US politics in uncharted waters as FBI announces probe into Russian activities

James ComeyMonday’s official announcement that an investigation is underway into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 United States presidential election was an important moment in American political history. It exposed the chaotic state of American politics and added yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come. This is regardless of the outcome of the investigation, which is being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even if it fails to produce a ‘smoking gun’, the very fact that the country’s chief counterintelligence agency is examining the possibility that a US president was elected with help from Russia, is an astonishing development without parallel in modern American history.

It is important to recognize that the FBI would never have initiated such a controversial and politically charged investigation without having concrete proof of Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election. No agency of the US federal government would choose to dedicate enormous resources and personnel, and risk the political fallout that such a probe inevitably entails, without first having amassed indisputable evidence that necessitates it. Moreover, the FBI is not acting alone; its investigation almost certainly encompasses and incorporates similar probes carried out by other American security agencies, and possibly by agencies in allied countries, including the United Kingdom. It follows that the FBI investigation will undoubtedly confirm the existence of a systematic Russian intelligence operation that was aimed at influencing the outcome of last year’s American election.

As the present author has previously stated, it would be “extremely unusual and highly uncharacteristic of Russian spy agencies if they did not launch at least a rudimentary covert campaign to target the 2016 US presidential election […]. Indeed, the opposite would have been strange”. The central question, of course, is: what types of activities were part of the Kremlin’s covert campaign? Did it mostly involve the methodical production and dissemination of so-called ‘fake news’? Did it involve substantial funding of individual candidates or political parties? Or were there perhaps instances of extortion and blackmail of targeted individuals? These questions must be answered in full, and their inherent complexity explains fully why the FBI Director James Comey would not discuss details of the investigation on Monday.

Crucially, the FBI probe will have to answer conclusively the question of whether members of the administration of US President Donald Trump, or indeed the president himself, were implicated in the Kremlin’s actions. Did the president and his senior campaign team know that the Kremlin was —allegedly—assisting their efforts? If so, how did they know? And if not, did they deliberately ignore concrete warnings pointing to the contrary?

Every American, regardless of political persuasion, who genuinely cares about his or her nation’s political stability, hopes that the FBI probe finds no collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. However, there is an important sense in which, no matter the outcome of the investigation, serious damage has already been done. The reputation of American political institutions as a whole has been severely shaken, and mistrust between American civil society and its political institutions continues to rise exponentially. Meanwhile, it is safe to say that it will take months for the FBI’s probe to conclude. By then, the current chaotic state of American politics could be the a new permanently reality in Washington, a city that has witnessed much tumult in its history, though perhaps never as perplexing as the current crisis.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 March 2017 | Permalink

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Trump authorizes CIA to bring back regular use of drone strikes

DroneUnited States President Donald Trump has reportedly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to bring back the routine use of lethal airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which his predecessor, Barack Obama, curtailed in 2013. Washington began employing limited strikes by UAVs, otherwise known as drones, in the early 1990s, during the administration of President Bill Clinton. But it was under the Obama administration that the use of drone strikes reached an all-time high, with hundreds of such attacks documented after 2008. It is believed that Obama used this remote attack method to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while at the same time keeping his promise of bringing back American troops from the Middle East and Central Asia. However, in 2013 the US president severely curtailed the controversial program, which some say damaged America’s image by inflicting civilian casualties.

But on Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump had resuscitated the drone program and authorized the CIA to begin using Predator drones on a regular basis against identified targets in the Middle East and Central Asia. According to the newspaper, the president gave senior CIA project mangers the right to authorize drone strikes. Under the Obama administration, the president himself, or especially designated National Security Council officials, had to give the go-ahead before the CIA could carry out drone strikes around the world.

