The United States is sailing in uncharted waters today as the intelligence-security community wages an all-but-declared rebellion against President Donald Trump.
Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein’s decision on Wednesday to appoint former FBI director Robert Mueller to serve as a special counsel charged with investigating allegations of “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” is the latest and so far most significant development in this grave saga.
Who are the people seeking to unseat Trump? This week we learned that the powers at play are deeply familiar. Trump’s nameless opponents are some of Israel’s greatest antagonists in the US security establishment.
This reality was exposed this week with intelligence leaks related to Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. To understand what happened, let’s start with the facts that are undisputed about that meeting.
The main thing that is not in dispute is that during his meeting with Lavrov, Trump discussed Islamic State’s plan to blow up passenger flights with bombs hidden in laptop computers.
It’s hard to find fault with Trump’s actions. First of all, the ISIS plot has been public knowledge for several weeks.
Second, the Russians are enemies of ISIS. Moreover, Russia has a specific interest in diminishing ISIS’s capacity to harm civilian air traffic. In October 2015, ISIS terrorists in Egypt downed a Moscow-bound jetliner, killing all 254 people on board with a bomb smuggled on board in a soda can.
And now on to the issues that are in dispute.
Hours after the Trump-Lavrov meeting, The Washington Post reported that in sharing information about ISIS’s plans, Trump exposed intelligence sources and methods to Russia and in so doing, he imperiled ongoing intelligence operations carried out by a foreign government.
The next day, The New York Times reported that the sources and methods involved were Israeli. In sharing information about the ISIS plot with Lavrov, the media reported, Trump endangered Israel.
There are two problems with this narrative.
First, Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster insisted that there was no way that Trump could have exposed sources and methods, because he didn’t know where the information on the ISIS plot that he discussed with Lavrov originated.
Second, if McMaster’s version is true – and it’s hard to imagine that McMaster would effectively say that his boss is an ignoramus if it weren’t true – then the people who harmed Israel’s security were the leakers, not Trump.
Now who are these leakers? According to the Washington Post, the leakers are members of the US intelligence community and former members of the US intelligence community, (the latter, presumably were political appointees in senior intelligence positions during the Obama administration who resigned when Trump came into office).
Israel is no stranger to this sort of operation. Throughout the Obama administration, US officials illegally leaked top secret information about Israeli operations to the media.
In 2010, a senior defense source exposed the Stuxnet computer worm to the New York Times. Stuxnet was reportedly a cyber weapon developed jointly by the US and Israel. It was infiltrated into the computer system at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor. It reportedly sabotaged a large quantity of centrifuges at the installation.
The revelation of Stuxnet’s existence and purpose ended the operation. Moreover, much of Iran’s significant cyber capabilities were reportedly developed by reverse engineering the Stuxnet.
Obama made his support for the leak clear three days before he left office. On January 17, 2017, Obama pardoned Marine Gen. James Cartwright for his role in illegally divulging the Stuxnet program to the Times.
In 2012, US officials told the media that Israel had struck targets in Syria. The leak, which was repeated several times in subsequent years, made it more dangerous for Israel to operate against Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria.
Also in 2012, ahead of the presidential election, US officials informed journalists that Israel was operating in air bases in Azerbaijan with the purpose of attacking Iran’s nuclear sites in air strikes originating from those bases.
Israel’s alleged plan to attack Iran was abruptly canceled.
In all of these cases, the goal of the leak was to harm Israel.
In contrast, the goal of this week’s leaks was to harm Trump. Israel was collateral damage.
The key point is that the leaks are coming from the same places in both cases.
All of them are members of the US intelligence community with exceedingly high security clearances. And all of them willingly committed felony offenses when they shared top secret information with reporters.
That is, all of them believe that it is perfectly all right to make political use of intelligence to advance a political goal. In the case of the anti-Israel leaks under Obama, their purpose was to prevent Israel from degrading Iran’s nuclear capacity and military power at a time that Obama was working to empower Iran at Israel’s expense.
In the case of the Trump-Lavrov leak, the purpose was to undermine Israel’s security as a means of harming Trump politically.
