The Real Political Scandal? Actually, There Are Two
Let me guess. You read about Obama's national security adviser who unmasked the names of Trump associates who were caught up in surveillance and are bewildered that the media is even covering this nothing-burger. It's a diversion from the real story: how the president and his associates collaborated with a Russian influence operation against the U.S. election.
Or perhaps you are sick of hearing about Russia. After all, no one has presented any evidence that President Donald Trump or his team colluded with the Russians. Even James Clapper, President Barack Obama's director of national intelligence, last month acknowledged he saw no such evidence. The Russia story is #fakenews, to borrow a hashtag of the moment. The real story is about the Obama administration's politicization of state surveillance.
Let me suggest that both stories are something-burgers. Depending on where the facts lead, we will know whether Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, was justified in unmasking the names of Trump transition officials or whether the media's obsession with the government's Russia investigation was warranted.
Let's start with the Russia allegations. At this point, even Trump has reluctantly acknowledged that Russia is responsible for the hack of leading Democrats' emails during the election. As the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, those hacks were part of an elaborate operation to discredit the Democratic nominee in 2016, Hillary Clinton. This campaign included fake news, Twitter bots that promoted fake stories, hacking, and distributing hacked emails through WikiLeaks.
It's possible that Trump was just an unwitting beneficiary of this foreign meddling. But he and his associates have seemingly gone out of their way to act guilty. Trump seemed to be the last public figure to acknowledge the Russian hacks, even though everyone in his national security cabinet has pinned the blame on Moscow without condition. If he had nothing to hide, why was he clinging to that position? What's more, the Trump team denied having contact with Russians, and then those contacts were disclosed to the press. And Trump has shown no interest in deterring the Russians and other hostile powers from interfering in U.S. politics in the future.
And there are other suspicious facts as well. At this point, it looks like Paul Manafort, who served as Trump's campaign chairman, was an unregistered foreign agent for the pro-Russian government in Ukraine that was ousted in the 2014 popular uprising there. The Associated Press reported last month that Manafort had also been paid by a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, between 2005 and 2009 to help influence U.S. policy on behalf of Russia. Trump fired Manafort in August, after Ukrainian investigators discovered Manafort's name on a ledger listing alleged cash payouts from Ukraine's former ruling party to various cronies as part of an influence-peddling scheme.
No wonder there is an open FBI investigation into Russian influence in the U.S. election, and no wonder the bureau's investigators are also examining the role of Trump associates in all of this.
That investigation is warranted. But in the meantime, Trump's political opponents have weaponized the allegations of collusion against him. This does not support Trump's claim that Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower. But one can see why Trump is worried his predecessor ginned up the surveillance state against him, and also why he hopes to conflate the two issues.
As the New York Times reported on March 1, Obama's aides sought to preserve intelligence on Russia's influence operation and ties to Trump in the final days of his presidency. That included an effort to lower the classification on analysis of this information so it could be distributed more widely within the government and to allies in Congress.
We already know that leaks about Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his conversations with the Russian ambassador forced his resignation. There were also the reports on Jeff Sessions and his meeting with Russia's ambassador, after Sessions denied any contact with Russian officials.
Tuesday on MSNBC, Rice herself denied leaking anything. But that denial may be less than meets the eye. Rice may not have spoken to any reporters about intelligence she read about Trump and Russia, but did she discuss this with her colleagues? Did any of her colleagues then pass information along to the media?
Even if we take Rice at her word, it's still important to highlight a key point about Rice's interview on Tuesday: She declined to answer questions about whether she sought to unmask Trump transition officials or whether the pace of those requests increased after the election. This week the ranking Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees have said the issue of unmasking will be examined in the broader investigation into Russia and the election.
A final point needs to be made in both of these story lines. We don't have all the facts yet in either situation, but in both cases elements of the scandal are in public view.
On the matter of Russia and Trump, the Republican campaign's symbiosis with the Russian operation was not hidden. It happened in plain sight. Ahead of Election Day, Trump made the stolen emails published by WikiLeaks a key part of his strategy. His campaign highlighted them. Trump talked about them at his rallies. In some cases, Trump and his associates also repeated fake news stories generated by the Russians, a point made powerfully last week in testimony by former FBI officer Clint Watts before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Trump campaign did all of this after the media and the U.S. government had accused Russia of hacking the Democrats. Even Senator Marco Rubio, who ended up supporting Trump, warned during the campaign against using the WikiLeaks documents for political gain. Whether Trump was secretly colluding with the Russians in advance or simply following their public cues, he used the information Moscow had stolen for political gain.
In the case of politicized surveillance, a real scandal is found in a talking point repeated this week by Rice and her defenders. In her interview with MSNBC, Rice said it was fairly routine for her to unmask the names of U.S. persons in the summaries of raw intelligence she received. As I reported Monday, the standard for unmasking when requested by a senior official is simply that it helps to better understand that piece of foreign intelligence. As numerous experts have since said, unmasking is pretty common. Even if Rice did not break the law (and it appears she did not), the scandal is that what she did was most likely legal. It is not outrageous that a national security adviser can discover the names of Americans caught up in legal surveillance of others when there is a threat of a terrorist or cyber attack. It is outrageous that it's so easy to do this in the absence of such a rationale.
Intelligence community leaders have repeatedly assured the public that there are strict rules for redacting the names of U.S. persons who are incidentally recorded as the government eavesdrops on foreign and criminal targets. While it's true that line analysts at the National Security Agency or the FBI take great pains to redact those names, what good are these protections if they can be unmasked with such a flimsy criterion?
What's more, there is at least some precedent on this issue. As the Wall Street Journal reported at the end of 2015, the Obama White House ended up learning the identities of members of Congress and Jewish organizations that were in discussions with Israeli senior officials during the fight over the Iran nuclear deal. The monitoring of Israelis was entirely legal, but it is troubling that the identities of the Americans with whom they spoke were also known to the White House in the middle of a bitter political fight over the agreement that defined Obama's foreign policy legacy.
Concern about unmasking is not a smokescreen, a nothing-burger or a diversionary tactic. It's a real story. So is how Russia helped Trump win the White House. Don't trust anyone who says "There's nothing to see here."
Update: After the publication of this column, Bloomberg received a letter from Oleg Deripaska's lawyers stating that their client's contracts with Paul Manafort "concerned investment consulting services related to private commercial interests only" and their client, "a private businessman, never intended his agreements with Mr. Manafort to benefit the Russian government -- let alone, to influence the U.S. elections in favor of it."
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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