Despotic regimes are inherently unstable. That instability, they believe, can be offset by oppressing their peoples. One usual tool of oppression is the “secret police” who spy on the population, trying to identify political dissidents who can be imprisoned (or shot) before they become dangerous.
History is rife with examples. Czarist Russia had the Okhrana. When the Nicholas II fell in 1917, the Okhrana was replaced by the NKVD and then the KGB which performed the same functions. The KBG still does the same job but is now called the FSB under Putin. The Nazis had the Gestapo. The Chinese Communist Party has its Ministry of State Security.
These intelligence agencies, organs of the state, operated mainly for political purposes. Domestic political enemies were their primary focus. Intelligence and counter-intelligence regarding foreign enemies was important but clearly a second-place problem.
The politically motivated actions of the Obama era affected the intelligence community wrongly and severely. At least one clearly involved criminal conduct and all constituted massive abuses of power for political purposes.
The abuses of power began as a campaign of lies that perverted intelligence information to suit Obama’s agenda.
During the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks of September 11, 2012, White House staffers, notably National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes, changed the CIA talking points to claim, as Obama and Hillary Clinton had, that the attacks weren’t the carefully planned terrorist attacks they clearly were.
In 2015, it was revealed that U.S. Central Command’s commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin, had ordered his intelligence officers to only report intelligence that supported Obama’s political agenda. The result was a bunch of happy talk going from CENTCOM to the White House that reported success of Obama’s “campaign” against ISIS. That campaign was failing.
Austin was eventually removed and that problem solved. But Obama’s political agenda apparently dominated the rest of the intelligence community.
Imposing politics on intelligence guarantees that accurate intelligence is never reported to policymakers. When policymakers abuse their power and make that information easily susceptible to disclosure, it falls into the hands of our adversaries.
In 2016, the criminal actions of Hillary Clinton came to light. While secretary of state, she trafficked in top-secret intelligence information on her non-government and totally insecure private email system. It was an enormous abuse of power and clearly criminal conduct. But Clinton was never punished because Obama and the leaders of the intelligence community apparently participated in her criminal conduct without objection. We don’t know how many foreign powers and terrorist groups intercepted Hillary’s emails or hacked her private server.
What may be the final abuse of power by the Obama crew regarding intelligence matters is the evident spying on then-candidate Donald Trump, his campaign manager for a time, Paul Manafort, and probably other members of Trump’s family and campaign staff. Neither the intelligence community nor the Justice Department is doing anything about it.
From news reports, we know that two Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) warrants were approved to surveil Manafort beginning some time in 2014 and continuing through this year.
FISA enables the CIA, NSA, and FBI to monitor the actions of foreign people who are suspected of intelligence activity. Their actions are controlled by the FISA Court, a federal court that acts in secret and from which the intelligence agencies are required to obtain search warrants covering the suspected people, groups, and opposing intelligence agencies. In order to justify FISA warrants against Manafort, the FBI would have had to put before the FISA Court sworn affidavits from FBI agents that alleged Manafort was “knowingly engaging in clandestine intelligence activities” on behalf of a foreign nation at the time he was Trump’s campaign manager and at other times.
Why aren’t those affidavits made public? More importantly, who else was targeted by those warrants? Special Counsel Robert Mueller is using every threatening tactic — including a pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s residence — to intimidate him. Manafort may be indicted, but that doesn’t answer the question of who else was targeted and how the information revealed by the surveillance was used in the 2016 political campaign. And now we come to the latest aspect of the investigation: the unmasking of people’s names.
When intelligence is collected, there are occasions when U.S. persons — any citizen of the U.S. and anyone in the U.S. — are accidentally recorded or their communications (email, text messages, social media) intercepted. When that happens, the “minimization” procedures kick in.
“Minimization” requires that the Americans’ communications be deleted from the agency records.
When a U.S. person’s communications — say, a conversation between then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and the Russian ambassador — is collected the identity of the U.S. person is “masked” — i.e., deleted by the collecting intelligence agency — from the report being passed on to others.
In hundreds of cases, however, Obama senior officials including then-UN Ambassador Samantha Powers and reportedly others such as then deputy National Security Council adviser Ben Rhodes, demanded that U.S. persons be “unmasked” — revealed to them.
When the unmasking problem came to light months ago, NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers told a congressional hearing how unmasking is done. “We [the NSA] apply two criteria in response to their request: number one, you must make the request in writing. Number two, the request must be made on the basis of your official duties, not the fact that you just find this report really interesting and you’re just curious,” he said in June. “It has to tie to your job and finally, I said two but there’s a third criteria, and is the basis of the request must be that you need this identity to understand the intelligence you’re reading.”
According to a Fox News report, Powers was requesting unmasking of identities at the rate of about one per day through 2016 and continued to do so until Trump’s inauguration.
A UN ambassador, at best, is a secondary or tertiary intelligence consumer. In other words, intelligence is not gathered to meet her needs anywhere or anytime. Her official duties don’t include making decisions based on intelligence. She is under the direction of the secretary of state and the president. If neither of them required the unmasking of the names, she clearly had no job-related reason to do so.
What little intelligence information was passed to Powers as UN ambassador would have passed through the president’s office and the secretary of state’s office. If they didn’t need the names to be unmasked to understand the information, neither did she.
We don’t yet know how many of Powers’ requests for unmasking were complied with or whose names were divulged. More importantly, we don’t know what for what purpose the unmasked intelligence information was used.
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan — as well as former FBI Director James Comey — have all denied that any surveillance was conducted of the Trump campaign.
Clapper recently admitted that it was possible that Trump’s personal communications could have been intercepted.
It’s possible that wrongful unmasking — made on the false basis that Powers apparently requested it — is illegal under 18 US Code Section 242. Under that law, any official acting under color of law is prohibited from denying anyone their legal or constitutional rights. Wrongfully unmasking names under FISA may have deprived the people whose identities were unmasked of their statutory rights.
Congressional investigators are planning to question Powers and the others about the unmaskings. They will get nowhere. Just like the death of the criminal investigation into Clinton’s emails, the investigations of the unmaskings will wither and die quickly and no action will be taken.
President Trump should take his own action on this matter. The chief executive is the ultimate authority on what is and is not classified. He should direct the attorney general to declassify the FISA warrants against Manafort and publish them. He should also publish a list of people connected to his campaign who were either targeted with a FISA warrant or whose communications were innocently intercepted, and their names unmasked, at the request of anyone in the Obama administration including Obama himself.
Then, at least, we could get an idea of how much of his campaign was spied on by Obama for political purposes and how far this apparently massive abuse of power went.