Investigations in Tumultuous Times

Apologies for the hiatus, but I have been diverted by the arrival of our first grandchild Michael, who seems to be able to hold my attention like nothing I have experienced before.

I am not sure how historic the month of May 2017 will turn out to be, but it certainly was tumultuous as seemingly significant events kept playing out. North Korea arrogantly continued to develop nuclear weapons and the ballistic missile means to deliver them, while the president of South Korea was removed from office for corruption and replaced by someone more open to conciliation with Kim Jung Un. China’s Xi Jinping orchestrated and hosted the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Summit in Beijing attended by 28 world leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, where China showed its intentions to develop a new global economic order under its leadership.  The “WannaCry” ransomware caused a massive cyber disruption that demonstrated how fragile the global cyber infrastructure remains.  Meanwhile, President Trump’s Executive Order on Cybersecurity continued the trend of problem description in lieu of actionable prescriptions.  As the fight against ISIS in the Middle East shifted from a strategy of attrition to one of annihilation, an ISIS suicide bomber with apparent help from an embedded terrorist cell killed 22 at a Manchester England rock concerted attended by mostly young teenagers.  President Trump made his first trip abroad where he addressed an Arab Summit in Riyadh saying he was not there to lecture them, but did lecture Western European leaders in Brussels on falling short at meeting their financial commitments to NATO while being ambiguous about US support for Article V of the NATO Charter regarding mutual self-defense.  Rounding out this rather fitful May, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for his handling of the investigation into Russia’s election interference activities.  This action precipitated the prompt appointment of Comey’s predecessor Robert Mueller as the Justice Department’s Special Counsel for the Russian Election Interference Investigation.

And as they used to say in top 40 AM radio, the hits kept coming in June! Two bombings in Kabul with significant deaths, the London Bridge Attack, the first ISIS attack in Iran, Saudi Arabia along with four other Arab countries accusing Qatar, of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Intercept publishing a leaked classified report showing NSA collected intelligence regarding Russian attempts (apparently unsuccessful) to tamper with voter registrations and voting machines.  Probably sensing the need for some wiggle room, Vladimir Putin assured the world that Russia has not and would not sanction interference with other nations’ elections, but he could not control individual Russian “patriotic hackers” (“Green Men of the Internet?) from responding to those who are being unfriendly towards Russia. Hillary Clinton expressed a different view, saying that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon orchestrated feeding political information to the Russians that they were then able to “weaponize” in ways which effected voter outlooks that contributed to her defeat.  Then there are the leaked reports that President Trump asked DNI Dan Coats and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers to intervene with then FBI Director Comey to “let go of the Michael Flynn investigation.”

Reviewing the past six weeks, it is easy to see why Vladimir Putin would observe in his over hyped June 4th interview with Megan Kelly that the American Congress and media, if not the American people, have “gone crazy” over presumed Russian interference with the 2016 election. Of course, the far better story here is that the US was well aware of Russia’s effort to interfere with our 2016 election and that it had no material effect, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of political points or media ratings for that line of reasoning.  If there was collusion with the Russians to influence the election those individuals should be shamed or prosecuted (where laws were broken), but in the meantime the Russians are confirming what I believe many US citizens already sense: that our current domestic political and media obsession with Russian election interference is making Putin’s Russia look more powerful than it really is.  As Andrei Kolesnikov, an independent analyst who is a senior associate with the Carnegie Moscow Center observed to David Ignatius, this is a win-win situation for Putin:  “If we did meddle in your elections, we show our might. If we didn’t, we’re pure.”

As Washington braces for testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) by DNI Dan Coats on June 7th and former FBI Director Comey on June 8th President Trump announced that he plans to nominate Christopher Wray to replace Comey – – –  probably timed to divert at least some media attention away from these SSCI hearings.  Adding more grist to the SSCI hearings on 7/8 June is former DNI James Clapper saying in prepared remarks to Australia’s National Press Club in Canberra that President, Donald Trump’s decision to cultivate Russia and share intelligence with the Putin regime is “very problematic”. He described Comey’s firing as “egregious and inexcusable”. In response to a question the former DNI opined, “I think [when] you compare the two, that Watergate pales, really, in my view, compared to what we’re confronting now.”  Is the former DNI warning that we are in the midst of a constitutional crisis?

For my part, I agree with those who are saying comparisons with Watergate at this point are imperfect and premature, but given all the plausible (though unconfirmed accusations on the table) it is hard to not see a “crisis of government” diverting attention away from a national security environment fomenting with uncertainty and danger for the United States.  While I don’t welcome the upcoming SSCI hearings I see them as essential to publicly getting answers to key questions so we as citizens can make our own judgments:

  • What does IC know about Russia’s interference with the 2016 election; when did the IC know what; and whom did the IC inform when?
  • Do the Trump campaign contacts with Russians close to Putin rise to the level of criminal collusion?
  • Is President Trump a subject or person of interest in the Mueller/FBI investigation?
  • Did President Trump (or anyone on his behalf) attempt to influence FBI Director Comey on how to conduct the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 US elections
  • Did the Intelligence Community use “incidental collection” associated with its 702 authorities, wittingly or unwittingly, to conduct “backdoor” surveillance on US citizens that was subsequently used for political purposes?

I certainly can’t offer any creditable predictions on where the Mueller/FBI, or HPSCI, or SSCI investigations will lead, but I am sure they will make C-SPAN “must watch” TV through the summer!  What seems to be a given though is that no matter what avenues any of these investigations take, there is considerable risk that the IC will be involved somehow in an unflattering way.  The lurking disaster for the IC that I fear the most is a finding by any of these investigations that the IC engaged in back door surveillance of US persons for political purposes.  In the short term that will strangle 702 collection and longer term it will lead to a wire brushing of the IC down to bare metal.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

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