In case anyone has not noticed, Rep. Devin Nunes- Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee- has, according to some, committed a big “no-no” in their investigation of Russian influence on the 2016 Presidential election. According to some reports, this is the stuff of a really bad spy novel- getting a phone call, switching cars, clandestine meetings at the White House. Depending on who you believe, either this is a cloak-and-dagger operation being played out by a Congressman, OR is is just so bad it has to be true.
The alleged information received was “evidence” that some members of Trump’s transition team and possibly Trump himself were captured in conversations as a result of “incidental collection.” Think of it as the intelligence community’s equivalent to the military’s “collateral damage-” we didn’t mean to hear so-and-so, but we did,” just as “we didn’t mean to kill civilians, but we did.”
It should come as no surprise that the NSA and other agencies conduct surveillance on foreign diplomats and operatives. This is especially likely to spike during a presidential transition where foreign governments are “feeling out” the incoming administration. In fact, section 702 of FISA states that the government does not need a warrant to collect information on Americans if the target of the intelligence collection operation was a foreigner.
But now comes the twist: if that incidental information is of no intelligence value, it is essentially discarded and if not discarded, steps are taken and safeguards are established to make sure that the identity of the Americans accidentally caught up in the surveillance dragnet are redacted or hidden or removed in some manner UNLESS it is of significant intelligence value. In spook parlance, this is referred to as “masking.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with this process or these practices. If one does not like it, perhaps the better solution is to change FISA and not get on one’s soapbox. But now the plot thickens even further. On January 12, 2017, Barack Obama allowed the dissemination of raw intelligence from the NSA to sixteen other intelligence agencies in the Executive Branch. At the time, privacy right advocates panned the move. With an increased number of people viewing this raw intelligence obtained without a warrant, the chances of more people seeing and possibly leaking the information increases exponentially.
Due to Congressional foot-dragging and Democratic obstruction regarding the confirmation of key Trump national security appointments coupled with some goofy moves by Trump himself, the intelligence community was essentially being operated and run by Obama leftovers. It was at this point that national security adviser Mike Flynn obtained the dubious honor of having the shortest tenure in US history in that important position.
According to Nunes, there was substantial information collected as a result of this surveillance of foreign officials that involved Trump and his transition team’s members. He also claims that a lot of the information was shared within the intelligence community thanks to Obama’s actions a week before Trump’s inauguration and that it became obvious that despite “masking,” one knew who one was talking about in intercepted communications and intelligence reports. Most importantly, much of the shared information had absolutely nothing to do with Russia or their attempted influence in the election.
If true, then this is a serious allegation against a former president and as serious as the infamous Trump Tweet. This writer seriously doubts that Barack Obama sat in the Oval Office and told the intelligence community to start leaking possibly damaging information about Trump and his team come January 20th at 12:01 PM just as I seriously doubt Chris Christie sent out a memo to close some lanes on the George Washington Bridge. Instead, it was lower level operatives who likely took the clue and ran with it. Does this absolve Obama of any direct wrongdoing or vindictiveness? Should Christie be absolved of any direct wrongdoing?
The problem for Nunes is that he then went running back to the White House and briefed Trump administration officials leading Trump to declare that he felt partially vindicated by his Twitter message. Nunes did not inform other members of the Intelligence Committee before informing Trump. It looks even worse because Nunes was part of the Trump transition team and, therefore, the logic goes that Nunes is beholden to Trump, not an impartial examination of events.
We do not know who provided this information to Nunes and he has said he will not reveal the source. This has the Left crying foul. But this is the same Left who cried foul when the White House voiced concern with journalists using “unnamed reliable sources,” or whistle blowers. But, it is a different story when an “unnamed reliable source” or a whistle blower works to the disadvantage of a Democratic story line or meme.
Taking Nunes at his word, he claims there is “nothing salacious” in the intercepted communications. If so, then there was no reason to pass the information on between various agencies. However, this intelligence was apparently widely circulated within the Executive Branch under Obama. Nunes said he felt comfortable going to Trump with this information since his committee was investigating Russian influence and ties to the Trump campaign and these pieces of information had nothing to do with Russia. For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that the actions of Nunes are ethically compromised. Does this make the information any less valid? The leak of information against Flynn was illegally obtained. Is it any less valid? One thinks not since it cost him his job.
This incident, if true, is being played out incorrectly. The focus is on the actions of Nunes instead of it being on the sharing of raw intelligence among various agencies and that information possibly being used for political purposes. It is the very reason Section 702 of FISA was debated when first proposed and which drew the ire of Democrats and libertarians in the GOP.
If true, Obama’s direct fingerprints will not be on it. But if true, his legacy should rightfully be tarnished.