Opinion: Trump’s astonishing wiretapping claims deepen volatility of US politics

Trump and ObamaThe absurdity of American politics reached new heights over the weekend, as President Donald Trump dramatically alleged on Twitter that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped his telephones last year. Even for a highly impulsive public figure known for his sensational and often-unsubstantiated allegations, Mr. Trump’s latest claims prompted a new sense of abnormality and astonishment in Washington. If the president is unable to prove his dramatic claims, his reliability will be further-eroded, and what little is left of his relationship with the American intelligence and national-security communities will disintegrate. If his allegations are proven, they will cause a scandal of unprecedented proportions from which American political institutions —including the presidency— will find it difficult to recover.

Mr. Trump appears to claim that Mr. Obama personally instructed the machinery of government to intercept the telecommunications of his campaign in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. But experts —including the present author, whose PhD focuses on government-sponsored wiretapping— correctly note that, barring a complete and systematic breakdown of law and q-quoteorder at the highest levels of the American government, Mr. Trump’s claims cannot possibly be true. American presidents have not been legally allowed to order wiretaps since 1978, when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was established. Prompted by the abuse of executive power revealed through the Watergate scandal, FISA forces government agencies to seek the approval of specially mandated judges before installing wiretaps. If an agency like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wants to wiretap an individual or group suspected of acting as agents of a foreign power, it must convince one of 11 federal district judges who rotate on the FISA court that the case warrants a wiretap order. Thus, before authorizing the wiretap, a FISA judge must be convinced by examining the available evidence presented before him or her.

Usually FISA counterintelligence cases involve foreign subjects who are suspected of operating in the US as unregistered agents of a foreign power —that is, spies or handlers of spies. However, if the case proposed by the FBI involves the targeting of American citizens’ communications, then the application for a wiretap must be personally reviewed by the US attorney general. Only if the attorney general approves the application does it get sent to a FISA judge. That is precisely why President Trump’s allegation is so explosive: if Mr. Obama personally directed a law enforcement or intelligence agency to wiretap the Trump campaign’s telecommunications, it would mean that a US president deliberately violated FISA regulations and kept the Department of Justice in the dark while wiretapping the telecommunications of American citizens. Alternatively, it could be the case that the attorney general and a FISA judge both approved a request to wiretap the Trump campaign’s telecommunications. But if that is the case, it would mean that both the Department of Justice and the FISA court were privy to overwhelmingly convincing evidence that Mr. Trump or some of his collaborators were acting as agents of influence, or even unregistered agents, of a foreign power. The third option is that Mr. Trump’s allegations are baseless, which would mean that an American President has wrongfully accused his predecessor of deliberately breaking the law in an unprecedented fashion. None of these potentialities are easy to fathom or lightly dismiss.

It is important to note here that this latest uproar is connected to the central issue that has rocked the Trump administration from its very first day in office —namely the alleged collusion between the president’s team and the Russian government. This matter has already prompted the dramatic resignation of Mr. Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. It may eventually result in the resignation of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who last week said that he would recuse himself from any probes into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. These developments q-quoteappear to mirror the progress of ongoing counterintelligence investigations into the activities of Mr. Trump and his deputies. The existence of these probes has been rumored since January of this year. On January 11, the London-based broadsheet The Guardian alleged that last October a FISA judge did approve a wiretap request that involved members of Mr. Trump’s election campaign. Another British source, the BBC, repeated these claims on January 12, citing unnamed intelligence sources. And on January 18, the US-based McClatchy news agency claimed that six different American intelligence agencies, including the FBI, were simultaneously probing alleged Russian covert assistance to the Trump election team. When adding to the mix an inquisitive press, which consciously seeks to fight back against what it perceives as Mr. Trump’s dismissive behavior against it, it becomes clear that a massive storm is about to engulf American politics.

Ultimately, the simplest way for Mr. Trump to substantiate his astonishing claims is to order that the alleged FISA warrant, as well as the data resulting from the alleged wiretaps against him and his aides, be declassified. As president of the US, he can be privy to any and all information he chooses to inquire about, regardless of its classification level. If he refuses to declassify the information, then he will inevitably come across as hiding crucial evidence from the court of public opinion. No matter what happens next, it is undeniable that political life in America has entered its most volatile and unpredictable state since the mid-1970s. With every day that passes, and every tweet that Mr. Trump issues, the consequences of this volatile state of affairs for the US and for the world are becoming increasingly difficult to calculate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 March 2017 | Permalink

13 Responses to Opinion: Trump’s astonishing wiretapping claims deepen volatility of US politics

  1. Pete says:

    Paragraph 4 of the article on the Russian representatives’ contact with the Trump campaign is interesting.

    It may well be US agencies have a brief to keep track of Russian embassy Outward calls or emails to Americans, those from the broader circle of Russian nationals in the US and Outward calls/emails from lobbyists of whatever nationality representing Russian interests in the US. Russian embassy, nationals, and lobbyist may have contacted a broad and frequent cross-section of Trump’s many business entities or campain machinery.

