Politics & Policy

Fighting the Politicized, Evidence-Free ‘Collusion with Russia’ Narrative

John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill, May 23, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
The ‘Russian collusion’ scandal is manufactured — but like all good subterfuge, it is premised on a kernel of truth.

If police believe bank robbers were hoping for inside help on a heist, they don’t hold a press conference to smear the bank manager with their suspicions about “collusion.” They go about the quiet police work of building a conspiracy case. Unless and until they find concrete evidence and are ready to file formal charges, they keep their big mouths shut.

Those rudimentary rules of the road are worth remembering when we consider the transparently political testimony of former Obama-administration CIA director John Brennan before the House intelligence committee on Tuesday.

Brennan’s story can be summed up as follows: The Russians are insidious, and they plot to manipulate Americans into helping them, wittingly or unwittingly. The Russians interfered with the American election by orchestrating the publication of unflattering information (mainly, Democrat e-mails), hoping either that Donald Trump would win, or that the likely winner, Hillary Clinton, would be badly damaged. While carrying out this plan, Russian operatives reached out to some people who were connected to the Trump campaign. Brennan supposes that the Russians must have attempted to “suborn” those people because . . . well . . . um . . . that’s “what the Russians try to do.” But he can’t say whether they actually did.

More to the point, Brennan has no idea whether these suspected but unproved Russian entreaties actually worked. When he left the government at the end of President Obama’s term, Brennan said, “I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting U.S. persons involved in the [Trump] campaign or not to work on their behalf.”

That’s a weasel’s way of saying he’s got nothing.

Brennan, the hardest charger in Obama’s patently politicized intelligence community, spent goo-gobs of energy on this, throughout the closing months of the 2016 campaign. And he’s got nothing.

The “Russian collusion” scandal is manufactured. Like all good subterfuge, it is premised on a kernel of truth: The Russian regime is always on the look-out for Americans willing to betray their country. Sometimes it works. So, when our security services detect such Russian outreach, of course they must investigate it.

But the fact that the Kremlin wants to flip an American does not mean the American in question will play along. The fact that an American ends up speaking to a Russian operative — just as Democratic lawmakers and administration officials regularly speak to Russian operatives — does not mean the American is a traitor. To establish that an America is doing Russia’s bidding, you need to prove that the American is doing Russia’s bidding.

Brennan apparently can’t even prove that Russia beseeched Trump associates to do anything related to influencing the election outcome, much less that any particular Trump associate agreed to do anything, and less still that anything was actually done.

Thus is “Collusion with Russia” a scandal built on feints. The Democrats’ entire case relies on two things: 1) malevolent Russian intentions, and 2) our mercurial president’s overreaction to being placed under a cloud of suspicion in the absence of evidence. After all this time and effort, Democrats are unable to show that Trump and his minions did anything wrong, but the president cannot resist the bonehead moves that make him look culpable: the alleged effort to persuade his then–FBI director, James Comey, to drop the investigation of Trump’s friend and former national-security adviser Michael Flynn (an allegation Trump denies); his firing of Comey in a haze of conflicting explanations, which seemed to have settled on Comey’s high-profile pursuit of the Russia investigation as the hanging offense; Trump’s foolish meeting with Russian diplomats, right after firing Comey, during which he allegedly cited pressure from the Russia investigation as the rationale for Comey’s dismissal; and now, accusations that he leaned on Daniel Coats, the national intelligence director, and Admiral Michael Rogers, chief of the National Security Agency, to help him refute claims of ties to Russia and thus push back against the FBI investigation.

The Democrats’ entire case relies on two things: 1) malevolent Russian intentions, and 2) our mercurial president’s overreaction to being placed under a cloud of suspicion in the absence of evidence.

In each instance, Trump’s behavior can be explained by exasperation and amateurishness rather than consciousness of guilt. But such an explanation runs smack into the real collusion here: between Democrats and the media. If Trump is going to accommodate them by acting guilty, they are delighted to portray him as such . . . and to skip silently past the minor inconvenience that there is evidently nothing to be guilty of.

