Claims Of Obama-Era Domestic Spying Are Overblown

As a conservative, it pains me to be perceived as defending Barack Obama. I was a strong and consistent opponent of Obama during his eight years in the White House and rarely, if ever, agreed with him on anything. Yet at times, the criticism and attacks on Obama went too far and I feel obliged to speak up. Such was the case when conservatives charged, against all evidence, that Obama was actually a native Kenyan and that he planned to declare martial law in Texas. It’s the case now with charges of rampant spying on political opponents by the Obama Administration. Objectively speaking, the evidence to support these claims is simply not there.

Such is the case with the recent op-ed by Sharyl Attkisson in The Hill. As with many on the right, Attkisson assumes recent revelations of the surveillance of Paul Manafort are really an attempt to spy on Donald Trump. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Like the others, Attkisson fails to mention that the surveillance started two years before Trump tapped Manafort to be his campaign manager. Attkisson also overlooks the fact that there were many valid reasons for Manafort to be under scrutiny after he closely worked with the party of Ukrainian dictator and Putin figurehead, Viktor Yanukovych.

If the CNN report on the monitoring of Manafort is to be believed, and Attkisson seems to think it does, Manafort was apparently not under surveillance while he was Trump’s campaign manager. The report states that the two FISA warrants that covered Manafort were active from 2014 through “some point” in 2016 and again through fall of 2016 to early 2017. This seems to exclude the period from March through August 2016 when Manafort worked for the Trump campaign and possibly the entire time that Trump has been president.

Other examples of surveillance of by Attkisson are similarly overblown and misinterpreted. She cites comments by former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates that “they, too, reviewed communications of political figures, secretly collected under President Obama.” When examined, the testimony in question deals primarily with Michael Flynn, the national security advisor who was fired for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn’s case falls under incidental surveillance in which the Russian diplomat, not Flynn himself, was the person under surveillance. Spying on foreign diplomats is a legitimate role of the intelligence community.

Likewise, Attkisson’s claim that the Obama Administration spied on Congress is misleading. The Wall Street Journal article on which her claim is based makes clear that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the surveillance target, not members of Congress. The article makes clear that the NSA did not intentionally monitor the congressmen, saying that the incidental collection of their conversations with the Netanyahu government led to an “Oh-s— moment” and very valid concerns that the Obama Administration was intentionally monitoring the legislative branch.

Attkisson also cites the example of Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). In the 2012 article linked by Attkisson on Counterpunch.org, Harman was allegedly the subject of two NSA wiretaps in 2006 and 2009. Obama can obviously not be blamed for the first wiretap since George W. Bush was president in 2006. In any case, once again we see that the target of the surveillance was not Rep. Harman, but a suspected Israeli agent.

Attkisson’s example of Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is another example of a congressman being snared by contact from suspected foreign agents. In Kucinich’s case, the government recorded a call made to his congressional office by Saif el-Islam Qaddafi, at the time a high-ranking official in Libya’s government and a son of the country’s ruler, Moammar Qaddafi.

While the Obama Administration did spy on Fox News journalist, James Rosen, it appears that it did so legally. The Department of Justice obtained a warrant to search Rosen’s emails in connection with an investigation into leaked classified information, says the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Likewise, the cyber spying on the Associated Press was “legal, as far as I can tell,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said at the time. “The administration isn’t violating the First Amendment. But they are certainly doing more than has ever been done before in pursuing the private information of journalists. And we’ll see if there’s any political check on them, because there doesn’t appear to be any legal check on what they’re doing.”

Attkisson’s claim that the Obama Administration spied on her is also unverified. The CBS News article describing the breach that Attkisson links to contains a disclaimer: “To be clear, the federal government has not been accused in the intrusion of Attkisson’s computer; CBS News is continuing to work to identify the responsible party.”

