This week, the sheer volume of leaks from intelligence officials was astounding. But what do they add up to?
Independent national security reporter Marcy Wheeler (who blogs at emptywheel.net) explains what she sees -- and doesn't -- in the reporting on contacts between Trump associates and Russian intelligence officials. She talks to Bob about what the media fervor might lead to, and what it tells us that the security agencies appear to be applying political pressure.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
It was another normal week in Lake Flynnbegon, which is to say, totally bat poop insane!
The national security advisor is fired after being outed by spy intercepts as a liar or worse. The president’s nominee for labor secretary is torpedoed by Republican senators, not over resurfaced spousal abuse allegations but rather his supposed softness on immigration. And at a simply bizarre press conference Thursday, a question from a black reporter about Trump’s deliberations on urban carnage, yields this.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Include, include who?
APRIL RYAN, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: Are you going to include the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as well as –
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, I would. I tell you what, do you want to set up the meeting? Do you want to set up the meeting?
APRIL RYAN: No, no, no, I'm, I’m - I’m just a reporter.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Are they friends of yours? No, go ahead, set up the meeting.
BOB GARFIELD: I shall pause - for you to soak that in.
But wait, there's more. At the same presser, Trump tried to explain how the Flynn revelations were both actual leaks of secret intel and a partisan fabrication.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, the leaks are real. You’re the one that wrote about ‘em and reported ‘em. I mean, the leaks are real. You know what they said, you saw it, and the leaks are absolutely real. The f – the news is fake because so much of the news is fake.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, an irresistible farce meets an immovable objection. Together, for Trump’s critics, the week’s newsfeed was a horn of plenty, and they could scarcely contain their glee.
CHRIS MATTHEWS/MSNBC: What goes around comes around, an old Washington expression. The Hillary people are actually - they`re thrilled with this stuff. And maybe they should be.
REP. SETH MOULTON: Russia is the number one enemy of the United States of America and if members of the administration are essentially conspiring with Russia, that’s the definition of treason.
BOB GARFIELD: The indignation overflowed, skepticism, not so much.
Did the leaks possibly exclude evidence that may have been mitigating or even exculpatory? Did the press properly contextualize the information? It wasn't so long ago, after all, we were excoriating The New York Times and Reporter Judith Miller for being suckered by selective leaks of intelligence that led us into war. Should we be more cautious not to be the handmaidens of what some call the “deep state,” as The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald described this week on Democracy Now?
GLENN GREENWALD: It’s agencies like the CIA, the NSA and the other intelligence agencies that are essentially designed to disseminate disinformation and deceit and propaganda.
BOB GARFIELD: It all called to mind what Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer mused about six weeks ago.
CHUCK SCHUMER: You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting’ back at you.
BOB GARFIELD: Prescient, as it turns out, but also kind of creepy. Should we not be asking, in addition to questions about possible Trumpian high crimes, about a vindictive spy apparatus weaponizing state secrets? And should we be inviting judgments in a vacuum of hard evidence, much less proof?
The Boston Globe was moved Thursday to tweet out the first line of its mission statement, quote, “The truth matters. At the end of the day it may be the only thing that matters.” Well, no. In a society of laws, due process also matters. As such, in this hour, we will put a number of media narratives to the test, beginning with what the Flynn revelations are and what they are not. Marcy Wheeler is an independent national security reporter who has written extensively about the Flynn affair. Marcy, welcome to OTM.
MARCY WHEELER: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: We’ve learned a great deal this week. A lot of it has been anxiety creating and equally titillating. There’s a lot of smoke but I haven't myself seen a smoking gun, at least from the intel that we've been made aware of. Have you seen a smoking gun in any part of these intercepts?
MARCY WHEELER: No, and on Thursday CNN said that it was unlikely that FBI would charge Flynn, so I sort of look at where we are as akin to where we were with Hillary Clinton’s email server in July of last year, which is that the intelligence community was telling us “dumb but not criminal.” In that case, they were doing it in an unprecedented public fashion. In this case, they're doing it through a series of leaks.
Then the other question is, to what extent did Flynn say, sure, just wait a few weeks and we’ll get rid of the sanctions or did he, in fact, say, wait a few weeks and we want to improve relations, which Russia and Putin took to be an invitation to not overreact to the sanctions? So I agree, we haven't seen a smoking gun, yet. There are bipartisan requests from Congress to actually get the transcripts from those calls, but the Washington Post reported that Sally Yates would not have alerted the White House without the FBI okaying that. And I think those things say that the FBI had made a decision they weren’t going to be able to charge Flynn, at least not for the comments, themselves. And instead, we got all this leaking.