The Wall Street Journal said that President Trump made the decision on January 21, just hours after taking office, following a secret meeting with senior officials from the CIA. According to the report, the CIA requested some time to rebuild the program. But the agency has allegedly conducted at least one drone strike, which targeted Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a known al-Qaeda senior commander in Syria, who was reputed to be a son-in-law of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 March 2017 | Permalink

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. Read more of this post

Trump administration instructs CIA to halt support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyThe White House has instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some believe that the move indicates a change in American policy under United States President Donald Trump. But Syrian rebel commanders say they believe the move is temporary, and that military aid will be restored. For several years, the CIA has provided training and other forms of assistance to rebel groups in Syria, such as the New Syrian Force, which operate under the umbrella of the FSA. Aside from training, the assistance has included light and heavy ammunition, including antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

However, it appears that the CIA was instructed nearly a month ago by the White House to freeze all assistance to these rebel groups. Correspondents from the Reuters news agency said they confirmed the change in policy by speaking to senior rebel commanders from five armed groups operating under the FSA. These commanders told Reuters that they had not been given any official reason for the sudden termination of all CIA assistance. The change coincided with the change of guard at the White House, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Some in Washington, as well as some members of rebel factions in Syria, are concerned that the change in the CIA’s stance might denote a broader policy shift in the White House. During his election campaign, Mr. Trump said repeatedly that he would end America’s overt and covert support for the FSA and would focus instead on defeating the Islamic State.

But the rebel commanders themselves told Reuters that the freeze in CIA support was due to a wave of renewed attacks against them by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a Sunni militant group that was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels said that the CIA was concerned that weaponry provided to the FSA would end up in the hands of jihadist militants, so it temporarily halted its support until Jabhat Fateh al-Sham could be pushed back by FSA forces. Reuters published comments by two anonymous officials who were familiar with the CIA’s operations in Syria. They told the newspaper that the freeze of the CIA’s program had “nothing to do with US President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January”. Additionally, said Reuters, Mr. Trump’s policy in Syria remains unknown. Several newspapers and news agencies contacted the CIA asking for comments, but the agency declined all requests on Wednesday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 February 2017 | Permalink

Wall Street Journal alleges US spies hide sensitive intelligence from Trump

Donald Trump CIAIn a leading article published on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal alleged that American intelligence officials are choosing to withhold sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump, fearing that it might be compromised. The WSJ, America’s leading newspaper by circulation, which is highly influential in conservative circles, cited “current and former officials familiar with the matter”. The paper said it was unclear how much information had been withheld from President Trump. It added that at no point did intelligence officials keep the president in the dark about critical security threats by foreign states or potential terrorist attacks by non-state groups. However, intelligence officials are consciously and systematically withholding information from the White House that concerns “sources and methods”, said the article. The term refers to the precise methods used by the United States Intelligence Community to collect information, as well as the identification of sources —human or otherwise— of the information.

In recent weeks, several media outlets have alleged that American intelligence officials are skeptical about providing the White House with sensitive information. Late last month, Steve Hall, a former member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Senior Intelligence Service, told National Public Radio that the matter of President Trump’s trustworthiness was “a live question” at the CIA. But this week’s article in The WSJ marks the first time that a conservative media outlet alleges that senior American intelligence officials mistrust the president. According to the New York-based newspaper, the Intelligence Community is uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s “repeated expressions of admiration” for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Many intelligence officials are also disturbed by the US president’s public support for the alleged hacking of Democratic Party computer servers by the Kremlin.

Relations between the White House and the Intelligence Community are said to be extremely tense at the moment. On Wednesday, President Trump repeated his previously stated allegation that the US Intelligence Community is systematically leaking information to the media in order to subvert his administration’s work. The WSJ said it spoke to a representative from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which heads and oversees the US Intelligence Community. The representative questioned the accuracy of the newspaper’s allegations, saying that “any suggestion that the US intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true”. The report was also denied by an official at the White House, who said that Mr. Trump and his aides had no evidence “that leads us to believe that [The WSJ article] is an accurate account of what is actually happening”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 February 2017 | Permalink

Opinion: America in deep and profound security crisis as Michael Flynn resigns

Michael Flynn and Donald TrumpThe ongoing security crisis in the United States reached new heights last night as Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, resigned. In his letter announcing his decision, the former general admitted that he “inadvertently” gave members of the Trump administration “incomplete information” about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US in December of last year. This development is only the latest in a series of unprecedented incidents in Washington. The city, and by extension the country, are now in a deep and profound security crisis with unpredictable consequences for the US and its allies.

