by David Phinney
Sunday December 10th 2017

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Swampland: Watching and Leaking, Susan Rice and Unmasking Washington


April 18 — Okay, I’m way out of orbit from the consensus of reporters reporting on anonymous sources that say Susan Rice was not politicizing her choice of unmasking. I retract any skepticism in the blather below. Twitter is full of claims by journalists claiming that Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker has obliterated any claims to the contrary. John Schindler, national security writer for the Observer goes so far as to link to Lizza’s story in his tweet: “#NSA friend recently told me that when #KremlinGate shakes out, Nunes will be doing hard time.”

April 4, 2017 — Keep in mind all those news stories in early March about the Obama administration spreading throughout the U.S. government the intelligence it was collecting on Russian meddling in the U.S. election and possible ties to all things Donald Trump.

“Obama administration officials were so concerned about what would happen to key classified documents related to the Russia probe once President Trump took office,” NBCNews reported on March 31, “that they created a list of document serial numbers to give to senior members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.”

This recent report, of course, is based on an anonymous official as are all these Swampland stories boiling over with unnamed sources. And we are getting the predictable bureaucratic leaks to the news media offering something for everyone – no matter what part of the bipolar political universe he or she may orbit.

The latest development: Fox News and Bloomberg have pegged former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice as being a primary instigator during the last months of the Obama Administration.

The news organizations report that Rice repeatedly requested identities of U.S. citizens not necessarily targets of investigations, but who had been in contact with targets caught up in the raw intelligence reports of Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential election.

That includes many on Trump’s presidential transition team.

Roadkill in Swampland

So far, the only real collateral damage in the Russiagate circus has been Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Just 24 days in that position, Flynn resigned after intelligence leaks disclosed that he had been talking with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak after Trump won the election but before the TV reality star and self-proclaimed gadzillionaire took residence in the White House.

News stories based on anonymous leaks — one Washington Post piece relied on nine unnamed current and former officials at multiple agencies — reported that Flynn may have discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak, that his past included questionable ties with Russia and that he had received undisclosed money payments. The final nail in the coffin came when acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates alerted the Trump White House in late January that Flynn had not been truthful about his contacts with Russia.

Flynn subsequently resigned in mid-February, less than a month after he was appointed. (Yates, too, soon got the axe from Trump for her role in opposing a Trump immigration-related executive order.)

The leaks may have done Team Trump a favor. It has since been discovered that Flynn also had been acting as an unregistered lobbyist for Turkey.

The other headline Russiagate leaks have been just drips, although a drip can eventually become a torrent.

My Eye Is On

Two related issues worth keeping an eye on: Was the surveillance of Trump people politically motivated and are the leaks intended to toss people into a media maelstrom of innuendo and controversy? The answer is probably a little bit of both and more, although Rice likely followed the letter of the law.

And she was doubtlessly wrapped up in all things Russia and its U.S. election meddling as were a number of agencies, notably the FBI and NSA, where many surveillance reports are written. There is also chatter that the CIA had been tipped off by British intelligence about Russia connections to some of the Trump players.

Lefty commentators and friends immediately jumped to Rice’s defense claiming the “unmasking” is all in a day’s work for national security. American intelligence agencies routinely track communications of foreign officials of allied and hostile countries and U.S. citizens who talk to them. That means a bevy of members in the Trump transition team who have interacted with all things Russia.

Rice defended the unmasking practice on MSNBC, but flatly denied making any names public.

“The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes,” Rice told the network’s longtime Beltway insider Andrea Mitchel. “That’s absolutely false…. I leaked nothing to nobody. And never had and never would.”

It’s the news stories about her unmasking identities that are politically motivated, she claimed, not the actual practice of unmasking during investigations.

Some Republican lawmakers aren’t buying it.

“If the reports are right,” Senate Intelligence chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said on Tuesday, “she will be of interest to us.”

“When it comes to Susan Rice, you need to verify, not trust,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday during an interview on Fox News.

There’s a bit of kink to Rice’s claims in defense of herself and her former boss, however. Although Barack Obama opposed mass surveillance as U.S. senator because he viewed it as warrantless searches. Once in the White House, Obama expanded surveillance laws and his administration sometimes took advantage of them in controversial ways.

Some of the allegations of overstep include a 2015 Wall Street Journal report claiming that the Obama administration “swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.” This was during the time when surveillance of Israeli officials was taking place to get a handle on how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials intended to oppose the Iran Deal.

There have other incidents as well. The Obama administration spied on Fox News reporter James Rosen and attempted to subpoena phone records of the Associated Press. Additionally, President Obama defended the CIA’s hacking of a computer network used to share information among members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Other instances of questionable practices during Obama’s tenure include the hounding of numerous national security whistleblowers for leaks inconvenient to ongoing government policies and programs. In the case of Edward Snowden, the information he gave to the press led to major legislative overhauls on surveillance. And yet, Snowden remains a wanted man and has been accused of treason.

Which brings me back to leaks. If Rice wasn’t the source of the Flynn leak, then the most likely suspects would be with the agencies investigating the Russia-Trump circus. Circumstantial events point to the NSA, although the conduit for most of the leaks probably were all through the FBI and Justice Department since they handle investigations on U.S. soil.

Bad Blood

The war of bad blood between Trump and the intelligence agencies are well reported and prior to the election, a parade of intelligence figures went public with fears about Trump’s competency as Trump repeatedly expressed disdain for the intelligence community.

“I cannot remember another president-elect who has been so dismissive of intelligence received during a campaign or so suspicious of the quality and honesty of the intelligence he was about to receive,” Michael Hayden told The Washington Post last November. The former CIA director under President George W. Bush joined 50 officials from past Republican administrations in signing a letter last year labeling Donald Trump a risk to America’s “national security and well-being.”

Surveying the lay of the land in January, leading Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer observed: “You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”

And Flynn is no Mr. Popularity with the intelligence community. The nation’s former top intelligence officer, James Clapper, and Michael Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, pushed the former hard-driving, reform-minded Defense Intelligence Agency director out of his job in 2014. (Good Politico backgrounder on this.)

Flynn, a lifelong Democrat, then endorsed Trump and made headlines by encouraging a crowd at the Republican National Convention to chant “Lock her up” as he berated Hillary Clinton’s classified email controversy.

How many more leaks in the future will take down Trump officials? Only time will tell. Some people are predicting the Houston Astros are destined for the World Series. I’m betting on the Washington Nationals. Then again, maybe both teams will get there.

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