H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction

May 17, 2017–Now the truth stands revealed. When then-Lieutenant Colonel McMaster published his book Dereliction of Duty in the middle 1990s he got an extremely friendly reception. He rode that to generals’ stars, command in Iraq, scuttlebutt finding him a suitable candidate for chief of staff of the United States Army, and more. Today, Lieutenant General McMaster is national security adviser to the President of the United States. On the White House podium yesterday it all came tumbling down.

There were some more doubtful observers of the McMaster parade, me among them. I always thought McMaster’s argument about the Vietnam war a cheap shot. I said so in historian circles and in my book Unwinnable War. The thesis in McMaster’s book was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and NSC staff at the time of the Vietnam war played the inexcusable roles of enablers by going along with President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s strategy–partial, cautious steps, fragmentary escalations–instead of demanding action on their real, much more forceful menu of operations. By McMaster’s lights this left the United States on an uncertain, wavering course, meandering through history to defeat in Vietnam. I thought McMaster wrong both in general and in detail. It was not true the JCS never held out for their “large solution” operations. What was true was rather that each time a major strategic review occurred the Chiefs argued for the large solution. Lyndon Johnson, acutely aware of the dangers war in Vietnam could morph into war with China or Russia or both, consistently resisted the maximum escalation. While LBJ staged scenes to denounce and embarrass the generals they never, in fact, gave up their underlying strategy. They were never guilty of dereliction of duty in the sense that H. R. McMaster (and the U.S. military) use the term.

The generals (and NSC staff) did act to preserve the dignity of the president and his office. They did not complain of the president’s high handedness. Only one, Army chief Harold K. Johnson in 1967, contemplated resigning in protest (hoping LBJ might agree to war mobilization and an invasion of North Vietnam to dissuade him). He didn’t do it–and he, too, kept his silence on what had happened.

McMaster’s prescription in his book was that an official, faced with such a dilemma, must resign in preference to dereliction of duty. Yesterday, in reality, the general met his Waterloo. Elevated to national security adviser, Hal McMaster serves Donald J. Trump. The president blocked his national security adviser from ousting staff who made trouble, prevented McMaster from keeping offensive rhetoric out of Trump’s public comments, and kept silent as the president called him a “pain.” In the past week the general no doubt watched in horror as President Trump fired the FBI director even as evidence of an attempt to manipulate a federal investigation began surfacing. Then, a few days ago, Mr. Trump blabbed to visiting Russian officials of secrets given the United States by an intelligence ally, reportedly Israel. This violation of every protocol regarding handling of classified information, Mr. Trump defended with the bland defense that, as president, he can declassify any intelligence.

General H. R. McMaster stood up for President Trump. He denounced the Washington Post’s report that Trump had leaked classified information, “It didn’t happen.” Why not? Not because it did not happen but because a president can decide to declassify secrets. Yesterday McMaster took the podium at the White House. He made more excuses for Trump. “The president wasn’t even aware,” the general said, “where this information came from.” The president had an “absolute right,” the general said. Nine times the general insisted that what President Trump had done was “wholly appropriate.”

Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster did not resign in protest. He did do precisely what his forebears had done during the Vietnam war–act to preserve the dignity of the office of the president. General McMaster seems to have discovered appropriate dereliction of duty.

Maybe Trump’s Right–So was Hillary

May 16, 2017–The latest escapade of this dysfunctional White House is the admission that, during the recent visit of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, President Donald Trump told the visitors secrets shared with us by our spy allies. Evidently in haste to defend the president, national security adviser H. R. McMaster insisted that no operation had been revealed that was not already known, and that no sources or methods were mentioned. Earlier today Mr. Trump himself, relying upon the power of the president to “declassify” information, insisted he had the “right” to divulge the secrets he did. This mess brings us full circle to where we were a year ago when Donald J. Trump’s minions persecuted Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server, chanting “lock her up!”