Attkisson sued the Obama Administration over the hacking in 2015. The suit is ongoing and she says that the Trump Administration is continuing to defend the case in court. She fails to explain why the Trump Administration would defend illegal actions by the Obama Administration, especially if Donald Trump was also a victim of Obama’s illicit surveillance.

In her closing argument, Attkisson cites alarming statistics about the increase in surveillance under Obama. Nevertheless she fails to point out that, per her source, in 2016, when Obama had supposedly increased surveillance at an alarming pace, only 336 US citizens were targeted by FISA warrants. Likewise, the same memo that Attkisson cites as evidence that the “intelligence community secretly expanded its authority in 2011 so it can monitor innocent U.S. citizens like you and me” actually says that the NSA realized that “its compliance and oversight infrastructure… had not kept pace” and “undertook significant steps to address these issues….”

Additionally, the alarmists fail to acknowledge that the first request for a FISA warrant on Trump campaign staffers was rejected in June 2016. This rejection seems to indicate that at least some intelligence officials under Obama took domestic surveillance protections seriously.

Likewise ignored is a statement in The New York Times from April 2017. Citing an unnamed official, the Times reported with respect to surveillance of Carter Page, another Trump campaign official, “The Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign as a line it did not want to cross.” This may explain the break in surveillance of Paul Manafort as well.

While there is a lack of evidence of systemic abuse of surveillance by the Obama Administration, there are legitimate concerns. For example, how did the recording of Kucinich’s phone conversation find its way into the hands of reporters four years later? The leaks of Michael Flynn’s conversations to the media were illegal, the lies Flynn told about them to Vice President Pence notwithstanding. The leakers have never been publicly identified or punished.

The unmasking of American subjects of incidental surveillance by Obama Administration officials is also problematic. Susan Rice appears to have been cleared of wrongdoing by House investigators, but Samantha Power still needs to explain her actions.

Finally, the revelations that the CIA inappropriately accessed Senate computers in 2014 shows the need for strict third-party oversight. Nevertheless, the fact that the breach was disclosed at all is encouraging. A subsequent review found that the incident was the result of an error and not intelligence officers acting in bad faith. More protections for journalists from surveillance would be an appropriate reform as well.

The claims of rampant Obama-era spying reflect many of the hallmarks of a classic conspiracy theory. For instance, the dots must be connected between many disparate events and rational explanations have to be ignored. A conspiracy by the Obama Administration to spy on political opponents would mean that virtually everyone in a leadership role in the intelligence community would be complicit, yet few have been fired by President Trump. When he did fire James Comey, illicit spying on Americans was not one of the reasons given.

Occam’s Razor holds that the simplest explanation is most often correct. In the case of Obama’s domestic surveillance, the simplest explanation is that there was probable cause for monitoring in most cases. That includes the cases of Paul Manafort and Carter Page. In other cases, some Americans were caught up in incidental surveillance of legitimate surveillance targets. Michael Flynn fell into this category. Donald Trump may have as well.

What Does The Surveillance of Paul Manafort Mean?

The big story these days is the breaking news that Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was under FBI surveillance. This has brought forth a flurry of claims that Trump was right about his charges of wiretapping, that the FBI only tracked Manafort to find out what Trump was doing and that Manafort was only guilty of talking to Russian diplomats.

The real story is that this news isn’t breaking news at all. The story broke during the campaign that there was an active FISA warrant for surveillance of members of the Trump campaign staff. A November 2016 article by Heat Street (which has since been acquired by MarketWatch) reported that a broad FISA warrant request in June 2016 included Donald Trump as a target. This request was denied, but a subsequent, more narrow request was granted in October.

This was confirmed by the BBC in a January 2017 article which described how the warrant was issued to investigate two Russian banks. The investigation stemmed from intelligence passed to the US by an unnamed Baltic nation in April 2016. The intelligence allegedly included a recorded conversation “about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.” The BBC article mentioned, but did not name, “three of Mr. Trump’s associates were the subject of the inquiry.”

