There are things that no one is supposed to know, and that no one knows. Russia has spies, America has spies, everyone has spies – but no one knows who they are or what they do or have done. There’s only pop culture. James Bond was manly (Sean Connery) and then he was an impeccably dressed witty fop (Roger Moore) and then he was a nasty cynical killer-for-the-good-guys (Daniel Craig) – and in the movies made from the Tom Clancy books, the CIA guys are superbly informed and devastatingly efficient technocrats, and brave too. Harrison Ford took care of the Irish terrorists and then the Columbia drug lords in two successive movies. In the Jason Bourne movies, however, the guys at the CIA and NSA and all the rest are nasty folks who break all the rules, who have decided that they answer to no one, and are out to kill Matt Damon, one of their projects gone wrong, or gone right, depending on your point of view. And then there’s real life. Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent and then ran the place – a ruthless stone-cold nationalist. Donald Trump likes him a lot. That may be the reason.
That may be nonsense. Last month. in the Observer, John Schindler looked into the real stuff going on:
Donald Trump’s aggressive comments about American spies – mocking them and comparing them to Nazis on Twitter, for example – have generated unprecedented enmity in our Intelligence Community. Going to war with the IC is a bad idea for any new administration, particularly given the new commander-in-chief’s rumored links to Vladimir Putin, which are keeping American spies up at night.
It’s not just Washington that’s worried. Throughout the Western spy alliance, intelligence agencies are pondering the previously unthinkable: Is the American president compromised? On several occasions over the decades, the IC had to reduce spy-links, usually only temporarily, to various partners when a new government contained too many cabinet ministers with Moscow linkages. Now the shoe is on the other foot and it’s the American government that seems to have a Kremlin problem.
Just how alarming things are was revealed by a recent report in The Times of London that British intelligence has asked the IC for reassurances that the new administration – which has several officials with Kremlin ties that aren’t exactly hidden – won’t compromise British spies operating clandestinely inside Russia. When America’s oldest and most intimate intelligence partner is worried that the White House can’t be trusted with secrets, we’re in uncharted and dangerous waters.
It seems that our intelligence folks have mentioned to the Brits and the Israelis, and others, and they might want to be careful about what they have found out that they might want to share with us – it might end up in Moscow in an hour. Our folks can guarantee nothing at the moment. The situation is fluid.
Schindler is at it again now, with The Spy Revolt Against Trump Begins:
A new report by CNN indicates that important parts of the infamous spy dossier that professed to shed light on President Trump’s shady Moscow ties have been corroborated by communications intercepts… SIGINT [signals intelligence, the stuff we get electronically] confirms that some of the non-salacious parts of what Steele reported, in particular how senior Russian officials conspired to assist Trump in last year’s election, are substantially based in fact.
Christopher Steele is the former MI6 agent (a real James Bond from the real MI6) that they’ve worked with before and trust, so this is not surprising:
Our spies have had enough of these shady Russian connections and they are starting to push back… In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move.
They have their reasons:
What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.
Kevin Drum follows such things and adds this:
“Inside” reporting about the intelligence community is notoriously unreliable, so take this with a grain of salt. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. But just the fact that stuff like this is getting a respectful public hearing is damning all by itself. For any other recent president, a report like this would be dismissed as nonsense without a second thought. But for Trump, it seems plausible enough to take seriously.
Well, if our guys are a bit put out that the Russians know so much about what is said in the Situation Room, immediately, there might be a reason, and that might explain this:
Michael Flynn, the national security adviser to President Trump, resigned late Monday over revelations about his potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and his misleading statements about the matter to senior Trump administration officials.
Flynn stepped down amid mounting pressure on the Trump administration to account for its false statements about Flynn’s conduct after The Washington Post reported Monday that the Justice Department had warned the White House last month that Flynn had so mischaracterized his communications with the Russian diplomat that he might be vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.
In a letter to Trump, Flynn said he had “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president.”
That’s not the whole story, because the Washington Post had the scoop:
The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.
The message, delivered by Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that Flynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the Russian diplomat, had told Vice President-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said. It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the information.
