Just over a month ago (March 2), I first posed the question "What Is With This Weird Obsession With Russia?" I followed up three weeks later with "The Weird Obsession With Russia Just Won't Go Away." Now we're up to April 7. The weird obsession is still out there. It's time to draw some obvious inferences.
I start from this very simple proposition: The sad truth is that all humans are imperfect. Corollary: Very few human beings, and maybe none, given political power and control of the apparatus of government, can resist the temptation to misuse the powers of the state to advance themselves and disadvantage their opponents politically. When the government's powers can be used in secret, the temptation becomes close to irresistible.
The question of the day is, did members of the Obama administration, during the time of the recent election campaign and transition, misuse the surveillance powers of the NSA and FBI to gather information on Donald Trump and his associates for political purposes? We know that various conversations of Trump and associates with representatives of foreign powers have been recorded, "unmasked" (in the euphemism of the day), and the substance provided to at least the National Security Advisor during the recent campaign and transition. Is it a reasonable inference that these disclosures were completely innocent and without political purpose or use?
I'll start be reprising a post that I wrote way back in June 2013, titled "Yes, Universal Government Snooping Is A Problem." The occasion for the post was an article in the Wall Street Journal on June 8 of that year reporting on revelations of the essentially universal data collection on everyone all the time which had then recently been undertaken by the NSA. The same article also reported on President Obama's defense of same. According to the article, Obama on June 7, 2013 had asserted that the data collection involved only "modest encroachments" on privacy, and moreover had been "vetted" by Congress and the courts. What could go wrong? My take at the time:
[T]here are very serious problems with the government monitoring all the activities of everyone all the time. The main one is, they are just not capable of resisting the temptation to misuse the information for political advantage. And make no mistake, the information is highly valuable for political purposes. . . .
Are there examples of top political actors using the powers of their position to spy on their adversaries? Well, just in what is well known, there was the massive and systematic use by President Lyndon Johnson of the FBI and CIA to spy on the Goldwater campaign:
It was a political scandal of unprecedented proportions: the deliberate, systematic, and illegal misuse of the FBI and the CIA by the White House in a presidential campaign. The massive black-bag operations, bordering on the unconstitutional and therefore calling for impeachment, were personally approved by the president. They included planting a CIA spy in his opponent's campaign committee, wiretaps on his opponent's top political aides, illegal FBI checks, and the bugging of his opponent's campaign airplane. The president? Lyndon B. Johnson. The target? Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate.
Or how about President Nixon's attempted use of the IRS to gather potentially damaging information on his opponents (unfortunately for Nixon, the IRS was not disposed to go along):
During Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, the president's White House counsel, John Dean, met withthe head of the Internal Revenue Service, Johnnie Mac Walters, and presented him with an envelope. Inside was a list of approximately 200 names -- the names of Nixon's political enemies and with it came the understanding that the IRS begin investigating the "enemies list" and perhaps start sending some people to jail.
Obviously, this is not a partisan issue. But, you say, the saintly and haloed Obama would never stoop to such wrongdoing? Actually, we know very well that that is not true -- the Obama IRS scandal being only the most prominent of several examples. (And, unlike the case of Nixon, the IRS, consisting almost entirely of partisan Democrats, was only too happy to help Obama try to hobble his opponents.)
Also going to the question of reasonable inferences to be drawn is the timing of emergence of the "Russia collusion" stories. Do you remember when these stories about Trump's alleged collusion with Russia started to come out? Looking around today, here's what I learn: the earliest story I can find on the subject is this one from Franklin Foer of Slate on October 31, 2016. That's just about one week before the election. The story contains lots of speculation, and exactly zero hard information. All of its sources are explicitly anonymous. ("I communicated extensively with Tea Leaves and two of his closest collaborators, who also spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, since they work for firms trusted by corporations and law enforcement to analyze sensitive data.")
The obvious inference is that surveillance of Trump and his associates went on throughout the campaign as part of a completely political operation to help defeat the adversary. It's just in the nature of the very most powerful human instincts and incentives that that is what has occurred. And the Russia thing? I mean, in the off chance that Trump might win, the existence of the surveillance would inevitably come out. A cover story was needed, and it had to surface before the election because it wouldn't be believable if it only emerged after the surveillance had been discovered and publicized.
It's a pretty good cover story, too. I'll bet it polled well! And here's something I have learned from a life in the litigation business: it's impossible to prove that someone is lying when he is talking about his own motive. If the question is "Did you shoot the deceased?" and you answer "No," that can be rather definitively disproved by a video showing you pulling the trigger and the deceased dropping to the ground. But there can be twenty true answers to the question of "why" you did something. "Why did you go to New York?" "Because I like New York." "Because my sister lives there." "To look for a job." "To see Central Park." "To visit the Manhattan Contrarian." "To kill the deceased." They could all be true at the same time! Or some could be true and some not. Suppose you answered "Going to see Central Park was no part of the reason I went to New York," but actually it was the main reason that you went. "Sure I happened to be in Central Park, but I was only there on my way to visit the Manhattan Contrarian." How is anybody going to definitively prove you wrong?
So Susan Rice has been quoted as saying: “The allegation is that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes. That’s absolutely false." Do you believe her? For reasons given, there is no way to disprove the statement definitively. How you view her statement likely turns on how plausible you find the "Russia collusion" narrative, versus what you think of the ability of the Obamanauts to resist the temptation to misuse their governmental powers. A few months into the "Russia collusion" thing with no evidence of any kind to support it -- and lots of reasons to think it's preposterous -- I'm not giving it much weight. You may disagree. But I point out that it would be completely normal for a presidential campaign and/or transition team, during the course of the campaign or transition or both, to:
- reach out to and speak to representatives of significant foreign countries to hear their perspective on significant issues affecting the two countries; or
- float ideas for changes in policy with respect to a given country with its representatives and get an indication of how the country might react to those changes.
Indeed, it would be incompetent for a campaign and/or transition team not to do these things with respect to the major countries on the international stage. Do we think, for example, that some members of the Trump transition teams may have discussed with representatives of the UK the implications of the Brexit vote for the two countries' relations, and how our trade agreements might need to be restructured to deal with that situation? How could they not have?
In other words, the fact that representatives of a campaign or of a transition are having discussions with representatives of foreign powers is completely normal and provides absolutely no basis for the NSA or FBI of the incumbent administration to make transcripts of the conversations involving an adversary's campaign and bring the substance of those discussions and the names of the participants to the attention of the President and the National Security Advisor.
The very, very, very strongest temptation pulling on a President is the temptation to use the secret powers of state surveillance to disadvantage his political adversaries. This temptation is so powerful that it might well even have enabled the Obama team to convince themselves that they weren't doing anything wrong in surveilling the other side's campaign.
One final thing: the story that "we had to surveil our political opponent because he might have been colluding with the Russians" will be equally available for every other politician in power going forward. Hey, it worked for Obama! For future presidents who want to try to use this line, I do recommend that you also follow Obama's example and first get a few well-placed articles like that Slate thing out there before the evidence of the surveillance itself starts coming out.