What happened to the US intelligence community? How did its members come to believe that they have the right to abuse the knowledge they gained as intelligence officers in order to advance a partisan agenda? As former CIA station chief Scott Uehlinger explained in an article published in March in The Hill, the Obama administration oversaw a program of deliberate politicization of the US intelligence community.
The first major step toward this end was initiated by then-US attorney general Eric Holder in August 2009.
Holder announced then that he intended to appoint a special counsel to investigate claims that CIA officers tortured terrorists while interrogating them.
The purpose of Holder’s announcement wasn’t to secure indictments. The points was to transform the CIA politically and culturally.
And it worked.
Shortly after Holder’s announcement, an exodus began of the CIA’s best operations officers. Men and women with years of experience operating in enemy territory resigned.
Uehlinger’s article related that during the Obama years, intelligence officers were required to abide by strict rules of political correctness.
In his words, “In this PC world, all diversity is embraced – except diversity of thought. Federal workers have been partisan for years, but combined with the rigid Obama PC mindset, it has created a Frankenstein of politicization that has never been seen before.”
Over the years, US intelligence officers at all levels have come to view themselves as soldiers in an army with its own agenda – which largely overlapped Obama’s.
Trump’s agenda on the other hand is viewed as anathema by members of this powerful group. Likewise, the notion of a strong Israel capable of defending its interests without American help and permission is more dangerous than the notion of Iran armed with nuclear weapons.
Given these convictions, it is no surprise that unnamed intelligence sources are leaking a tsunami of selective and deceptive intelligence against Trump and his advisers.
The sense of entitlement that prevails in the intelligence community was on prominent display in an astounding interview that Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, gave to MSNBS in early March.
Farkas, who resigned her position in late 2015 to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, admitted to her interviewer that the intelligence community was spying on Trump and his associates and that ahead of Obama’s departure from office, they were transferring massive amounts of intelligence information about Trump and his associates to Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill in order to ensure that those Democratic politicians would use the information gathered to harm Trump.
In her words, “The Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about the Trump staff’s dealings with Russians… would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that information.”
Farkas then explained that the constant leaks of Trump’s actions to the media were part of the initiative that she had urged her counterparts to undertake.
And Farkas was proud of what her colleagues had done and were doing.
Two days after Farkas’s interview, Trump published his tweet accusing former president Barack Obama of spying on him.
Although the media and the intelligence community angrily and contemptuously denied Trump’s assertion, the fact is that both Farkas’s statement and information that became public both before and since Trump’s inauguration lends credence to his claim.
In the days ahead of the inauguration we learned that in the summer of 2016, Obama’s Justice Department conducted a criminal probe into suspicions that Trump’s senior aides had committed crimes in their dealings with Russian banks. Those suspicions, upon investigation, were dismissed. In other words, the criminal probe led nowhere.
Rather than drop the matter, Obama’s Justice Department decided to continue the probe but transform it into a national security investigation.
After a failed attempt in July 2016, in October 2016, a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court approved a Justice Department request to monitor the communications of Trump’s senior advisers. Since the subjects of the probe were working from Trump’s office and communicating with him by phone and email, the warrant requested – which the FISA court granted – also subjected Trump’s direct communications to incidental collection.
So from at least October 2016 through Trump’s inauguration, the US intelligence community was spying on Trump and his advisers, despite the fact that they were not suspected of committing any crimes.
This brings us back to this week’s Russia story which together with the media hysteria following Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, precipitated Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mueller to serve as a special counsel charged with investigating the allegations that Trump and or his advisers acted unlawfully or in a manner that endangered the US in their dealings with Russia.
It is too early to judge how Mueller will conduct his investigation. But if the past is any guide, he is liable to keep the investigation going indefinitely, paralyzing Trump’s ability to conduct foreign policy in relation to Russia and a host of other issues.
This then brings us to Trump and Israel – the twin targets of the US intelligence community’s felonious and injurious leaks.
The fact that Trump will be coming to Israel next week may be a bit of fortuitous timing. Given the stakes involved for Trump, for Israel and for US national security, perhaps Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can develop a method of fighting this cabal of faceless, lawless foes together.
How such a fight would look and what it would involve is not immediately apparent and anyways should never be openly discussed. But the fact is that working together, Israel and Trump may accomplish more than either can accomplish on their own. And with so much hanging in the balance, it makes sense to at least try.