The sense of normality in America’s capital, the seat of government of the world’s most powerful nation, is becoming increasingly scarce, as the country faces one astonishing situation after another. Today, three weeks after Donald Trump assumed the reins of power in DC, the relationship between the Executive and the Intelligence Community is almost nonexistent. A growing q-quotenumber of former insiders warn that senior intelligence officials are —in the words of former National Security Agency officer John Schindler— “beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust”. Last month, Steve Hall, a former senior member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service, cautioned that officers at Langley are suspicious of the White House’s links with Russia. Currently, Michael Flynn, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the man chosen by the president to serve as his national security advisor, is being investigated as part of a counterintelligence probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is facing a separate set of questions from the military. On Tuesday, Senior Republican lawmakers called for a Congressional investigation into Moscow’s alleged proximity with the Trump White House.

Meanwhile, the (now former) acting attorney general and several judges have sought to stop the president from violating Constitutional norms with the imposition of an ill-fated travel ban. In response, q-quoteMr. Trump summarily fired the head of the Department of Justice and openly challenged the legitimacy of a judge who ruled against his executive order. The president did not even address the concerns of the Intelligence Community, which largely views the travel ban as nonsensical, unworkable and counterproductive. Mr. Trump also dismissed the significance of a “Dissent Channel” memorandum, signed by over 1,000 State Department employees —an unprecedented number with no parallel in American diplomatic history— who openly objected to the violation of “core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold”.

Discord and disharmony are not novel concepts in American political life. But the current situation is anything but conventional. It is not normal for the president to summarily fire the chief legal counsel to the US government —acting or not. Nor is it normal for his national security advisor, a man who is privy to the most sensitive secrets of the US government, to be the subject of a counterintelligence investigation, and for one of his senior aides to be denied a security clearance by the CIA. It is unprecedented for a US president to question the usefulness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization while seemingly consenting to Russia’s annexation of an important American ally —namely Ukraine. It is equally remarkable to watch conservative governments in Western Europe warn against US policies and even refuse to have Mr. Trump address their parliaments. We are witnessing unparalleled developments ofq-quote inconceivable magnitude, with implications that may well shape the future of America and its place in the world.

These are not partisan considerations, which this website shies away from as a matter of policy. Rather, they are political observations that go to the very heart of America’s ability to govern itself, provide security to its citizens and lead the Western world in our century. Anyone who rejects the notion that the US is currently at the onset of one of the most serious crises in its modern political history is simply disconnected from empirical reality. Anyone —Republican or Democrat— who tries to exploit the current crisis for narrow political gain is not simply foolish, but dangerous to the wellbeing of this country. Mr. Trump’s many friends and adversaries within and without his political party must reach out to him and attempt to mend the damage he has inflicted on America’s government, while preventing further injury to the machinery of national administration. It is every sane person’s hope that the president will take heed at this crucial time, and introduce the much-needed qualities of caution and prudence to his inexperienced administration. History will be particularly unkind to him and his colleagues if they fail to act responsibly. The world is watching.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2017 | Permalink

Opinion: Deforming the US National Security Council

Steve BannonThere has been much consternation and confusion over the maneuverings engineered by United States President Donald Trump with the National Security Council (NSC). By now everyone knows the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have been essentially demoted down to Principals Committee meetings, with the no-doubt unsatisfying caveat that “when their specific expertise” is needed they will be asked to attend the main Principals meeting with the President. The irony, of course, is that both of these offices have always been oversight and unifying leadership positions: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs oversees and coordinates discussion and debate between the heads of all the military branches while the ODNI was basically created to go do the thing the Department of Homelandq-quote Security was initially meant to do after 9/11 —coordinate and improve communication and cooperative transparency across the entire US Intelligence Community. It is therefore somewhat mystifying as to why two deeply experienced actors with comprehensive knowledge of military and intelligence affairs writ large would be inexplicably categorized as ‘knowledge specialists’, not required for the big general meeting. It is not like the ODNI came into the NSC meetings pre-Trump as the ‘Basque subject matter expert’ alone, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs laid claim to being the world’s only ‘Gulf of Aden’ maritime security specialist. While it is still too early to know, it seems a logical bet that there is some personality conflict or discomfort between these two men and the incoming member(s) that Trump has designated. Safe money is on General Michael Flynn. But since that right now will remain unsubstantiated rumor and gossip, we are left with nothing but conjecture.

Which leads us appropriately into the appointment of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon as a permanent sitting member of the National Security Council. Read more of this post