Things That Never Happened

Many years ago, just after that “surge” in Iraq, George Bush announced that Condoleezza Rice would be the new head of what his administration had been neglecting. She would be fully in charge of Iraqi reconstruction – fixing everything that had been blown up and arranging for the Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds to stop fussing and feuding and settle down.

That never happened. Other things happened. No one asked what happened to this wonderful new agency, or whatever it was supposed to be – but this sort of thing happens all the time. Donald Trump announced that his vice president, Mike Pence, would head a massive investigation into voter fraud – to prove that Hillary Clinton had NOT won the popular vote. Three to five million illegal immigrants, who had no right to vote, had voted for her – every single one of them. This was the greatest scandal in America history – and then nothing came of it. Mitch McConnell, the head of Trump’s Republican Senate, said Congress wouldn’t fund any such thing. Paul Ryan, the head of Trump’s Republican House, just smiled. He wouldn’t even discuss it. The press would ask the White House about this new “blue ribbon” panel now and then, and the White House would say the whole thing would kick off soon – but no one believed that.

The press stopped asking. They’d been there and done that. Some things never happen. The announcement was the news, the only news. They reported that and shrugged. Lots of things never happen. The announcement was the point of the whole thing. Trump had made his point. Move on.

That happened again in February:

President Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.

The possible role for Stephen A. Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials already on edge because of the criticism the intelligence community has received from Mr. Trump during the campaign and since he became president.

That never happened either. Once again, the announcement was the news. Trump was pissed off at all our intelligence agencies, making him look bad with all that Russia stuff, and he might just do this, but he didn’t, but he could. Trump had made his point, again. He was angry. There was nothing new there. Move on.

The only curious thing was that Feinberg’s Cerberus owns the renamed Blackwater:

Academi is an American private military company founded in 1997 by former Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince as Blackwater, renamed as XE Services in 2009 and now known as Academi since 2011 after the company was acquired by a group of private investors. The company received widespread notoriety in 2007, when a group of its employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 in Nisour Square, Baghdad for which four guards were convicted in a United States court.

Just like Blackwater, Academi provides security services to the United States federal government on a contractual basis – and their guys with guns don’t have to follow the rules. That was the problem in Baghdad ten years ago. They killed all those civilians. There was outrage. More than a few of our real soldiers died. Erik Prince took a lot of heat – and then that was forgotten too.

Erik Prince was forgotten, but sometimes the press gets tired of reporting what never happened, and the Washington Post decided it was time to reverse things. They decided it was time to report on something that actually happened:

The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.

The meeting took place around Jan. 11 – nine days before Trump’s inauguration – in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, officials said. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.

Erik Prince is back again, and damn, it’s that Russia thing again – promises of major concessions to Moscow. Trump can’t get out from under that cloud, and there are lots of connections here:

Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant, according to the officials, who did not identify the Russian.

Prince was an avid supporter of Trump. After the Republican convention, he contributed $250,000 to Trump’s campaign, the national party and a pro-Trump super PAC led by GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, records show. He has ties to people in Trump’s circle, including Stephen K. Bannon, now serving as the president’s chief strategist and senior counselor. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos serves as education secretary in the Trump administration. And Prince was seen in the Trump transition offices in New York in December.

All of that is curious, but it’s all curious:

U.S. officials said the FBI has been scrutinizing the Seychelles meeting as part of a broader probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and alleged contacts between associates of Putin and Trump. The FBI declined to comment.

The FBI didn’t need to comment:

The Seychelles encounter, which one official said spanned two days, adds to an expanding web of connections between Russia and Americans with ties to Trump – contacts that the White House has been reluctant to acknowledge or explain until they have been exposed by news organizations.

These folks are more than reluctant to acknowledge or explain what happened:

“We are not aware of any meetings, and Erik Prince had no role in the transition,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary.

A Prince spokesman said in a statement: “Erik had no role on the transition team. This is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump. Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?”

In short, this never happened. The best defense is a good offence, perhaps in spite of the facts, reported by multiple double-checked sources, but the Post notes that this meeting does make sense:

Prince would probably have been seen as too controversial to serve in any official capacity in the Trump transition or administration. But his ties to Trump advisers, experience with clandestine work and relationship with the royal leaders of the Emirates – where he moved in 2010 amid mounting legal problems for his American business – would have positioned him as an ideal go-between.

And the timing makes sense:

When the Seychelles meeting took place, official contacts between members of the incoming Trump administration and the Russian government were under intense scrutiny, both from federal investigators and the press.

Less than a week before the Seychelles meeting, U.S. intelligence agencies released a report accusing Russia of intervening clandestinely during the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House.

