“The FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” testified FBI Director James Comey before the House Intelligence Committee (HIC) hearing held on Monday.
Mr. Comey prefaced his comments with the statement that, “As you know, our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations, especially those investigations that involve classified matters, but in unusual circumstances where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to do so as Justice Department policies recognize. This is one of those circumstances.”
During the HIC hearing several Representatives focused their questions on the identity of the sources for two news articles that appeared in February in the Washington Post and the New York Times. Those articles were allegedly based upon disclosure of classified information by anonymous sources in the intelligence community about individuals allegedly under investigation. This includes information about conversations, text messages and meetings with the Russian Federation’s Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak and other Russian officials and hackers, including Guccifer 2.0, with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, former National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and former Trump adviser and long-term friend Roger Stone.
Mr. Comey and National Security Administration Director Admiral Michael Rogers would neither confirm nor deny the scope of the ongoing investigation or identify which individuals were under investigation despite being asked the same questions over and over again.
Given the integrity of the United States intelligence community it is not likely that the source of the leaks came from the intelligence community. What is most likely is that leaks came from the Kremlin.
The Russian Playbook
One HIC member had the wherewithal to ask Mr. Rogers and Mr. Comey whether the Russian government released the information to the media about individuals involved in the Trump administration or the Trump campaign who had connections to the Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish governments.
On its face this theory may seem illogical given that in January the former National Director of Intelligence Brigadier General James L. Clapper not only offered extensive testimony before the Senate Armed Forces Committee but authorized the released a redacted report to the public indicating that the Russian government had interfered with the presidential election to benefit then presidential candidate Donald Trump. The Russian government employed third parties, confirmed by the intelligence community to be connected to the Russian government, to hack into the Democratic National Committee, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Chairman John Podesta and other sources. This information was released over a period of months but, according to Mr. Rogers, beginning in July 2016 the leaks accelerated when it appeared that Mrs. Clinton was going to win the election.
The Kremlin’s motivation is quite opaque. It is directly out of the Russian playbook.
According to a Council for Foreign Affairs report, the Russian playbook “…resembles a network-flow model—or “unvirtuous circle”—which the Kremlin can use to influence (if not control) critical state institutions, bodies, and economies, as well as shape national policies and decisions that serve its interests while actively discrediting the Western liberal democratic system. These Russian networks constitute a vital element of a vital element of Russia’s New Generation Warfare, which “is primarily a strategy of influence and not brute force” and its primary goal is “break[ing] the coherence of the enemy system – and not about its integral annihilation.”
In response to questioning Mr. Rogers testified in elections abroad the Kremlin had favored businessman over politicians believing them easier with whom to negotiate. But, he also testified that, under the playbook, the Russian government will do everything possible to undermine democratic processes in the United States and Europe.
Discrediting the Trump administration and destabilizing American democracy is well within the scope of the Russian playbook. Consider the geopolitical impact thus far.
First and foremost, it goes without saying that the 2016 was the most divisive political election in history. As Mr. Trump played to people’s hatreds, prejudices and their fear of terrorism, the U.S. witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims, and protests were and are a near daily occurrence. Mr. Trump’s attempt at a travel ban, also referred to as a Muslim ban, has resulted in untoward tweets directed towards the judiciary; which plays a crucial role in our democratic system of checks and balances. It is bad that friends and families suffered and still suffer bitter arguments over Mr. Trump whose approval rating is a measly 37%; unprecedented for a newly-elected president.
Second, issues such as Brexit, NATO, Crimea, Ukraine, the Balkans, the Baltic States, the foreign relationship with the Chinese, the South China Sea dispute, North Korea’s accelerating nuclear weapons program, and even the presidential elections in France and Germany are all in a state of flux or have been negatively impacted by Trump administration’s inconsistencies, emphasized by Mr. Trump’s onslaught of baseless tweets, all of which is now overshadowed by the ‘Russian scandal’. Oddly, out of all the governments whose leaders have or are planning to meet with Mr. Trump or members of his administration, Russia has not been mentioned.
Third and most obvious is that the Kremlin is well aware with whom its ambassador interacts, and the propaganda value of the information it obtained via hacking. In other words, everything that appeared in the two news articles the HIC focused on could have come directly from the Kremlin.
Therefore, the more plausible explanation is that leaks, including the two news articles attributed to the intelligence community, were actually based propaganda and leaks by Russian surrogates who represented themselves as being members of the American intelligence community.
The 35 Diplomats and the Less Plausible Theory
In December, in response to Russian hacking and interference with United States election process, former President Barack Obama ordered 35 Russian diplomats based at Washington D.C. Russian Embassy to leave the country. Mr. Obama’s decision would have been based upon specific information provided by the intelligence community.
That information was most likely collected by the CIA pursuant to a FISA warrant for the Russian embassy or Mr. Kislyak, a reputed former KGB agent and a trusted confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Assuming, arguendo, that this was the case any and all communications between Mr. Kislyak and individuals tied to Mr. Trump would have been intercepted.
The only other way these individuals could have come under scrutiny of the intelligence community is via routine surveillance of information by the NSA. Vast amounts of Information are collected by the NSA and filtered through the use of artificial intelligence which runs by an algorithm designed to pick up on information warranting further scrutiny to determine whether the individual is a person of interest.
In either case, Mr. Rogers explained that before any person of interest can then be placed under NSA surveillance, the NSA is required to comply with federal law and obtain a FISA Court warrant. Once a FISA warrant is obtained the individual’s identify is masked for security purposes. Mr. Rogers testified that there are only 20 high ranking NSA personnel officials having the authority to unmask the citizen’s identity, which is only shared with other agencies or officials on a strictly “need to know basis” on issues involving national security.
Given the stringent statutory requirements for conducting surveillance on U.S. citizens and the integrity of the United States intelligence community, even though there is a confirmed investigation underway, it is not likely that information came from an internal leak but that it came from the Kremlin.
About the Author
Cynthia M. Lardner is an American journalist living in The Hague and a contributing editor to Tuck Magazine, E – The Magazine for Today’s Executive Female Executive, and the International Policy Digest. Her blogs are read in over 37 countries. As a thought leader in the area of foreign policy, her philosophy is to collectively influence conscious global thinking. Ms. Lardner holds degrees in journalism, law, and counseling psychology.
“The Kremlin Playbook”, April 2016, Council for Foreign Relations, as found on the www at https://www.csis.org/analysis/kremlin-playbook.
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