynn was working for The Devil and Maddow is in the business of hyping up false claims, allegations, and innuendo about The Devil and anyone associated with him.
But Yates is a career DOJ official with adequate understanding of the character of the military personnel she encountered over the years, and the patriotic mindset of career military and government officials. That she sat across from Maddow and accepted her suggestion that Flynn would “hand over intelligence” to the Russians is bad enough. That she didn’t stop Maddow in her tracks when she suggested Flynn would provide Russia the names of spies working for U.S. intelligence so they could be taken out and killed is unforgivable.
It’s a sign of the times that Yates would sit still for such slander. It’s a stain on her own character that she seemed to agree with it.