There’s quite a bit to unpack here. First, the Hillary investigation, conducted by James B. Comey’s FBI, helped fuel the Trump political campaign as it gathered momentum. As discussed here and elsewhere, Comey’s re-opening of the investigation just before Election Day affected the outcome. So did Mrs. Clinton’s wooden handling of the issue. In this space I argued repeatedly that the movement of classified emails–and the excesses alleged by certain government agencies–were less than simple press bulletins made it appear. Not only was that correct, but recently it turns out that FBI Director Comey exaggerated his claims of the dimensions of the potential leak.

In terms of transgressions, Hillary Clinton’s offense was moving message traffic across a medium (a private server) that had not been approved at a time when the State Department had yet to set its policy for handling this kind of information. There is no evidence the server was ever penetrated or read, hence no indication of a national security breach. By contrast, Mr. Trump personally and physically disclosed secrets to representatives of a nation long our adversary. They were secrets given by an ally. Although U.S. classification policy permits a president to release secrets, foreign government information is typically protected in our system. At a minimum Mr. Trump breached that confidence. National security damage was done.

When the Clinton email scandal first arose, the instant reaction here was not just to show how the issue had been blown out of proportion but to argue that current policy on secrecy makes it virtually impossible for senior officials to do their jobs without violating classification regulations. The Donald Trump faux pas just demonstrates that anew. It’s time to change the policy!

How Many Cards Has Putin ?

May 12, 2017–Seeing Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov parade through the White House two days ago was highly suggestive. The minister exhibited the facial expression of a person enchanted, entering their new domain for the first time, the scene documented by a photographer from the Russian news agency TASS. That in itself speaks volumes for the competence–or lack thereof–of the Trump White House, which had deliberately excluded press from the event but not bothered to check whether the Russian photographer worked for the Foreign Ministry or some other government entity (like TASS). In any case Lavrov had the air of someone surveying property, or potentate meeting vassal.

You can’t say that is evidence for the Russian Caper, but the White House parade is consonant with behavior you might expect from a successful conspirator. The very next day the chiefs of the U.S. intelligence agencies–now Donald Trump’s intelligence agencies–were at the other end of The Mall, on Capitol Hill, presenting their annual run down of threats facing the United States. Cyberattack took the lead, with the Russian attempt to manipulate the U.S. 2016 election the top exemplar. Mr. Trump may think the Russian Caper a hoax but only fabulists of his stripe will agree.

Readers of this space will know we’ve been following the Russian Caper for months. Articles here identified a quid and a quo, discussed the evolving events, related them to figures in the Trump election campaign, and analyzed the parallel, equally damaging, actions of Federal Bureau of Investigation director James B. Comey.

Yesterday I analyzed the president’s actions using the game of Bridge (“Trump Trumps Comey,” May 11, 2017). We left the piece with a few tricks still to play and the question, among others, of what cards Vladimir Putin may hold. This is a fair, in fact a crucial question.

First is the existence of the Russian Caper. As a real thing. With a timeline, strategy, and players. A story. Making Moscow’s manipulation public would instantly blow away Mr. Trump’s pathetic squirming in his attempt to suppress investigation. More than that, revelation of the cover-up would instantly plunge American politics into crisis. If the aim of a Russian political action operation was to create chaos in the United States, that would be a huge success. Moreover the threat of such a revelation–with President Trump now having fired his FBI director in commission of a cover-up–could be expected to incline the American leader to act as Moscow desires. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates lost her job warning of the dangers of a national security adviser (Michael Flynn) who could potentially be a Russian operative, imagine the scope for a president as an agent. That’s an Ace of Spades. In No-Trump Bridge there is no higher card.

To continue that analogy, Mr. Putin also holds the King of Spades. Last December the Russian security service FSB arrested two of its own, General Sergei Mikhailov, a deputy director of the service’s computer security unit; and Major Dmitri Dokuchaev, an operating hacker. Mikhailov, we are told, was interrupted in the middle of a meeting, a black cloth bag put over his head, and frog-marched away. Also taken was Ruslan Stoyanov a top cybersecurity expert at a contractor firm. Rumored reasons for the arrests included that these individuals were engaged in cybercrime, or that they were CIA agents. But these people were also linked to “Fancy Bear,” as Western cybersecurity experts have dubbed the hacking entity responsible for the penetrations into American political parties and networks, believed to be a unit of the military intelligence service GRU. If this is correct, the FSB can at any time roll out a set of witnesses to put details into the so-far hazy picture of exactly how the Russian Caper worked.