One of the three was Michael Flynn. Flynn was Trump’s first national security advisor. Flynn was fired early in the Trump Administration after it was revealed through leaked surveillance information that he had lied about conversations with the Russian ambassador. Flynn’s contacts with the Russians were apparently uncovered as an incidental target as the intelligence community monitored Russian diplomats. Flynn is still under investigation by both the Pentagon and Mueller’s task force.

In April 2017, the New York Times named a second target of the investigation. The report stated explicitly that Carter Page had been the target of a FISA warrant after he left the Trump campaign. “The Justice Department considered direct surveillance of anyone tied to a political campaign as a line it did not want to cross,” the report said, citing an unnamed official.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, was the third target of the investigation. Manafort had long had ties to the Putin government. He had worked as a consultant for the pro-Russian political party that controlled the Ukraine until it was toppled by a revolution in 2014. Manafort’s name was listed in the so-called “Black Ledger” that detailed secret payments by the Ukrainian ruling party. The ledger, which was discovered after the revolution, showed that Manafort received at least $1.2 million from the pro-Putin ruler of Ukraine per AP reports. Manafort was fired by Trump in August 2016 after the story of the Ukrainian payments broke.

The new story by CNN detailing Manafort’s surveillance says that Manafort was the subject of two FISA warrants. The first, centered on his work in the Ukraine, began in 2014 and “was discontinued at some point last year [2016] for lack of evidence, according to one of the sources.”

The dates for the second warrant are not known but it apparently began after “FBI interest deepened last fall because of intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves.” The warrant reportedly continued until early 2017. The dates suggest that Manafort was not monitored while he was an official part of the Trump campaign, although they do cover a period when he had discussions with President Trump. “It’s unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance,” CNN notes.

Another report by the New York Times says that federal agents raided Manafort’s home in July 2017. Again, this was after his official role as a member of Donald Trump’s campaign staff was long over.

So was Donald Trump right when he claimed that Obama was “tapping” his phones? So far there is still no evidence of this. Surveillance of Trump’s associates is not the same as surveillance of Trump himself. This is especially true if the surveillance did not occur during the period when Trump’s associates were working on his campaign. This would also indicate that the surveillance was not to find out what the Trump campaign was up to.

Further, the surveillance of Paul Manafort was not the result of business-as-usual contacts with Russian diplomats. A FISA warrant was issued for Manafort because he was communicating with Russian agents. A FISA warrant is not proof of guilt, but it does require probable cause. The denial of the June 2016 warrant request is proof that warrants are not issued on a frivolous basis.

The investigation into Paul Manafort and the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign is not yet complete. In the weeks and months to come, we may learn exactly why Manafort was talking to the Russians and what was said. At this point, there is no smoking gun, but there are indications, such as the decision to threaten Manafort with indictment, that Special Counsel Mueller is building a strong case. Part of that case may be on incriminating evidence that resulted from surveillance under the FISA warrant.

Trump Claims ‘Vindication’ For Something Comey Never Said

In the days since the Senate testimony by former FBI Director James Comey, the Trump camp has claimed that the testimony vindicated the president. Beginning with a tweet by the president the following day, Trump supporters claim “total and complete vindication” from Comey’s statements under oath. However, the claim focuses on only one part of Comey’s testimony and the claim of vindication is for something that Comey never said.

The focus of the Trump Administration since last Thursday when Comey testified was Comey’s statement under oath that President Trump was not under investigation by the FBI. The problem with this claim is that Comey had never claimed that the president was personally under investigation.

It is likely that many people may have assumed after Comey’s Senate testimony in March that President Trump was being investigated, but a look back shows that Comey never made that claim. Comey’s testimony a month before he was fired contained the bombshell revelation that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign for its links to Russia, but he never said that the president was under direct scrutiny.

Here is a look back at what then-FBI Director James Comey said before Congress on March 20, 2017 (video available here):

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment as to whether any crimes were committed.

