The Post’s David Ignatius has a column out tonight with a number of observations. But the big news is this …
According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
This is, at a minimum, highly irregular and inappropriate. We don’t know if it is more than that. It would be good to find out.
Then there’s this.
The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth has an article which claims that American intelligence officials told their Israeli counterparts in recent meetings that they should be cautious about sharing their closest held secrets with the Trump administration for fear it might be shared with Russia and by Russia with Iran.
Here are the key paragraphs …
These fears, which began upon Trump’s election, grew stronger following a meeting held recently between Israeli and American intelligence officials (the date of the meeting is not mentioned to protect the sources of the report). During the meeting, according to the Israelis who participated in it, their American colleagues voiced despair over Trump’s election, as he often lashes out at the American intelligence community. The American officials also told the Israelis that the National Security Agency (NSA) had “highly credible information” that Russia’s intelligence agencies, the FSB and GRU, were responsible for hacking the Democratic Party (DNC) servers during the elections and leaking sensitive information to WikiLeaks, which hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The American officials further added that they believed Russia President Vladimir Putin had “leverages of pressure” over Trump – but did not elaborate. They were apparently referring to what was published Wednesday about embarrassing information collected by the Russian intelligence in a bid to blackmail the president-elect.
The Americans implied that their Israeli colleagues should “be careful” as of January 20, Trump’s inauguration date, when transferring intelligence information to the White House and to the National Security Council (NSC), which is subject to the president. According to the Israelis who were present in the meeting, the Americans recommended that until it is made clear that Trump is not inappropriately connected to Russia and is not being extorted – Israel should avoid revealing sensitive sources to administration officials for fear the information would reach the Iranians.
These are, needless to say, highly disturbing claims.
To evaluate them, we should bear in mind that what we are hearing is what American intelligence officials supposedly told Israeli intelligence officials and which Israeli intelligence officials, by whatever means, passed on to an Israeli journalist. The sourcing is at best attenuated. But we should also note that the paper is Israel’s largest circulation daily and the reporter is a highly respected investigative journalist, Ronen Bergman.
What to make of this?
We are in a totally unprecedented situation with the range of questions being asked about the incoming president and what can only be called odd behavior of the intelligence community. This is the case even if no one has done anything wrong. No fight between a president and the intelligence community, let alone with an incoming president, has ever cut so deep or been so public.
A couple days out it is even less clear what US spies made of the ‘dossier’ that was released by Buzzfeed. Did they share this with the outgoing and incoming presidents simply to apprise them of stuff that was ‘out there’. Was it some sort of brush back to Trump for his aggressive, scathing criticisms of the US spy bureaucracy? Are we supposed to believe that they believe some of it is true? James Clapper’s statement today was clear on some points but he rather conspicuously did not say the contents of the dossier were false or even unreliable.
The key passage (with emphasis) …
We also discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it. I emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product and that I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC. The IC has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.
These are equivocal statements in what is clearly a closely worded statement. If I’m Donald Trump wanting this document dismissed as worthless hearsay or lies, I’d be quite disappointed. What’s going on? If US intelligence officials are telling close allies to be cautious, that’s really something Americans should be aware of.
I truly don’t know what to make of this. Everything we are hearing is disjointed, half-contradictory, actions are taken that have no clear rationale or explanation behind them. It is not just troubling. Much of it simply doesn’t fit together. One global explanation is that you have an impetuous, feral incoming President, a host of awkward and not fully answered questions and an intelligence community which is trying to address those questions, to serve the current president but also prepare to serve the next one. And this all in a climate of a deeply polarized country. The other explanation – not necessarily contradicting this one at all – is that there are other things happening which we are not seeing, and not seeing them makes all the rest seem out of joint.