Next to the Ace, the King of Spades is the strongest card in No-Trump. The president does not control these cards and is, in fact, beholden to them. After firing Director Comey, President Trump’s hand is nearly exhausted amid a political situation in which specific concern over the Russian Caper is at fever pitch.

 

 

 

Who Trumps Whom ?

May 11, 2017–In the game Bridge the players establish a set of expectations and nominate a suit of wild cards before play of the hand begins. They do this in a ritual of bidding, four players in two teams for the game. The players also seek to signal their partners the strength of their hand through this same bidding process. The card suits have a rank order from the lowly Club to the top-notch Spade, and from the deuce at the bottom to the Ace at the top. “Two Clubs” is the smallest opening bid you can make. If your hand is not worth that you pass. To bid in “No Trump” is nirvana, indicating your hand is strong in every suit. If the bidding results in a named suit, by contrast, play of any card in that suit will beat the highest card of the suit currently on the table. This is relevant in today’s political controversy–I have heard pundits who could not resist the endearment of “Trump trumps Comey,” as the dismissed FBI director disappears out the door. But my thought is that the bidding was wrong–the card tricks will not play out the way Mr. Trump thinks.

The president, being Donald Trump, naturally bid “No Trump,” the strongest form of play. In No Trump the top card in the suit in play wins. There are no wild cards. The cards mean what they say. Sometimes a player with a weak hand bids in No Trump when he should not, or an inexperienced one does not know any better. This is problematic for President Trump because he has the lead in this game, and he is trying to escape the consequences of the Russian Caper.

There will be thirteen card tricks in the play of the hand. Mr. Trump took the first two when he benefitted from Russian intervention in the presidential campaign and then when he won the election. After that he started to squirm. The big reveal of partner Mike Pence’s hand showed the cards are not so strong after all. Trump bulled his way through a trick by insisting the Russian Caper is a hoax, then sacrificed one by remaining silent as Congress organized to investigate Moscow’s role in American politics. But the attempt to coax out the opponents’ high cards flubbed when the White House was revealed to be bending the congressional  investigators to its whim.

On the next trick came a major blowup, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught on surveillance tapes talking to the Russian ambassador. Flynn further complicated the play, at every step being caught in more compromising poses (taking Russian money, disguising that he did, neglecting to get required permissions, to register as a foreign agent; even carrying water for his foreign clients at the very moment of the election). The FBI, headed by James Comey continued its investigation throughout all this, and when Mr. Trump entered office the Flynn dossier had already grown thick. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates did Trump the courtesy of giving the White House advance notice of the burgeoning file. Rather than do anything about Flynn, the White House demanded to see the evidence. Trump lost a trick when Mike Pence rushed to Flynn’s defense, spouting Flynn’s phony denials as gospel truth. Trump’s spin doctors made it worse by attacking media for doing their jobs–and the president doubled down by, in fact, blaming the media for the dismissal of Michael Flynn.

Mr. Trump’s sixth trick was to blame Barack Obama, alleging the former president had ordered surveillance of his political campaign. That flubbed too.  Carter Page of the Trump campaign was a subject of FBI investigation for his role in the Russian Caper, but that flowed from solid investigative leads. When Mr. Trump fatuously declared the “leaks” of juicy tidbits from the investigations to be the problem, rather than the Russian Caper itself, he lost another trick. The latest press reports paint a president furious at the FBI for continuing to investigate the Caper instead of focusing on the phony Obama surveillance allegation. Trump still had one high card. He used it to fire Bureau director James Comey. But the incompetence and lack of political skills of Mr. Trump’s White House are such that no one made any preparations for handling the fierce questions that were sure to follow Comey’s dismissal. Trump took a trick but immediately lost another.

