Senator Chuck Schumer and Congressman Adam Schiff have both castigated Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for his handling of the inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. They should think twice. The issue that has recently seized Nunes is of vital importance to anyone who cares about fundamental civil liberties.
The trail that Nunes is following will inevitably lead back to a particularly significant leak. On Jan. 12, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that “according to a senior U.S. government official, (General Mike) Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29.”
From Nunes’s statements, it’s clear that he suspects that this information came from NSA intercepts of Kislyak’s phone. An Obama official, probably in the White House, “unmasked” Flynn’s name and passed it on to Ignatius.
Regardless of how the government collected on Flynn, the leak was a felony and a violation of his civil rights. But it was also a severe breach of the public trust. When I worked as an NSC staffer in the White House, 2005-2007, I read dozens of NSA surveillance reports every day. On the basis of my familiarity with this system, I strongly suspect that someone in the Obama White House blew a hole in the thin wall that prevents the government from using information collected from surveillance to destroy the lives of the citizens whose privacy it is pledged to protect.
The leaking of Flynn’s name was part of what can only be described as a White House campaign to hype the Russian threat and, at the same time, to depict Trump as Vladimir Putin’s Manchurian candidate. On Dec. 29, Obama announced sanctions against Russia as retribution for its hacking activities. From that date until Trump’s inauguration, the White House aggressively pumped into the media two streams of information: one about Russian hacking; the other about Trump’s Russia connection. In the hands of sympathetic reporters, the two streams blended into one.
A report that appeared the day after Obama announced the sanctions shows how. On Dec. 30, the Washington Post reported on a Russian effort to penetrate the electricity grid by hacking into a Vermont utility, Burlington Electric Department. After noting the breach, the reporters offered a senior administration official to speculate on the Russians’ motives. Did they seek to crash the system, or just to probe it?
This infrastructure hack, the story continued, was part of a broader hacking campaign that included intervention in the election. The story then moved to Trump: “He…has spoken highly of Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite President Obama’s suggestion that the approval for hacking came from the highest levels of the Kremlin.”
The national media mimicked the Post’s reporting. But there was a problem: the hack never happened. It was a false alarm — triggered, it eventually became clear, by Obama’s hype.
On Dec. 29, the DHS and FBI published a report on Russian hacking, which showed the telltale signs of having been rushed to publication. “At every level this report is a failure,” said cyber security expert Robert M. Lee. “It didn’t do what it set out to do, and it didn’t provide useful data. They’re handing out bad information.”
Especially damaging were the hundreds of Internet addresses, supposedly linked to Russian hacking, that the report contained. The FBI and DHS urged network administrators to load the addresses into their system defenses. Some of the addresses, however, belong to platforms that are widely used by the public, including Yahoo servers. At Burlington Electric, an unsuspecting network administrator dutifully loaded the addresses into the monitoring system of the utility’s network. When an employee checked his email, it registered on the system as if Russian hackers were trying to break in.
While the White House was hyping the Russia threat, elements of the press showed a sudden interest in the infamous Steele dossier, which claimed that Russian intelligence services had caught Trump in Moscow in highly compromising situations. The dossier was opposition research paid for by Trump’s political opponents, and it had circulated for months among reporters covering the election. Because it was based on anonymous sources and entirely unverifiable, however, no reputable news organization had dared to touch it.
With a little help from the Obama White House, the dossier became fair game for reporters. A government leak let it be known that the intelligence community had briefed Trump on the dossier. If the president-elect was discussing it with his intelligence briefers, so the reasoning went, perhaps there was something to it after all.
By turning the dossier into hard news, that leak weaponized malicious gossip. The same is true of the Flynn-Kislyak leak. Ignatius used the leak to deepen speculation about collusion between Putin and Trump: “What did Flynn say (to Kislyak),” Ignatius asked, “and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?” The mere fact that Flynn’s conversations were being monitored deepened his appearance of guilt. If he was innocent, why was the government monitoring him?
It should not have been. He had the right to talk to in private — even to a Russian ambassador. Regardless of what one thinks about him or Trump or Putin, this leak should concern anyone who believes that we must erect a firewall between the national security state and our domestic politics. The system that allowed it to happen must be reformed. At stake is a core principle of our democracy: that elected representatives control the government, and not vice versa.