“This next story,” Anderson Cooper tells CNN viewers, “is potentially another big game-changer.” It may also be not much at all. Unnamed sources, including two from the Obama administration, told CNN that intercepts of Russian intelligence communications showed their agents bragging that they could use Michael Flynn to influence Donald Trump after the retired general joined the campaign.
Emphases in the excerpt are mine:
— CNN (@CNN) May 20, 2017
Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated a strong relationship with former Trump adviser retired Gen. Michael Flynn and believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team, sources told CNN.
The conversations deeply concerned US intelligence officials, some of whom acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn, who was tapped to become Trump’s national security adviser, current and former governments officials said.
“This was a five-alarm fire from early on,” one former Obama administration official said, “the way the Russians were talking about him.” Another former administration official said Flynn was viewed as a potential national security problem.
CNN also included a very big caveat:
Officials cautioned, however, that the Russians might have exaggerated their sway with Trump’s team during those conversations.
Before we get to that, let’s consider these sources. Note well that CNN describes these intercepts as “during the presidential campaign,” and that the concern was “a five alarm fire early on.” Why are former Obama officials speaking out about this issue with Flynn now? If Flynn was such an obvious risk in mid-2016, shouldn’t they have taken steps to revoke Flynn’s clearance at the time? Flynn held his DIA clearance level after his resignation in 2014 as is typical for outgoing directors, also allowing Flynn to make a living as a consultant on nat-sec and intelligence matters. He got denied a higher CIA clearance in February, which derailed his job as nat-sec adviser, and only then did the DIA get around to suspending its clearance. So if this was such a “five alarm fire early on,” why didn’t the Obama administration’s nat-sec officials do anything about it when it came up? “During the presidential campaign” means before Trump got elected, and before Flynn became his nat-sec adviser, right?
Next, the caveat by CNN gets to a point I made on Twitter after this story broke. The Departments of Defense, State, and Justice have very clear rules and regulations about cleared personnel and contractors making foreign contacts and accepting payments for very good reasons. Full disclosure on foreign contacts, restrictions on foreign payments, and registration as foreign agents provide transparency and protection for all parties. Failure to disclose or register creates potential leverage that foreign intelligence services are experts at using for extortion and penetration. Anyone who has held a clearance has gotten chapter and verse on these points — the rules are there for our own protection, as well as the country’s.
Flynn’s alleged failures on both (his $35,000 payment from state-run RT, and his unregistered work for a Dutch firm with ties to the Erdogan government in Turkey) could have made Flynn vulnerable to such pressure. That’s not to say Flynn did anything in response to any hypothetical pressure applied, but the knowledge of those issues would certainly have looked like a potential gold mine to a top-flight intelligence operative, and they might well be inclined to brag about it to each other. To state the obvious, just because the Russians bragged about an opportunity doesn’t mean they ever exploited it.
Now, this isn’t the only possible explanation for the Russian bragging, but it’s the simplest, and usually the simplest turn out to be closest to the truth. There are other potential explanations, and presumably Robert Mueller’s investigation will check out the evidence for themselves. However, they should at the same time investigate why two former Obama administration officials are leaking highly sensitive information on Russian intel communications — and why they ignored a “five alarm fire early on” if it in fact existed at all.