Now the president is stuck. The Russians actually have some of his cards. No one knows how many. Trump himself is down to, say, a deuce of clubs and a three of diamonds. The game continues. Opponents have the big cards and–because this is No Trump–there are no wild cards to smite them. It’s not enough any more to assert that no one is interested in this story, or that it’s yesterday’s news, or that it’s fake news, or any of the other low-grade deceptions Trump has relied upon in the past. Stay tuned.

“Mildly Nauseous?”

May 7, 2017–Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James B. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days ago that thinking his actions last October 28, scant days ahead of the 2016 presidential election, might have had some impact on its outcome makes him “mildly nauseous.” Poor Jim Comey! He’s had all kinds of rocks thrown at him, he says. “Lordy!” it’s “been painful,” he says. All this is uttered in a tone of wonderment as if it’s a surprise people might connect any FBI action–more specifically the re-opening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation on the eve of the election–to her defeat. Perhaps Mr. Comey doesn’t know (but if he does not, he has no business being in charge of the nation’s primo investigative agency). The fact is that lots of people have been talking about Comey’s action in exactly those terms since October 29, 2016. Readers of this space, for example, saw two commentaries on Director Comey’s actions (“Spooks Gone Wild!!”, posted that same day; and “Obama and Comey,” November 2, 2016), both posted before Election Day, that worried Mr. Comey’s actions would have the precise effect they did.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times (April 23, 2017) ran an extensive investigative piece by journalists Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Eric Lichtblau that explored the inner workings of the FBI’s decisions in this case. They quote candidate Donald J. Trump saying, “This changes everything!”

The point is the impact of Comey’s actions was obvious, not hidden in any way. In an email to the work force Mr. Comey explained that not informing Congress of the resumed FBI inquiry– which would have conformed to the Bureau’s standard operating procedure– was wrong. The authors of the Times story quote Comey’s email: “It would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.”

Let’s review the byplay. Director Comey could have followed Bureau standard procedure, which would also have conformed to the instructions he had from the Attorney General. What he did went outside both those rubrics. That requires some significant rationale. We now know the FBI had several related investigations underway at the same time. Trump political operative Paul Manafort was under investigation for acting as an illegal foreign agent for Russian and Ukrainian interests. Other Trump operatives, separately or together, were potential subjects of an investigation into Russian political actions in the United States. Whether these were different investigations or the same one we don’t yet know. We do know that the Director of National Intelligence and the chief of the Department of Homeland Security had already gone on record, in early October 2016, charging that Russia had been conducting these actions. So far as we know at this writing, the FBI was resisting public reference to its own inquiries in this area. Had Mr. Comey’s concern only been whether he was misleading Americans if he did not own up to re-opening the Clinton email affair, he could have preserved an equal political footing by simultaneously revealing the Trump-centered inquiries.

Instead Director Comey, in a charged political atmosphere, was willing to confirm to the public an investigation targeting Hillary Clinton but not to place the Trump campaign in the same soup. His resignation ought to have been on President Obama’s desk the day after the election. Now he is only “mildly nauseated?” Rubbish!

This is not about Mr. Trump’s margin of victory, or Ms Clinton’s political mistakes that cost her the election. It is not about politics per se. It is about an action by a security agency that had any political impact at all–and about the actions of a director who knew, but stubbornly refused to acknowledge, his actions had that effect. The most plausible explanation for Comey’s actions–the argument I made at that very time–is that he was attempting to avoid criticism of the FBI (from Republicans) for alleged inactions in the email affair. If so, Mr. Comey was putting the FBI’s–and his own–interests ahead of those of the entire American political system. For that reason alone he should be gone.

Now Director Comey is on Capitol Hill asking for an unregulated extension of government surveillance powers, the so-called “Section 702” eavesdropping provision of the USA Freedom Act, set to expire this year. The head G-Man insists the spy powers are absolutely necessary. But now Mr. Comey has credibility and judgment problems. Americans can no longer believe what he says nor can they trust his judgment. That is the price of the FBI’s election interference.