This meeting had to be secret, given the heat, and in spite of what he says, Prince is on the inside with the Trump crowd:

He appears to have particularly close ties to Bannon, appearing multiple times as a guest on Bannon’s satellite radio program over the past year as well as in articles on the Breitbart Web site that Bannon ran before joining the Trump campaign.

In a July interview with Bannon, Prince said those seeking forceful U.S. leadership should “wait till January and hope Mr. Trump is elected.” And he lashed out at President Barack Obama, saying that because of his policies “the terrorists, the fascists, are winning.”

Days before the November election, Prince appeared on Bannon’s program again, saying that he had “well-placed sources” in the New York City Police Department telling him they were preparing to make arrests in the investigation of former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) over allegations he exchanged sexually explicit texts with a minor. Flynn tweeted a link to the Breitbart report on the claim. No arrests occurred.

Prince went on to make unfounded assertions that damaging material recovered from Weiner’s computers would implicate Hillary Clinton and her close adviser, Huma Abedin, who was married to Weiner. He also called Abedin an “agent of influence very sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Prince fits right in the Bannon White House, but once again, this came to nothing:

The Seychelles meeting was deemed productive by the UAE and Russia, but the idea of arranging additional meetings between Prince and Putin’s associates was dropped, officials said. Even unofficial contacts between Trump and Putin associates had become too politically risky, officials said.

That was inevitable. Announce, with great fanfare, that this or that is going to happen, any day now, for certain, and when it doesn’t happen, and clearly never will happen, the press will get grumpy, or at least bored. They’ll go out and find something that actually happened and report that. Go ahead. Say it didn’t happen. They’ll prove it did. Then everything becomes too politically risky.

Then everything snowballs:

Carter Page, who advised President Donald Trump’s campaign on foreign policy, met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in 2013, according to a report published Monday by BuzzFeed.

In 2013, at least three years before his association with Trump’s campaign, Page met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy in New York City, according to the report.

Page confirmed to BuzzFeed that he is the person identified as “Male-1” in a court filing by the U.S. government which contains a transcript of Podobnyy and a colleague, Igor Sporyshev, discussing the possible recruitment of “Male-1.”

According to the filing, Page provided Podobnyy with documents “about the energy business.”

The FBI was wiretapping Russian spies as they were recruiting Carter Page. Did they succeed? Even if they didn’t succeed this is trouble:

Podobnyy and Sporyshev were charged in 2015 with aiding and abetting a colleague, Evgeny Buryakov, who was charged with acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. The three men were also charged with conspiracy.

Page last week denied doing anything “that could even be possibly viewed” as helping Russia influence the 2016 election in President Donald Trump’s favor.

“I think it’s about dirty politics,” he said.

In a letter to the House Intelligence Committee’s chair and ranking member earlier in March, Page wrote that he would “eagerly welcome the chance to speak with the Committee” regarding its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Read the full Buzzfeed item here – the press will go out and find something that actually happened and report that. Go ahead. Explain yourself. Say it never happened. Good luck.

Of course, things can swing the other way. There was Eli Lake in Bloomberg:

White House lawyers last month learned that the former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The pattern of Rice’s requests was discovered in a National Security Council review of the government’s policy on “unmasking” the identities of individuals in the U.S. who are not targets of electronic eavesdropping, but whose communications are collected incidentally. Normally those names are redacted from summaries of monitored conversations and appear in reports as something like “U.S. Person One.”

Something was happening:

The intelligence reports were summaries of monitored conversations – primarily between foreign officials discussing the Trump transition, but also in some cases direct contact between members of the Trump team and monitored foreign officials. One U.S. official familiar with the reports said they contained valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates on foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.

Rice did not respond to an email seeking comment on Monday morning. Her role in requesting the identities of Trump transition officials adds an important element to the dueling investigations surrounding the Trump White House since the president’s inauguration.

Ah ha! Obama, through Susan Rice, was spying on Trump after all!

Trump was right all along, but this may be another one of those things that never happened:

A Monday Bloomberg report alleging that a former top Obama administration official requested the unmasking of U.S. persons tied to the Trump campaign who were swept up in foreign surveillance is not the “smoking gun” that the President’s backers are making it out to be.

According to surveillance and national security experts, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice would be within her rights to make such requests if she was trying to determine the extent of Russia’s interference in the presidential election.

“Part of her job as national security adviser is to pay attention to what foreign governments are doing,” Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor who handled foreign surveillance cases, told TPM. “If she’s asking for specific names to be unmasked in order to understand what Russia may be doing to influence the U.S. political system and influence our elections, presumably in a way they thought would benefit them, she’s doing her job.”

Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst, noted on Twitter that it was not “odd or wrong” for the national security adviser to read “a report of foreign officials discussing US persons coming into” the White House. And Susan Hennessey, a fellow in national security governance studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote of the Bloomberg article that “nothing in this story indicates anything improper whatsoever.”

And the reporter was clear on that:

Eli Lake, the Bloomberg View columnist who wrote the report, noted in his piece that “some intelligence value” is required for senior officials to request that U.S. person’s names be unmasked, and that as a result, Rice’s alleged requests were “likely within the law.”

That didn’t matter:

That was not how Trump’s allies viewed the Bloomberg report and other reports alleging Rice asked to have Trump staffers’ identities unmasked, however.

“Smoking gun found!” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) charged on Twitter. “Obama pal and noted dissembler Susan Rice said to have been spying on Trump campaign.”

“Unmasker Unmasked: Susan Rice Named As Intel Boss Who Exposed Team Trump Surveillance,” read the headline on Fox News’ homepage.

That never happened, and Eli Lake had reported this:

The National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was conducting the review, according to two U.S. officials who spoke with Bloomberg View on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. In February Cohen-Watnick discovered Rice’s multiple requests to unmask U.S. persons in intelligence reports that related to Trump transition activities. He brought this to the attention of the White House General Counsel’s office, which reviewed more of Rice’s requests and instructed him to end his own research into the unmasking policy.

That’s curious, so Josh Marshall suggests what really happened:

What jumps out to me here is the last sentence. Cohen-Watnick, whose new boss, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, was trying to fire him while all this was happening, took his ‘research’ to the White House Counsel’s Office. They reviewed what he had come up with, did some additional research on Rice’s requests and then “instructed him to end his own research.”

This is all very cryptic and it’s sort of a throwaway line in Lake’s story. It’s so spare you could read a number of possibilities into the sentence. Maybe the Counsel’s office said, ‘Wow, this is so big we need to take over this critical investigation you’ve started. Thank you so much for your work.’ But that does not seem like the most likely read.

I would suggest that a much more plausible read is that Cohen-Watnick brought his ‘research’ to the Counsel’s office. They looked at and basically said, ‘Knock it off.’

That makes more sense:

As even Lake concedes, Rice’s alleged actions – if the report is accurate – were almost certainly legal. Most national security experts say they were not only legal but entirely proper. Moreover, the kind of snooping around that Cohen-Watnick was apparently doing could very plausibly be interpreted as an attempt to monitor or interfere with the on-going counter-intelligence probe of Trump associates’ ties to Russia. The White House Counsel’s job is to protect and look after the legal interests of the President. A good lawyer would likely want to shut that kind of freelancing down right away, especially if what Cohen-Watnick had found didn’t amount to anything that helped the President or the White House.

The paragraph above also says Cohen-Watnick was “conducting the review.” But what review was that? It’s not clear this ‘review’ was authorized by anyone and it’s fairly implausible that he just stumbled on this stuff in the first place ‘in the normal course of business’, as he and the White House claim. His review apparently began in February. So if it was authorized it was likely okayed by Mike Flynn – another red flag.

So did Cohen-Watnick get shut down by White House Counsel Donald McGahn?

That may be what happened here:

Why did Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis, a junior lawyer who used to work for Chairman Nunes, call Nunes late in the evening and have him rush over to the White House to see the ‘smoking gun’ information that supposedly validated President Trump’s ‘Obama wiretapping’ tweets? Remember, this overnight cloak-and-dagger stunt was followed the next day by Nunes going and ‘briefing’ President Trump about the new information.

So the White House briefs Nunes in the middle of the night and then Nunes returns to the White House in the morning to brief Trump?

That never made sense.

But it makes perfect sense if Cohen-Watnick (Mike Flynn’s protégé, remember) got shut down by McGahn and then decided to backchannel his findings to Trump supporters on the Hill in order to do an end run around his bosses. It also explains why Nunes had to see the documents at the White House (likely at Ellis’s or Cohen-Watnick’s desk) rather than on Capitol Hill or at a relevant intelligence agency. Showing him the material anywhere else would have required letting others know what they were doing. Of course, it also explains why Nunes would need to brief Trump: because Cohen-Watnick probably wasn’t allowed to do so directly.

That works. Don’t mess with grumpy journalists tired of being told that this or that is going to happen, any day now, for certain, when it doesn’t happen, and clearly never will happen. And don’t say something never happened at all – they’ll dig in and find out if it did. It almost always did happen. And in this case, don’t claim something happened that didn’t happen. They’ll figure that out too. That’s what they do.

That’s what keeps us connected to the real world, not the world of things that never happened. Now, if the Trump presidency never happened…

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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