In the last week, two big things have become clear. One is that the Department of Justice is ready to move on everything. If John Durham weren’t ready to move, America wouldn’t be seeing so much seriously convicting material emerging about many of the main actors in Russiagate and Spygate.
Once that material is made public, those actors are alerted to the scope of what is going to come out about them, and what the DOJ investigators almost certainly have. We can reasonably imagine they’re already lawyering up. What we’ve seen up to now, even including this past week, is only the tip of the iceberg.
The other big thing is the clarification that former President Obama was indeed being kept apprised of a detail like Michael Flynn’s phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
We already knew from earlier clues that discussion of the anti-Trump operation in the Obama administration went as high as the Oval Office. Right about the time Crossfire Hurricane started, John Brennan briefed Obama and a small group of senior advisers on his (Brennan’s) supposed special intelligence on a “Russia-Trump” connection from a foreign source or sources (thought by many to be the Brits). It was in the wake of this brief that the interagency task force was formed in the White House with Obama’s knowledge and approval.
About a month later, in September 2016, Peter Strzok referred in a text message with Lisa Page to the White House tracking closely what the DOJ and FBI were doing with an operation that had to be Crossfire Hurricane.
So there has been reason all along to be confident about Obama’s cognizance of what was going on, and to want to get to the bottom of it.
Obama, with the surveillance, in the Oval Office?
The latest piece of information comes from the Form FD-302 interview with DOJ official Sally Yates in August 2017, which was appended to the DOJ motion to drop its charges against Michael Flynn this past week. In the interview, Yates made the key disclosure that she found out from Obama, in the notorious Oval Office meeting on 5 January 2017, that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed the new sanctions imposed by the Obama administration on Russia in December 2016.
There’s a good amount of misreading of the import of this going around. Rather than mentioning any other treatments or addressing them directly (people are doing great work out there), I will simply give my take.
First, the Yates disclosure indicates that Obama was being briefed on the matter (i.e., the phone contacts of the incoming administration – in particular, Flynn’s – with the Russian ambassador). It’s significant that this was being done, but it doesn’t mean what a number of analysts are taking it to mean: that the Obama administration was keeping Flynn himself under surveillance, with Obama’s complicit knowledge or at his direction.
Let me be clear here. The Obama administration may have been keeping Flynn under surveillance, and my own opinion would be that it probably was. Flynn would have been “reachable” for this purpose as someone who was virtually certain to be within “two hops” of Carter Page.
But the Yates comments in themselves aren’t proof of that. Suffice it to say – I hope there’s no need to spell it out further – that Flynn was not the only party to the phone calls at issue who was of interest to, and “surveillable” by, national security officials.
James Comey, in an interview also appended to the DOJ court filing, gave a potentially full explanation of what happened (on pages 59-60 of the Scribd document). He seemed to confirm that Flynn was not the official target of the surveillance in this instance. He referred in the interview to Flynn being “unmasked,” meaning that that’s how Flynn’s identity in the phone calls officially became known to the Bureau. That means Flynn wasn’t the target of the surveillance. He was a collateral speaker, and verifying his identity required unmasking.
I can sympathize with anyone who wants to accept Comey’s version. Why not? In a strictly procedural sense, it’s plausible. Comey says “he,” meaning the FBI, had to hunt for evidence that would explain the lack of reaction from the Russians after sanctions were imposed, and the FBI found these phone calls. Comey then made sure James Clapper knew about them, and Clapper then briefed the president.
This explanation comes off to my ear as glib and improbable, but more on that in a moment.
Consider the NSC angle
In the meantime, an alternative explanation in this case is that, while Flynn was indeed being unmasked in the phone calls with Kislyak, and Obama was being told about the phone calls, it wasn’t necessarily a Comey-to-Clapper-to-Obama triple play that completed the action.
Yates referred later in her interview to discovering that Mary McCord at the DOJ had been briefed on the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls by the FBI. We can assume the FBI briefed it up their chain of command. That doesn’t necessarily mean Comey’s version is accurate.
Remember that unmasking was rampant on the National Security Council staff, using the credentials of Susan Rice and Samantha Power. It’s quite possible that that’s how Obama’s aides were keeping track of the metadata from the Flynn-Kislyak correspondence.
That would have given them an up-to-the-minute sense of the Trump-team diplomacy action, which frankly comports much better than the Comey scenario does with what we understand about the high priority of the anti-Trump spying. If we go by Comey’s comments, the Obama administration was twiddling its thumbs as the FBI wandered innocently in a forest of unpursued communications by Russian diplomatic officials, and was then startled – and flew to make sense of it – when a woodland creature made an unexpected noise.
