One of the tricks in political communications when experiencing difficult times is to drag several other issues into the fray, muddying the waters to distract attention from the main controversy.
That’s what you’re witnessing now in the arcane kerfluffle over wiretapping, eavesdropping, surveillance and congressional protocol. So, let’s clear things up.
Forget President Trump’s unsubstantiated tweets about being wiretapped by a certain ex-president who’s fled to French Polynesia for a month. Forget about Russians and what they may or may not have done last year. And ignore the manners expected of a House committee chairman. In other words, disregard all the pots calling all the kettles black.
Here’s what really matters: During the waning days of the Obama administration U.S. intelligence was indeed monitoring the conversations of foreign persons of interest after the Nov. 8 election and before the Jan. 20 inauguration. That’s normal and actually encouraging given how many key things those agencies have missed in recent years.
In those eaves-droppings they overheard Trump aides being mentioned or talking to agencies’ foreign targets. That’s called “incidental contact” in the intel world. That means they weren’t supposed to be targeting the American, but he or she came up. That’s unavoidable in intelligence-gathering if you’re doing a thorough job.
To avoid “unmasking” those innocent bystanders, transcripts of those overheard conversations refer to the foreign target by name and identify the other person simply as American No. 1 or American No. 2. A very small number of very senior intelligence officials will know the actual identity of the American, people like, oh, then-CIA director John Brennan or Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser.
Remember Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn? He was picked up talking with the Russian ambassador as part of his transition work. Subsequently, he was fired, not for the conversation but for misrepresenting that conversation to Trump teammates, including Vice President Pence. Trump accurately saw that as fatally corroding the trust he needs in such a close aide.
But here’s the deal: We should never have known it was Flynn.
Yes, as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency Flynn was very unpopular among Obama administration members and indeed was frozen out of contact with the commander-in-chief because he favored a much stronger response to ISIS, among other things. Talk about a president dodging opposing views.
Like Flynn or not, it is illegal — as in against the law — for anyone to reveal the name of an incidentally-overheard American. Someone in a small circle of Obama intelligence officials who knew the identity of that American No. 1 committed a felony by leaking Flynn’s name to media.
Safe to say the leak, like numerous others since Hillary Clinton was not inaugurated as president, was not intended to facilitate the smooth presidential transition that Obama so often publicly promised.
Before you faint from the revelation of illegal duplicity among partisan spies in Washington, hear this. Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has made public appeals for information on intelligence matters, beyond official intel briefings.
On Wednesday Nunes, who was on Trump’s transition, said, “I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions the intelligence community … collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.” The chairman said the monitorings involved transition team members and possibly Trump himself, adding, “I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or the investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.”
Nunes then briefed Trump at the White House, a violation of political protocol because he did not first tell committee Democrats. They went into immediate photo-op orbit to — wait for it — distract from the actual revelation about their departed dear leader.
But forget such hissy fits. Also, ignore whether this supports Trump’s claim of being “wiretapped” by Obama.
We now know Obama administration intelligence operatives listened in on Trump aides’ conversations. We now know they illegally leaked the identities. And it’s not a stretch in this poisonous partisan environment to wonder if those intel encounters were truly incidental.
Or perhaps did the monitoring use foreign officials as mere covers to gather information, hopefully damning, on the Republican’s transition team and on this Trump usurper who had no business upsetting Clinton on Nov. 8?