Comey told Congress that the FBI was investigating “individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” not the president. The individuals were left unnamed, but FBI inquiries about Mike Flynn, Carter Page, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort had been known for months. Carter Page was the target of a FISA warrant obtained by the FBI prior to the election last year.

At some point after the March testimony, President Trump apparently became obsessed with the idea of proving that he was not under investigation. Comey testified that he privately assured the president that he was not under investigation on several occasions. Comey also said that the president asked him to publicly announce that he was not under investigation, a request Comey resisted because “because it would create a duty to correct, should that change.” In his letter firing Comey, Trump awkwardly thanks Comey for “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”

Trump supporters seem to believe that, since the president was not under investigation, that Comey’s firing could not be an obstruction of justice. To the contrary, Trump was alleged to have interfered with the investigation of Michael Flynn, not an investigation into his own ties with Russia. Even though the FBI probe was targeted at Flynn, Page and the others instead of Trump, firing the FBI director to interfere with the investigation could still represent obstruction of justice.

A second trope by Trump supporters is that since Trump was not under investigation, the inquiries by the Congress and the Special Counsel should be halted. This represents a misunderstanding of what the investigations are about. These investigations were also not targeting Trump personally. The purpose of the congressional investigations is to determine exactly what Russia did to interfere in the 2016 elections. The investigation by Special Counsel Bob Mueller focuses on whether any members of the Trump campaign worked with Russian operatives and whether any crimes were committed.

Despite the Trump Administration spin, James Comey’s testimony did not clear the president. In fact, the most damaging part of Comey’s June 8 testimony may be a statement that has scarcely been mentioned. When asked why he thought Trump fired him, Comey answered, “Again, I take the president’s words. I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that.”

The investigations will continue and President Trump is not in the clear.

NEW: Carter Page Named As Surveillance Target While Congressmen Deny Nunes Claims

There are two new developments in the story of the alleged “wiretapping” of the Trump team during the campaign. The name of the Trump associate that was the subject of a previously known FISA warrant was named and several congressmen are disputing Rep. Nunes’s claim that the intelligence community inappropriately unmasked subjects of surveillance within the Trump campaign.

The Washington Post reports that the FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant to investigate Carter Page as early as last July. The investigation was part of the counterintelligence effort opposing Russian interference in the election. The government claimed that there was probable cause to believe that Page was acting as the agent of a foreign power.

Page was listed as a foreign policy advisor by the Trump campaign in March 2016. In August 2016, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks called him an “informal advisor,” the Post notes. By September, when the investigation of Page’s Russia ties was known, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said that Page “has made no contribution to the campaign” and Kellyanne Conway claimed that he was “certainly not part of the campaign that I’m running.” In January, Sean Spicer described Page as “an individual who the president-elect does not know and was put on notice months ago by the campaign.”

In a February interview with the Los Angeles Times, President Trump apparently described his relationship with Page, saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to him. I don’t think I’ve ever met him. And he actually said he was a very low-level member of I think a committee for a short period of time. I don’t think I ever met him. Now, it’s possible that I walked into a room and he was sitting there, but I don’t think I ever met him. I didn’t talk to him ever. And he thought it was a joke.”

Carter Page denied the allegations against him in an interview on Tuesday. “This confirms all of my suspicions about unjustified, politically motivated government surveillance,” he said. “I have nothing to hide.” No charges have been filed.

No charges have been filed against Susan Rice either. Rice was alleged to have improperly handled surveillance by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Nunes claimed in March that intelligence on Trump staffers appeared to have been legally collected, but was concerned that the identities of campaign team members unmasked and details that had no intelligence value were widely disseminated.

Now CNN reports that Nunes’s claims are being refuted by both Democrats and Republicans who have reviewed the same intelligence documents cited by Nunes. The unnamed congressmen said that the requests made by Rice were “normal and appropriate” for a National Security Advisor and that there was “absolutely” no smoking gun in the reports.