That would have been a tail-chase. And it’s not the character of national security monitoring, much less of spying on Trump.
The character of national security monitoring is more vigilant, hard-nosed, and fully alerted, especially when it comes to intelligence problems of longstanding (a category into which Russian activities of every kind fall – including currently-suspected election interference and its fallout). The Comey tale is hard to swallow.
As for the path of information to the Oval Office, the content of any “monitored” (or recovered) phone calls presumably came from cognizant personnel doing their national security job at the FBI. The unmasking of Flynn could very well have been done – for Obama’s purposes – by the NSC staff. Imagine the scenarios you like by which NSC staffers would gain access to the phone-call content. They’re not hard to come up with.
That would mean neither Clapper nor Comey had to be directly involved in informing Obama.
This is the kind of transaction I’ve been propounding all along, in previous articles laying out why it took the entire national security apparatus to bring this off. This is the scenario with the less-accountable paper trail. It could also be a scenario Comey, as one of the chief Spygate insiders, was at pains to cover up in the interview included in the DOJ filing.
That said, there could be a third scenario in which Comey accurately described the passage of information up the chain, but wasn’t entirely forthcoming in his interview about why and how much the phone calls in question were being monitored. In other words, he didn’t have to go back and look for them, because they were already known about before the Russian sanctions reaction was observed.
At any rate, according to Yates, Obama didn’t want to know any more about Flynn and Kislyak than he already did. That’s significant. It tells us that a method was in place to minimize the paper trail leading to Obama. That would be a reason for favoring the scenario in which the NSC staff was functioning as a cut-out.
Comey’s story, by contrast, puts Clapper on the hook, at the least, to answer for what he may have said to Obama. As Lee Smith points out on Monday at Just the News, Clapper testified in 2017 that he did not tell Obama about the Flynn-Kislyak communications. We may get to see if that holds up or not; as a plot feature, Comey fingering Clapper is a noisemaker and trail-leaver. I’m undecided as to how probable it is.
There is also a good thread from Techno_Fog with some useful spadework suggesting the actual disclosure to the Washington Post about the Flynn-Kislyak calls went to Adam Entous (then a reporter there) rather than David Ignatius.
We suspect the Flynn/Kislyak occurred around 1/5/17 – the same date Obama was allegedly briefed on the call by Clapper.
This date coincides with Entous reporting on other "intercepted communications" from Russian officials leaked to Entous. pic.twitter.com/3KsO1qHkRw
— Techno Fog (@Techno_Fog) May 10, 2020
This is good stuff to take into account; it may or may not let anyone in particular off the hook. However, there is no need to make the story fit a scenario in which Flynn’s participation in the phone call had to have been broadcast within the Obama administration by the FBI. The scenario also doesn’t have to fit the feature of an administration principal like Clapper or Comey, or one of their higher-up subordinates, being the conduit to WaPo. They may have been. But they didn’t have to be – and Devin Nunes discovered why more than three years ago.
If this is “Obamagate,” don’t dismiss the complicity of the NSC staff. To do so is to turn it into “FBIgate,” which analytically is a bad steer. The FBI didn’t hatch or unilaterally execute this plot. Too much of it traces to elsewhere, and some of it still dead-ends where the FBI didn’t have a deus ex machina in place.
Before moving on, an additional observation. I wouldn’t make too much of Yates’s surprise at hearing about this from Obama. Her reaction to the whole situation sounds like a person who didn’t know a lot about national security intelligence to begin with. (That’s conceivable for someone of Yates’s seniority, if it wasn’t a core element of her professional background. It’s an esoteric discipline, and her biography evinces no intersections with it. Her counterterrorism work in earlier years, which included the Olympic Park bombing case, appears to have focused on domestic terrorism without significant transnational connections.)
If she was telling something close to the truth in her FBI interview, she basically wasn’t in the loop on what was being done in Spygate; that is, the operation to spy on the Trump campaign. That’s informative about the nature of her disclosures, but not necessarily about the nature of the operation itself.
The Comey “tell”
James Comey, on the other hand, obviously was in the loop. Like John Brennan, but in a different role, he was clearly right in the middle of the loop.
He said something very significant in the interview included in the DOJ court filing. (Image above.) Comey spun quite a tale about the putative importance of detecting a big reaction from the Russians after the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Russia (because of the alleged election interference) and expelled Russians from the U.S. In his version, the failure of the Russians to react was what prompted “him” to go find those Flynn-Kislyak phone calls.
