The “whistleblower” complaint about the Trump-Zelensky phone call in July 2019 tells us some important things about the continuing dynamics of opposition to Trump inside the intelligence community (and, it appears, the State Department). Let us say rather that it confirms those important things, which we have had prior reason to deduce.
A portion of the complaint that most readers will gloss over is a big, informative “tell” here, so I will start with that. It’s the whistleblower’s point that the transcript of the phone call was saved on a segregated, special-codeword computer system, described on page 1 of the classified appendix.
The file storage decision is also mentioned on pages 3-4 of the complaint text.
As an aside, Twitter sleuth Undercover Huber has done a praiseworthy job making the case that, in fact, several passages in the “whistleblower” complaint are sensitive from a national security perspective.
At least one major part of the “whistleblower” memo is false AND this also proves one of their White House moles was misinformed or lying too
“The call [with Ukraine] did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective”
— Undercover Huber (@JohnWHuber) September 26, 2019
I agree with his analysis (although I would also say that what he points out is desensitized relatively quickly, because the information is typically revealed through U.S. actions as they unfold).
But several things are easily read from the “wrong computer system” complaint, which is obviously a source of annoyance for the “whistleblower” and his/her sources. (I assume the inspector general did little or nothing with the regulatory point made in the complaint, because POTUS can put whatever he wants on the special-classification, or “compartmented,” system. He is its supreme authority; he can store his pizza order on it if it suits him. Such decisions — and they can be valid ones — might be critiquable as a matter of judgment, leadership, or example, but not of committing “violations.” The system exists to serve the president, not vice versa.*)
One thing to be read is that the “whistleblower’s” sources depend on things like access to transcripts, to have knowledge of what’s being done in high-level encounters like presidential phone calls.
That means the mental image we’ve been given of the “whistleblower” and his/her sources as insiders to the transactions outlined in the complaint is a false one. What confirms that for us is the difference in tone and inference between the complaint’s description of the phone call and the actual content of the phone call, which we can read in the transcript.
Indeed, as LU reported earlier today, Adam Schiff (D-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, gave a summary of the phone call transcript so tendentious as to be fanciful when he opened the hearing with acting DNI Joseph Maguire on Thursday. Schiff’s characterization comes much closer to fitting the depiction in the “whistleblower” complaint than what’s in the transcript.
The Ukraine Call Transcript was so damning that Adam Schiff had to completely rewrite it and make up quotes that weren’t in it.pic.twitter.com/bkB6RxLFjV
— Benny (@bennyjohnson) September 26, 2019
There is nothing damning or untoward in the transcript. If the “whistleblower’s” sources were as concerned about propriety and accuracy as the reference to using the wrong computer system is meant to imply, they would have ensured that the complaint comported better with the original content of the 25 July phone call. That they did not is a strong indicator that they could not. With the “wrong computer system” complaint, they were inadvertently signaling their exclusion from direct access.
Another thing to be read is that the “whistleblower” is trying to bolster his/her case with a weak but manipulable administrative point. Mention of the point in the complaint isn’t because it’s a matter of overriding significance to the handling of national security information. The complainant presumably knows it isn’t. The complainant, reportedly a career CIA officer, is no doubt aware that it’s a weak point, from that perspective. What senior officials have the proper authority to do is not a meaningful basis for whistleblowing.
The point is mentioned, rather, because it can be framed as an unnaturally secretive measure taken by Trump’s top officials, implicitly for some nefarious reason.
But there’s another way to read that, and it’s the obvious conclusion that, to the contrary, Trump’s inner circle is on the other side of the same coin. Trump’s officials have the sympathetic, honorable goal: they have to sequester information they don’t want leaked. The leaks may not even have to do with the media, although we’ve seen for the last two and a half years that they often do. The concern about leaks may be related, precisely, to such matters as U.S. bureaucrats, acting outside their lane and way above their paygrade, tipping Ukrainians, or opposition politicians in either country, off to what U.S. (and Ukrainian) leaders are doing, and vice versa.
To put it in the bluntest way: the system storage choice for the transcript tells us Trump doesn’t want people outside a certain circle in the U.S. government having direct access to the transcript. Believe what you choose about why that is. But it fits perfectly with the thesis that Trump has to worry about being undermined by disloyalty from the career employees in his own executive branch.
Phrasing that differently is based not on superior rationale for another thesis, but on subjective opinion about Trump, and the “why” of his wants. Either you think it’s a good thing that bureaucrats are trying to undercut Trump, or you think it’s a bad thing. Either way, you have an opinion; the obvious, logical reason for sequestering information from those bureaucrats is, in both cases, to prevent the undercutting.
A third thing that can be read is obvious from the first and second things, but it bears highlighting. The “whistleblower’s” complaint was not composed from information based on his/her sources having the phone call transcript in front of them. They didn’t have it, and that was actually a key (if not fully articulated) point from the complaint.
The annoyance that huffs and puffs rather humorously from the “wrong classified system” reference indicates that the sources were denied their usual method of trolling for leak material; i.e., on the general-access classified computer system. Apparently, the Trump administration has gotten smart about that.
Another feature of the “whistleblower” complaint bolsters this analysis, and that’s the heavy reliance on media reporting to adduce facts in it. Examined closely, the complaint offers more points of “fact” drawn from media or other published reporting than from alleged inside information.
It’s not a complaint at all. It’s a brief against a national security policy action of the Trump administration, entered into “record” by couching it as a “whistleblower” complaint.
That infiltration of information is very much like the use of the Steele dossier, a point Devin Nunes (R-CA), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, made during the Maguire hearing.
Hero @DevinNunes Tells You All You Need To Know
About The Latest Hoax
— Dr. Marty Fox 🇺🇸 (@DrMartyFox) September 26, 2019
That point has also been made by other commentators already. The “tell” from the complaint’s reference to the “wrong computer system” being used puts substance behind the analysis.
In doing so, it also raises this interesting question. If the “whistleblower’s” sources weren’t working from the U.S. transcript of the 25 July phone call, which was sequestered on a restricted-access computer system, what were they working from?
* Although it isn’t routine, this kind of precautionary over-security does happen. It would be rarest with using dedicated, compartmented systems to store information you don’t want everyone to access, but it’s not an unthinkable infraction. The depiction of it in the complaint is prejudicial; it’s the electronic equivalent of putting something of lower classification in a safe reserved for compartmented material, because for one reason or another you want to restrict access to it. As a general matter, that is laid out in compartmented security regulations as prohibited or at least to be avoided, but exceptions in unusual circumstances do come up. At the highest levels of command, overuse of such exceptions would have to be egregious and extreme to merit flagging.
There’s a special administrative burden with handling electronic (as opposed to physical) storage that way, because it makes it harder to move files to general-access systems if you want to do that at some point. That is not an insuperable obstacle, however; it means adding a layer of procedure to certify that even though it was stored at the compartmented level, it’s not actually classified at that level. That kind of certification is routine. It’s a necessity within documents all the time, when certain paragraphs are classified at a lower level than the highest – overall – classification. The process of redaction for public release is an excellent example with which we are now all familiar.