    If it is this second hand surveillance that Trump sees as “wiretapping his telephones” then Trump may have pause for concern.

  2. Tom says:

    There is no such legal contortion as what you call “the court of public opinion”. Some in the media assail parts of the U.S. government for failing to make various bits and pieces of documentary stuff public. There are lots of reasons such is not always done, as well as you must know due to your Ph.D.

  3. Anonymous says:

    [Edited as per intelNews’ comments-posting policies: “(a) stick to the same identity”. The same person is posting under different aliases from the same IP address]

  4. Anonymous says:

    [Edited as per intelNews’ comments-posting policies: “(a) stick to the same identity”. The same person is posting under different aliases from the same IP address]

  5. jones says:

    Hope President Trump does not try to “double down” on his “seemingly” baseless allegations of wire tapping by former President Obama without producing supportive evidence. As mentioned, President, Trump has the power and authority to produce the supportive evidence of his claims.

    Instead of wasting valuable time and political capital on baseless accusations, the Trump administration should be focusing – like a laser – on escalating crisis developing in Asian region concerning North Korea’s continued belligerence ignoring international laws and continuing to launch missile after missile in efforts to achieve some perverted utopian dream of becoming a nuclear power and gaining respect.

    The policy of containment strategy cannot continue indefinitely. There comes a point in time when demonstrative action(s) must be taken. “The Office of the Presidency’s” integrity and global leadership responsibility of USA must be persevered and protected. It is blatantly obvious North Korea regime has no intentions of denuclearizing by design. However, the world cannot afford a “default” scenario.

  6. Bill says:

    [Edited as per intelNews’ comments-posting policies: “(f) focus on the issues and refrain from ad hominem attacks against the site’s editors or other commentators”.]

  7. niekro2 says:

    [Edited as per intelNews’ comments-posting policies: “(a) stick to the same identity”. The same person is posting under different aliases from the same IP address]

  8. intelNews says:

    A reminder for those wishing to comment: please focus on the subject of the article and refrain from launching ad hominem attacks on me personally. I invite you to challenge and dissect my analysis, but using characterizations against me, questioning my professional expertise, or launching tirades against academia won’t get you anywhere on this site. [JF]

  9. Anonymous says:

    [Edited as per intelNews’ comments-posting policies: “(a) stick to the same identity”. The same person is posting under different aliases from the same IP address]

  10. Anonymous says:

    [Edited as per intelNews’ comments-posting policies: “(f) focus on the issues and refrain from ad hominem attacks against the site’s editors or other commentators”.]

    You’re such a thin skinned, pussy.

  11. niekro2 says:

    [Edited as per intelNews’ comments-posting policies: “(a) stick to the same identity”. The same person is posting under different aliases from the same IP address]

  12. Mike says:

    I enjoyed reading this, and I find President Trump and the whole political climate vastly entertaining- in a “better to laugh than cry” sort of mentality.

    It is going to be interesting to discover, years from know, the extent of Russian involvement in the election cycle and the contacts with current members of the administration. The tidbits we have gotten seem to indicate that when we hear the proverbial “rest of the story,” it may well shock people. I would say that anyone who is not actually involved is simply expressing an opinion or analysis, which, I believe, is what this piece is. JF’s writing is often spot-on, informative, and formulated well. And clearly an analysis based on research.

    I mention this because of some of the comments. While JF’s creds are pretty clear, the people commenting on this (including me) aren’t as open with their histories. So spouting your opinion as if you have anything relevant to add- without indicating your qualifications- makes you sound less educated.

    Example: TOM- if you don’t think there is a metaphorical “court of public opinion” and that it doesn’t drive decisions, you’re wrong. Just because it isn’t part of the legal system doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. It affects decisions made by governmental entities, businesses, media, and politicians.

    ANONYMOUS- your 4th paragraph makes you sound like a conspiracy theorist, which you may proudly be. But if you are getting your info from uninformed or non-objective sources, it’s hard to take those theories seriously.

    All that being said, reading these comments, for me, is a lot like the political climate- entertaining as heck.

  13. Anonymous says:

    If you doubt that the NSA is collecting all the data available on the net, and by available I do not mean with a FISA warrant ask yourself why would they need millions and millions of square feet of server buildings. Incidental collection, is a slippery “legal” term, the actual collection of Trump’s and everyone else data maybe incidental but building a specific search engine to access it is not. Would you be surprised to learn that an analyst at NSA could simply type in a name and see every single communication, email, text, and hear each phone call? Or even every email, text and phone call that mentions that “searched” name since 2001. That is exactly what the system is designed to do and it is fully operational and has been since 2003. Individual privacy is dead, and while this may not trouble you today I can assure you it will. What is worse the Obama administration allowed agency sharing with local law enforcement, the FBI and other agencies a step further than the prior administration.

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