But that story line is – not to put too fine a point on it – silly on its face. It’s also the story line the Russiagate narrators ran with for months. “Horrors! Flynn spoke improperly with Kislyak about sanctions, which caused the Russians to not react.”
From the standpoint of simple logic about politics and diplomacy, it was very likely that the Russians would delay any reaction to sanctions levied less than a month before the sitting U.S. administration was to depart office. Flynn wouldn’t have needed to make any improper promises at all. He had only to say what he did: that the Trump administration would be coming in, a few weeks from the time of his phone call with Kislyak, and he hoped the Russians would wait to take any actions. That’s not just a neutral, predictable suggestion; it was a good one for U.S. interests.
But even that common-sense point doesn’t get to the full inanity of this story premise. There’s the point that it would hardly have been better for Russia to angrily retaliate in January of 2017. That implication – as if the Obama administration was rightfully anticipating such a development, and was thwarted in executing smart diplomacy – borders on idiotic.
But Comey then used this absurd pretext to explain what prompted him to look for the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls. That’s the tell. As the lady says in the TV commercial, “That’s not how any of this works.” The discussion in this article should make that clear.
What Comey’s tale does do is comport exactly with the narrative retailed by other officials and in the media about Flynn violating the Logan Act. Most others merely hammered on the two words – “Logan Act.” But Comey fleshed out, if only in elliptical outline, the supposed “violation”: Flynn, through his fell outreach to Kislyak, induced the Russians to not react, thereby somehow undermining U.S. policy.
Sally Yates didn’t seem to know enough to frame her interview disclosures in terms of the Spygate narrative. Comey, however, retailed it to a “T.”
The Obama alumni ‘leak’
I don’t think we’re going to find that Yates is the droid we’re looking for. But her interview has done us the service of clarifying that Obama knew his administration had gleaned the content from phone calls between Kislyak and Flynn.
It also contained the nugget that, at the White House on 5 January, Obama “was seeking information on whether the White House should be treating Flynn any differently,” in light of the phone calls.
That is a big can of worms to open up. If those were the words Obama used, the question immediately arises as to what the White House should be doing about Flynn. Why would the White House do anything?
This allusion harks back to Obama’s warning to Trump in November 2016, just after the election, that Flynn was a danger to national security. Fox News picked up on that in its reporting of the Obama alumni “leak,” which planted with our old friend Michael Isikoff some choice words from a group Web session last Friday night, in which Obama complained that the “rule of law is at risk” with the DOJ decision to drop the Flynn case.
According to Isikoff, Obama asserted that “The news over the last 24 hours I think has been somewhat downplayed — about the Justice Department dropping charges against Michael Flynn.”
Obama went on: “And the fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free. That’s the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic — not just institutional norms — but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we’ve seen in other places.”
Observers don’t seem to be having trouble reading this as an attempt at counterbattery, now that the news has emerged about Obama’s awareness of the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls being monitored.
That would be a sensitive point in any case, given its untoward nature and the special interest the Yates interview indicates Obama had in Michael Flynn.
But this isn’t just any case. This is a case in which Flynn was hounded for years by a special counsel installed through the machinations of the Obama administration’s Spygate principals. Now the Justice Department, on the basis of careful and transparent legal argument, has dropped the case. The people are entitled to ask why it was ever brought – and entitled to notice that Obama’s fingerprints are very near it.
In retrospect, there’s one thing the new disclosures give us fresh insight on. The reaction from Obama adds to it. We have been somewhat fixated for months on the findings of the DOJ IG report on the Carter Page FISA applications, which have had us all talking about Page, Manafort, and Papadopoulos as the targets in the bore sight of Peter Strzok’s “insurance policy” – the text allusion he made to Lisa Page on 15 August 2016.
But it was at the exact same time that the DOJ and FBI spun up the sudden effort to link Flynn with Turkey in a nefarious way. That effort, always a rather weird adjunct to Russiagate, had a lot of moving parts; from my seat, it wasn’t possible to cobble it together on the fly. It has appeared to me from the beginning that the preparation for it had to start weeks earlier – before Flynn’s own firm was contacted by the prospective Turkish client (Ekim Alptekin), which was in August 2016.
Without doubting that Page, Manafort, and Papadopoulos were all significant figures, my sense is growing that the “insurance policy” was mostly the attack on Michael Flynn.
The Senate needs to get him in for public hearings soon.
And it needs to remember that nothing should be off limits, or hidden behind the conventions of security classification. The terrible reality of Spygate is our national security emergency. Other things can be rebuilt. The health of the Republic cannot be restored without full honesty and transparency before the American people.