BOB GARFIELD: Flynn isn't the only member of the Trump campaign who is the subject of scrutiny.
MARCY WHEELER: Correct.
BOB GARFIELD: What could be forthcoming?
MARCY WHEELER: Well the, the dossier that BuzzFeed released in early January identified three other Trump associates, Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. Carter Page's role in the campaign was a little bit more tenuous. Paul Manafort was his campaign advisor for a while. And Roger Stone is his longtime associate and goes back to Richard Nixon, as far as political skullduggery. And all three of those men were named in this dossier. And we’re not getting the same level of leaking about them, which may mean there is a more active investigation into them, still.
BOB GARFIELD: Or?
MARCY WHEELER: Or there's nothing there. But there’s also a role in the DNC hack that we haven't heard about yet. We don't yet know how the hacked emails were transferred to Julian Assange so that he could leak them, and both Assange and Craig Murray, who said he was a go-between, have suggested it was an American. And Roger Stone, one of the reasons people have cast suspicion on him, had said, before the second batch of leaks started, there's more coming. And so, that question is one where there might well be a bombshell, where FBI might be conducting a counterintelligence investigation that didn't make it into the dossier that, frankly, we should all want the FBI to conduct without the interference of, you know, partisan issues in Congress playing into it.
BOB GARFIELD: So clearly, there are threads to be tugged at, not knowing what might unravel. Now, as a intelligence reporter, is it your sense that the leaks, the revelations, the feeding frenzy [LAUGHS] is going to help the process of pulling all those threads?
MARCY WHEELER: Well, there are, by my count, five separate committee investigations in Congress, and the problem with them is that the two most appropriate ones, the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, are led by people - Devin Nunes and Richard Burr - who were Trump’s transition advisers and, frankly, who should have started the investigation in August before the election and showed no interest in doing so. And so, there's a conflict there. There’s a conflict with Jeff Sessions, who should recuse himself from overseeing the, the larger investigation, the FBI investigation.
BOB GARFIELD: Three foxes guarding the hen house.
MARCY WHEELER: Yeah. You need people running them who aren’t themselves part of the Trump inner circle, and so, I think that all of these leaks may serve to apply political pressure to get one consolidated 9/11 style commission into the Russian hack. You know, it may add to the pressure to get Jeff Sessions to recuse himself. That’s, I think, the ideal outcome of all of these leaks.
BOB GARFIELD: It cannot be lost on you that there was a lot of woo-hooing and high-fiving of these leaks by Democrats and progressives and the media, themselves.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Democrats want scalps. They want to go all the way to the top.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is calling on the White House to preserve all records related to its Russia dealings during the campaign.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We don't need a smoking gun. We have it in his hand and we’re asking, did he shoot the gun? It could have just been put in his hand by someone and could have just had smoke at us.
BOB GARFIELD: These are the very same voices who tend to go crazy when the same kinds of tactics by the security state are weaponized in ways that seem antidemocratic.
MARCY WHEELER: There’s hypocrisy on both sides. I mean, Trump was celebrating WikiLeaks during the election and now is decrying highly illegal leaks, right? Democrats, rightly, were complaining about all the leaking that came from the FBI during the election about the email investigation and the nonexistent Clinton Foundation investigation, and now Flynn has been brought down by the same kind of leaks. And, and, frankly, Americans should remember, we’re supposed to believe in presumption of innocence. We are supposed to believe that the FBI can conduct these investigations in secret and if somebody hasn't been found guilty or hasn't been found to have merited a chargeable offense, then we don't learn about it. You know, journalists love getting leaks from the FBI but we should be having a larger discussion about this now serial leaking against powerful people whose behavior did not reach the level of being charged.
You know, I get that the intelligence community thought they faced a great risk with Flynn, reached out to the White House, described the risk; the White House didn't do anything. All of a sudden, this torrent of leaks leads to the White House finally getting rid of Flynn. I don’t know what the answer is ‘cause I – you know, I'm glad that we learned about these issues but it is troublesome that this is the way our government is working, ‘cause it’s not the way it's supposed to work.
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BOB GARFIELD: Marcy, many thanks.
MARCY WHEELER: Thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Marcy Wheeler is an independent national security reporter. You can find her work at emptywheel.net.
Coming up, are they – and you know who I mean - secretly pulling the strings? This is On the Media.