Rice has also denied any wrongdoing. “There were occasions when I would receive a report in which a US person was referred to — name not provided, just a US person — and sometimes in that context, in order to understand the importance of the report, and assess its significance, it was necessary to find out, or request the information as to who the US official was,” Rice said. “The notion that some people are trying to suggest, is that by asking for the identity of a person is leaking it, is unequivocally false. There is no connection between unmasking and leaking.”

President Trump told the New York Times last week that he believes that Rice broke the law, but has thus far failed to provide evidence or have the Justice Department file charges against her. The president claimed that he would provide the evidence “at the right time.”

There have many conflicting claims and counterclaims in the surveillance scandal. The revelations that Trump aides were under investigation for their ties to Russia is an established fact that was known before the election. The identification of Carter Page as a target of the investigation is likely accurate as well. It is also possible that the investigation was not limited to Page.

The jury is still out on the matter of Nunes’s claim of impropriety on the part of the intelligence community. If there is evidence that Rice or other intelligence officers broke the law, then they should be prosecuted and a sanitized version of the evidence should be made public to support the extraordinary claims of Trump and Nunes.

So far there is no indication that any surveillance was conducted illegally or for purely political purposes. Even Nunes acknowledged that the intercepts of Trump campaign communications appeared to be an “incidental collection” that could result from communication with foreign nationals who are under surveillance. If this is how the intercepts resulted, then the FBI was doing its job.

The one person who has the power to clear up the entire mess is President Trump. The president has access to all the intelligence information available and the power to have relevant portions declassified and released to the public. So far, however, it appears that Mr. Trump is not inclined to clear up the situation.

Spies Don’t Trust Trump with Intelligence

In what may be an unprecedented move, America’s intelligence community is reportedly keeping the country’s most sensitive intelligence information from its president. A Wall Street Journal report cited both current and former intelligence officials who said that concerns that the information might be leaked or compromised had prompted the agencies to withhold certain information.

Even before the forced resignation of Gen. Flynn due to his lack of forthrightness about his contacts with Russia, the Trump Administration was at odds with the intelligence community. President Trump was one of the few to deny the findings of the FBI and the CIA that Russia interfered in the presidential election. In January, Trump hinted at a restructuring of the intelligence community in what some thought was retribution for the investigation into Russia’s role in the election. Also in January, Russia was rumored to have compromising information on Donald Trump himself.

Flynn was also not the only member of the Trump camp to have suspicious ties to Russia. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, was fired during the campaign for his connections to Russia. CNN reported that “high-level advisors” to the Trump camp were in “constant communication during the election with Russians known to US intelligence” according to “multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials.” Manafort was named by CNN in the article, but it may also refer to Carter Page, Roger Stone and others.

Manafort denied the accusation. “I have knowingly never talked to any intelligence official or anyone in Russia regarding anything of what’s under investigation,” he said. “I have never had any connection to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin or the Russian government before, during or after the campaign.”

According to the Journal, intelligence information is sometimes sanitized to protect sources before it is given to government officials, but there is no known precedent for restricting the president’s access due to fears about “trustworthiness and discretion.” The report said that there was no known instance in which vital information relating to security threats or plots had been restricted.

The Journal’s sources cited two specific reasons for restricting Mr. Trump’s access. The first is the general statements of admiration that Trump made for Vladimir Putin at numerous times. The second is the specific request that Mr. Trump made for Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails.

Officially, the intelligence community denies the Journal report. ““Any suggestion that the U.S. intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true,” said a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Likewise, the White House also disputes the account. “There is nothing that leads us to believe that this is an accurate account of what is actually happening.”

Regardless of whether information is being withheld, there is clearly a strained relationship between the Trump Administration and the intelligence community. “It’s probably unprecedented to have this difficult a relationship between a president and the intelligence agencies,” said Mark Lowenthal, a retired senior intelligence official. “I can’t recall ever seeing this level of friction. And it’s just not good for the country.”

