Friday, March 24, 2017

Storm Clouds of Scandal

There's a scandal brewing in Washington that bids fair to out-scandal the Watergate affair. If you try to follow developments in this ugly business via reports in the major media you're probably so confused by now that you've just given up trying to make sense of it. It doesn't help that the media is either obtuse or dishonest in their reporting on the matter, but Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist has a short essay that clears things up very nicely.

The president, of course, hasn't helped clarify matters by tweeting with his characteristic imprecision a couple of weeks ago that he has seen evidence that Obama had wiretapped his offices Trump Towers. The media latched onto that tweet like a dog clamped down on a juicy bone and has portrayed the whole issue as if President Trump was alleging that Mr. Obama himself climbed through a fortieth story window like Spiderman and connected listening devices throughout the building.

What apparently happened was a bit otherwise but nevertheless quite illegal. Our federal intelligence apparatus, in the course of surveilling Russian diplomats after the election, happened to pick up conversations among Trump's people. That surveillance is not illegal, nor is it illegal, or even irregular, for transition team members to have contact with foreign diplomats. Indeed, Mrs. Clinton's team evidently had such contacts as well, but when Americans are inadvertently identified in such surveillance operations it is required that their identities be masked and their privacy protected.

Nevertheless, the identities of these Americans were "unmasked" and their conversations were shared throughout the intelligence community and even made their way to the Obama White House. That is illegal, and people could well go to jail for it.

The media, still gnawing on the bone of Trump's original tweet about "wiretapping" and also professing indignation at the way the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes handled the revelations when they came into his hands, have been studiously avoiding discussing the larger implications of what those revelations signify: Our intelligence agencies were illegally disseminating confidential material.

Here are some salient excerpts from Hemmingway's column:
In the last three months of the Obama presidency, significant personal information from and about the Trump transition was collected and widely disseminated at intelligence agencies, according to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes.

Dozens of intelligence reports provided to Nunes by an unnamed whistleblower were floating around during the sensitive transition period following the election, he said. The information collection itself may have technically been legal, but the failure to properly mask the information “alarmed” the California congressman, who notified the White House of the surveillance and dissemination of information on Wednesday afternoon.

He then dropped the bombshell: “First, I recently confirmed that on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition. Second, details about U.S. persons associated with the incoming administration, details with little or no apparent foreign intelligence value, were widely disseminated in intelligence community reporting. Third, I have confirmed that additional names of Trump transition team members were unmasked. Fourth and finally, I want to be clear, none of this surveillance was related to Russia or the investigation of Russian activities or of the Trump team.” Again:
  1. Information was collected on the Trump team by Obama administration agencies.
  2. This information had no reason to be shared in intelligence reports to Obama officials.
  3. Obama officials may have flouted legally required attempts to minimize and mask personal identifying information.
  4. This had nothing to do with Russia.
Such collections of information on foreign sources require hiding and protecting information about U.S. citizens incidentally picked up during the process when disseminating reports on information gleaned.

When an administration is spreading around reports of political and personal discussions, failing to mask that information, and the information itself isn’t of foreign intelligence value, you have the makings of a huge scandal.

Imagine that President George W. Bush had listened in on Obama transition team discussions and spread that information throughout the bureaucracy. Can you imagine how outraged the entire press corps would have been? And rightly so! Abusing foreign surveillance machinery to collect and spread information on political opponents is wrong. Selectively leaking that information via a coordinated campaign to a receptive media complex in order to give an unsubstantiated impression that a political opponent is illegitimate or compromised is also not great.

If the laws and regulations guiding the collection of information by spy agencies were violated by the party in power to hurt the opposing party, that’s banana republic stuff....The effect was that members of the Trump team had their privacy invaded, and that the information gathered was disseminated and even leaked to the public by the Obama-led bureaucracy.

Further, the media attempts to deflect and downplay and run interference for Obama officials and other Democrats regarding this significant information reveal a journalistic complex seeking not truth nor protection of civil liberties, but partisan point scoring.
I imagine we'll be hearing a lot more about this in the days ahead as even media reporters begin to realize that something is terribly wrong when operatives of the party in power use the intelligence apparatus of the state to strip their political opponents of their right to privacy.