The Trump administration had known about this for a month, but the Post’s scoop forced their hand on what was essentially hidden old news:
In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared Yates’s concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House. They feared that “Flynn had put himself in a compromising position” and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled, according to one of the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn’s resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that “we’ve been working on this for weeks.”
But there’s a kicker:
The current and former officials said that although they believed that Pence was misled about the contents of Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador, they couldn’t rule out that Flynn was acting with the knowledge of others in the transition.
So, did Trump tell Flynn to assure the Russians things would be just fine for them in the new Trump years? No one knows, but this has been going on for quite some time:
Flynn told The Post earlier this month that he first met [Russian Ambassador Sergey] Kislyak in 2013, when Flynn was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and made a trip to Moscow.
U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 presidential campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, officials said. Communications between the two continued after Trump’s victory on Nov. 8, according to officials with access to intelligence reports on the matter.
Kislyak, in a brief interview with The Post, confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, but he declined to say what was discussed.
All the leaks from the DNC that ruined things for Hillary Clinton, that all of our intelligence agencies say they can prove were the work of the Russians, might make sense now, as the work of Flynn under the direction of Trump. That’s possible but only implied, as this developed slowly:
For Yates and other officials, concerns about the communications peaked in the days after the Obama administration on Dec. 29 announced measures to punish Russia for what it said was the Kremlin’s interference in the election in an attempt to help Trump.
After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec. 30 that there would be no response. Trump praised the decision on Twitter.
Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general with years of intelligence experience.
From that call and subsequent intercepts, FBI agents wrote a secret report summarizing Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak.
Something was fishy. They didn’t know what, but something had to be done:
The internal debate over how to handle the intelligence on Flynn and Kislyak came to a head on Jan. 19, Obama’s last full day in office.
Yates, Clapper and Brennan argued for briefing the incoming administration so the new president could decide how to deal with the matter. The officials discussed options, including telling Pence, the incoming White House counsel, the incoming chief of staff, or Trump himself.
FBI Director James B. Comey initially opposed notification, citing concerns that it could complicate the agency’s investigation.
Clapper and Brennan left their positions when Trump was sworn in, but Yates stayed on as acting attorney general until Jan. 30, when Trump fired her for refusing to defend his executive order temporarily barring refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim countries – an action that had been challenged in court.
But firing her, for an unrelated reason, didn’t fix things:
A turning point came after Jan. 23, when [Press Secretary Sean] Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue “again last night.” There was just “one call,” Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump. Spicer said that was the extent of the conversation.
Yates again raised the issue with Comey, who now backed away from his opposition to informing the White House. Yates and the senior career national security official spoke to McGahn, the White House counsel, who didn’t respond Monday to a request for comment.
Trump has declined to publicly back his national security adviser after the news broke.
And then he accepted his resignation.
The New York Times has more:
In addition, the Army has been investigating whether Mr. Flynn received money from the Russian government during a trip he took to Moscow in 2015, according to two defense officials. Such a payment might violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without consent from Congress. The defense officials said there was no record that Mr. Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, filed the required paperwork for the trip.
That was some trip:
During his 2015 trip to Moscow, Mr. Flynn was paid to attend the anniversary celebration of Russia Today, a television network controlled by the Kremlin. At the banquet, he sat next to Mr. Putin.
Mr. Flynn had notified the Defense Intelligence Agency, which he once led, that he was taking the trip. He received a security briefing from agency officials before he left, which is customary for former top agency officials when they travel overseas.
Still, some senior agency officials were surprised when footage of the banquet appeared on RT, and believed that Mr. Flynn should have been more forthcoming with the agency about the nature of his trip to Russia.
Flynn leading the standing ovation for Putin was a bit much too, but all will be well:
One person close to the administration who was not authorized to discuss the personnel moves and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that retired Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward is the leading candidate to replace Mr. Flynn, although Mr. Kellogg [that would be retired Lt. Gen. Joseph K. Kellogg Jr. who was under Flynn] and David H. Petraeus are being discussed. It was not clear whether Mr. Petraeus is still expected to appear at the White House this week, as initially discussed by advisers to the president.