Trump Intelligence Adviser’s Moscow Pilgrimage Raises FBI Concerns

#TrumpLovesPutin could be the hashtag.

First there was Gen. Michael Flynn, who was fired from his job as the military’s top spy, leading the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn went to Moscow in December 2015 to “five star treatment” at the hands of Russia Today. Then there was Paul Manafort, whose Russian business ties and boot-stomping dictator client list raised plenty of eyebrows.

And let’s not forget that Trump graciously accepted Putin’s calling him “brilliant.”

Now a Trump adviser has actually met with “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow, according to a report by Yahoo News’ investigative journalist Michael Isikoff. Not just “high ranking,” but in fact people in charge of gathering intelligence about the U.S. election.

The activities of Trump adviser Carter Page, who has extensive business interests in Russia, have been discussed with senior members of Congress during recent briefings about suspected efforts by Moscow to influence the presidential election, the sources said. After one of those briefings, Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote FBI Director James Comey, citing reports of meetings between a Trump adviser (a reference to Page) and “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer as evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that needed to be investigated by the bureau.

Some of those briefed were “taken aback” when they learned about Page’s contacts in Moscow, viewing them as a possible back channel to the Russians that could undercut U.S. foreign policy, said a congressional source familiar with the briefings but who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. The source added that U.S. officials in the briefings indicated that intelligence reports about the adviser’s talks with senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin were being “actively monitored and investigated.”

Trump named page among five advisers “that we are dealing with,” Isikoff reported.

Democrats in the House and Senate are jumping all over this. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking minority members of their respective intelligence committees, released a joint statement accusing Russia of tampering with our election.

“Based on briefings we have received, we have concluded that the Russian intelligence agencies are making a serious and concerted effort to influence the U.S. election,” they said. “At the least, this effort is intended to sow doubt about the security of our election and may well be intended to influence the outcomes of the election.” They added that “orders for the Russian intelligence agencies to conduct such actions could come only from very senior levels of the Russian government.”

Page was a Merrill Lynch investment banker in Moscow before turning to his own consulting firm, Global Energy Capital, “ocated around the corner from Trump Tower, that specializes in oil and gas deals in Russia and other Central Asian countries.” Not one bit suspicious, there.

Page came to the attention of officials at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow several years ago when he showed up in the Russian capital during several business trips and made provocative public comments critical of U.S. policy and sympathetic to Putin. “He was pretty much a brazen apologist for anything Moscow did,” said one U.S. official who served in Russia at the time.

While in Moscow, U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Page met with a top Putin aide, Igor Diveykin, who serves as deputy chief for internal policy. Intelligence officials believe Diveykin is responsible for Russian agencies collecting intelligence about the U.S. election.

Nice. Now Trump will have to say something racist or sexist or start a flame war with a news anchor to draw attention from this latest installment of “To Russia With Love.”

Third Trump Foreign Policy Advisor Discredited

One of Trump’s advisors is George Papadopolous, a 2009 college graduate whose sole claim to being a foreign policy expert appears to be time in a Model U.N.

Papadopoulos’ LinkedIn page also boasts about his role at the 2012 meeting in Geneva of Model U.N., the student role-playing exercise on international diplomacy.

A second Trump advisor is Carter Page, who has controversial ties to Moscow and has been caught on camera bad mouthing the United States to a Russian audience. He also reported has financial times to a Russian energy monopoly.

Now we have a third of the five foreign policy advisors. New allegations are surfacing about former Defense Department Inspector General Joseph Schmitz. Like Papadopolous and Page, Schimtz advises Trump and is alleged to be both a holocaust denier and bragged about firing Jews at the Department of Defense.

These are all, it seems, reflections of the candidate himself: a neophyte, Russia loving, anti-Semite who dog whistles to the alt-right.