The Russian Caper: Update!

February 17, 2018–Yesterday we saw some of the foot soldiers of the Russian Caper. That op began in 2014. No one knew in advance of this foreign conspiracy to meddle in America’s elections, and since then the nation has been divided among those who believe an influence operation took place, those who thought the reports a smokescreen for some kind of domestic machination, and the “Fake News!” bunch who proclaimed all this a nothingburger. The indictments brought yesterday by a federal grand jury in the District of Columbia attest to the investigative efforts of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. It is not any longer reasonable to deny the existence of a plot.

I can’t say I had any more advance knowledge than the next person, but I began writing on the Russian Caper in 2016 while the election campaigns were still underway. I still hold to the theory of the case expressed then: the Russian op started as revenge for U.S. encouragement of political alternatives to Vladimir Putin in the last Russian election. It grew more ambitious as Donald Trump emerged as frontrunner, then candidate, for the Republican Party. Yesterday’s indictment speaks of actual contacts between Russian operatives and “unwitting” members of the Trump campaign organization. That brings into high relief the fact that there had to be such approaches, contacts located in time and geography. To maximize its impact, Moscow needed a degree of American political expertise to aim its sallies most effectively, some modicum of cooperation with a Clinton opponent–make that Trump–to capitalize on the SVR-GRU managers of the caper, and a communications channel to permit advance knowledge and coordination. No doubt the Russians thought gleefully that while carrying out their op they could extract a price from the Americans they were helping–a side benefit of the caper.

In 2016 it appeared to me that the quid pro quo Moscow received was the Trump campaign’s move at the Republican convention that July to get rid of the Russia sanctions part of the Republican party platform. The most likely moment for a Russian offer was when candidate Trump met Russian ambassador Kislyak at a dinner that April, and the July events represented confirmation the Trump forces were on board. After that high level communications could pass between Russian officials and Trump representatives. The set of more than a dozen meetings documented between the sides includes participation on the American side from Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, Donald Trump, Jr., Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos. So far we have learned of some Russian foot soldiers and some American “unwittings,” but the higher reaches of this conspiracy are still in the shadows. They will out. Depend on it.

The Russian caper unfolds as Mr. Trump continues his litany of denials. So prolonged has been his song you could make it into a musical. Better, an opera–more gravitas, which Trump certainly needs. Imagine the numbers that could go in this production, lyrics courtesy of the title character in Trump, the Opera! There could be the theme song, “No Collusion!” In Act I, with the primary campaign still in progress, you could have “He’s no Hero–John McCain,” and “Lyin’ Ted, No Energy Jeb.” Up against Hillary in Act II there’s the inimitable “Lock Her Up!” and, perhaps too close to home, “Russia, I Hope You can Find the 30,000 Emails.” If there’s space for a reflective piece on Trump’s pre-political career you could put music to “The Birth Certificate,” and the immortal “Art of the Deal.” And, from that art, the man himself–“I have the best Words,” or “Small Hands.” If there is time we can add “I’m, Like, Really Smart!” As the record unravels on the candidate’s personal behavior the song would be, “Just Locker Room Talk.” On the election we have the dance numbers “Voter Fraud,” and “I Won the Popular Vote.” And Trump in power, Act III, will feature “Drain the Swamp!”–another dance number–“Alternative Facts,” and the climactic “Fake News!”

Quite a show. Too bad it was orchestrated in Moscow and first played St. Petersburg.

United States intelligence officials went to the congressional oversight committees, first in the summer-fall of 2016, to warn of the Russian op. But the CIA had burned its bridges with Congress in its efforts to suppress the Senate investigation of CIA torture, as documented in my  Ghosts of Langleyand the spooks got no traction at all. Equally distressing, the public warnings issued by the Director of National Intelligence with the Department of Homeland Security, and around the transition, by several intelligence agencies together, were so devoid of relevant detail (officials were terrified of revealing “sources and methods”) they actually fueled speculation the Russian caper had been ginned up. Everyone ought to have known better.

Round 2 on “The Memo”

February 10, 2018–If this were Sherlock Holmes we would call it “The Case of the Disappearing Memos.” But it’s today’s America instead, where government regulations can be turned on their heads and run in reverse. –And no one says anything. To recapitulate–in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) the Republican majority and Democratic minority each crafted memoranda on the scandal of the Russian Caper (commented on here on many occasions). The Republicans were ready first, with a paper that essentially smeared the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Horrified Democrats then wrote their own paper to show how and why the Republican essay was a smear job.

We’re talking here about documents that contain classified information. A procedure exists whereby the HPSCI–and its Senate counterpart–can decide on their own to declassify information. About a week ago the Republican memo appeared. HPSCI had used the procedure I mentioned but not in the way it was intended when established forty years ago. The original mechanism provided the committee could vote to release a document and the president would then have five days to express himself yea or nay on its release. If a president kept his silence, the document was released. If the president objected, the committee could then go to the full House (or Senate) for an up or down vote on release. The document would then be declassified or not depending on the result. (You can go to the National Security Archive website, look for my “Electronic Briefing Book no. 596” on the Pike Committee of 1975, and read as much as you want about how this procedure was established–as a safeguard against the executive branch using secrecy to suppress congressional investigation.)

That’s not what happened here. Instead the Republican majority voted along party lines to release their own memo, and acquiesced when the Trump White House took the opportunity to assert the power to edit the document for content on secrecy grounds. As a smear on the FBI, of course, Mr. Trump found nothing to object to and he happily approved release. But the cover letter from White House lawyer Donald McGahn asserted the declassification power mentioned. Democrats on HPSCI then demanded their competing paper be released. I had expected this bid would be defeated at the committee level by adverse vote but the GOP was a little smarter than that–they voted with Democrats to approve release unanimously. Republicans were confident the Trump White House could be depended upon to quash the paper for them. That happened yesterday. We can now rank HPSCI chairman Devin Nunes with the Ghosts of Langley.

McGahn pontificates that Mr. Trump is “inclined” toward release of the Democratic rebuttal if it can be shorn of classified information where, in truth, the president has no authority to audit/edit the content of a document being released by congressional committee vote. 

The HPSCI Republican memo is rapidly sinking out of sight due to its disjointed substance and lack of coherence. The Democratic memo is being sunk deliberately.

How Did Nunes Do It?

February 2, 2018–In June of last year I posted an Electronic Briefing Book at the website of the National Security Archive (No. 596, June 2, 2017) describing in full detail the origin of the House of Representatives rule which Devin Nunes used to get his memo released. I have had the paper re-linked at the Archive website, and a blog piece on the original events will be up shortly on the Archive’s blog, Unredacted. What happened here is that a mechanism designed to prevent the executive branch of government from compromising a congressional inquiry has been used by a politician to have Congress impede an executive branch agency from completing its investigation of the president.

Section 7 of Rule XVLIII, the congressional bylaw, applies to any information. Only a majority vote within the committee is necessary to reveal the information unless the president, in writing, objects. That latter action would activate a detailed process under which there would be a House vote, involvement by House officials, etc. None of these recourses apply in the event of a committee majority vote, which is how Mr. Nunes could, essentially, decide to unilaterally release what amounts to a political smear. The same House intelligence committee majority enabled Mr. Nunes to guarantee that a Democrat-authored rebuttal memorandum cannot see the light of day.

Note that, in his White House reply to Mr. Nunes, presidential counsel Donald F. McGahn, II, cites House clause 11(g) of Rule X as the authority, and asserts a presidential responsibility to classify, declassify, and control access to information. This represents an attempt to undermine the original intent of the congressional rule, which was created to prevent a president from suppressing congressional action in situations where underlying information was secret.