The smart money is on Harward, a protégé of “Mad Dog” Mattis, the new defense secretary, who is a stable and quite sane fellow. Harward is also sensible. Petraeus, however, pled guilty to sharing highly classified information with his mistress, who was writing a glowing biography of him. Petraeus is brilliant, and measured, but he’d need a court waiver to handle classified material again. Trump doesn’t need more trouble.
And Trump wasn’t in the dark in all this, as Josh Marshall argues:
President Trump is in a unique position. He doesn’t have to guess or cultivate intelligence sources. The FBI and the CIA work for him. What we learned on Thursday night was that there are transcripts of at least one of these conversations and they directly contradict Flynn’s denials. He did discuss the sanctions. This information has been available to President Trump since he became President on the 21st. He could have gotten it from FBI Director Comey or possibly from CIA Director Pompeo after he was confirmed on the 23rd. I should note I’m not sure whether these transcripts were only with the FBI or also with the CIA. There are rules about which agencies can scrutinize intelligence collected in the US or on US citizens. But I’m not certain just how they apply in this, shall we say, rather unique situation. In any case, this information was available to President Trump.
Why didn’t he get it? Why wasn’t he told?
Now, one might speculate that Flynn told Trump one thing, Trump believed him and Flynn is Trump’s conduit to most national security related information. So perhaps Trump didn’t know who to ask or didn’t think there was any need to ask. This is conceivable. Maybe. But the stream of leaks is people in law enforcement and the intelligence worlds trying to get this information out. I don’t think it would have been hard for President Trump to find this stuff out.
But there’s a much simpler explanation to all of this – one that does a much better job making sense of the Transition’s and then the White House’s weird indifference to all these leaks: President Trump knew that Flynn was in touch with the Russian Ambassador, not just about the calls on December 29th but the ones before the election too. Remember that when President Putin said he would not retaliate for the sanctions, the day after Obama imposed them, Trump went on Twitter and said how he’d always known Putin was smart.
Now that we know that Trump’s top foreign policy advisor was on the phone with the Russian Ambassador the day before suggesting that Russia not overact but wait for Trump to be sworn in, does this read like someone who was involved in sending that message? I would say so.
That’s not a certainty, but connect the dots:
Flynn has been a close advisor to Trump since the spring of 2016. Trump has consistently championed closer relations with Russia through the campaign. The subject of Russia came up repeatedly in the final months of the campaign as it became increasingly clear that Russia was involved in the hacking campaign against the Democrats. Does it seem likely that Flynn kept his communications with the Russian Ambassador secret from Trump this whole time? To me, it seems highly unlikely.
Again, we have no proof of this. But in all the conversations about Flynn’s fate I see very little discussion about whether he did what he did at the President’s behest and with his knowledge. That seems odd since it seems like by far the most likely explanation.
Consider another part of this. We’ve known about these calls for a month. There has been no word from the President about whether he knew about the Flynn/Russia channel. There’s been no word from the President since February 9th when we had the first definitive reports that Flynn discussed sanctions with Ambassador Kislyak on the day President Obama imposed them.
The Flynn drama is interesting. But whether he lied to Vice President Pence is maybe the 20th most consequential part of this story. What did Flynn do? What did he tell Trump? What did Trump do? These are very pressing questions.
Marshall then adds this:
The role of Russia in the 2016 election and the President’s relationship to Russia has been the un-ignorable question hanging over President Trump for months. Flynn’s resignation does not come close to resolving it. It is highly likely that the Flynn/Russia channel was authorized by the President himself. There’s much more to come.
That’s a bit of an understatement. Trump may continue his unrelenting praise of Vladimir Putin – not one bad word ever – but this complicates that. Flynn seems to have been their man in Washington, their mole, unless Trump had been fine with that, until all hell broke loose as this Great Spy Revolt against Trump began. John Schindler was right. Don’t mess with the intelligence community. They’ll win. They always do – and Flynn is gone.
Donald Trump could be next. There’s now a way to force the release of his tax returns – his sons did brag about all the Russian money that had financed his amazing projects over all the years. That might worry him, but the real worry is in Moscow. Putin, that ruthless stone-cold nationalist, lost an asset, as they say in the trade – and this isn’t a James Bond movie.