Throughout our consideration of the “collusion with Russia” narrative, we have taken pains to stress that the probe is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation. It is a salient distinction for two reasons. First, the subject of the investigation is the foreign power (in this case, Russia), not those Americans whom the foreign power may seek to trick, coopt, or recruit. If those Americans were suspected of criminal wrongdoing, they would be made the subject of a criminal investigation; counterintelligence investigations are not conducted for the purpose of building prosecutable court cases.

Second, counterintelligence investigations are classified. The presumption is that the information they uncover will never see the light of day. There are several good reasons for this. The one of most relevance here is to prevent the smearing of Americans. Just because the Russians decide you are an attractive target for an influence or recruitment operation, does not mean you have done anything wrong or that you are going to accommodate them. Plus, if you are willing to cooperate with our intelligence agencies, the Russian outreach might present a counterespionage opportunity — perhaps to feed the Russians disinformation. If the counterintelligence investigation becomes public, however, an American who has done nothing wrong can be slandered for “collusion,” and any chance of compromising the Russian spies is lost.

That is what has happened here. Purely for political gain, officials of the prior administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill are publicizing an investigation that should never be public. It may be called a “counterintelligence investigation,” but the objective is to undermine Trump, not Russia.

In a criminal investigation, agents and prosecutors fully expect that their work will eventually become public when arrests are made. Yet even in a criminal investigation, government officials are not supposed to speak publicly about suspicions or uncharged conduct. Due process dictates that they withhold comment unless and until they file a formal charge in court. It is a grave ethical breach to smear a person who is presumed innocent and whom the FBI and Justice Department lack sufficient evidence to charge with a crime.

Merely calling Democrats out on this farce is not going to end it. Thanks to President Trump’s unruliness, it is working too well. So, I have three suggestions.

First, the Justice Department should appoint a special counsel to investigate the potential abuse of government surveillance powers for the purposes of political spying and leaks to the media. The investigation should scrutinize all unmasking of Americans to determine whether it conformed to court-ordered restrictions. The president should immediately announce that he is ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to cooperate fully. He should add that he is willing to declassify forthwith relevant reports and the identities of officials involved in the unmasking of Americans — with the caveat that important intelligence secrets will be safeguarded. It should be made clear that any official who had access to classified information that was leaked to the media should expect to be summoned for grand-jury testimony about his or her handling of it.

Second, the appropriate committees of Congress should convene hearings on whether the Obama Justice Department sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, and whether it colluded with the Clinton campaign toward that end. The committees should examine, compare, and contrast the Justice Department’s treatment of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information and destruction of tens of thousands of government files, versus its treatment of the investigation of suspected collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The review should include such matters as whether an effort was made by Obama-administration departments and agencies to downgrade the significance of classified information found on Mrs. Clinton’s servers, while a simultaneous effort was being made to inflate the significance of suspected Trump ties to Russia.

Third, the appropriate committees of Congress should convene hearings on collusion between the Clinton Foundation and Russia, focusing especially on payments by Russian interests to Bill Clinton and to the foundation, and actions taken by then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton that benefited Russia (including approval of the sale to a Kremlin-tied energy company of major U.S. uranium assets). The committees should compare and contrast the concrete evidence of Clinton Foundation collusion with Russia versus unproved suspicions of Trump campaign collusion with Russia.

Democrats are not fighting for advantage. They are fighting to annihilate their opposition — not just the Trump administration but the Republican Congress. It is not enough to say they are not fighting fair. Everyone knows that. Look at John Brennan: as a national-security official throughout the Obama years, his principal job was to appease Islamist regimes and organizations. He wanted to engage the “moderate elements” of Iran and Hezbollah, while airbrushing the concept of jihad (“a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community”) and purging agent training materials of background information of sharia-supremacist ideology. Yet, we’re to believe Brennan suspected that the nation was truly imperiled by the Trump campaign due to suspected collusion with Russia? Collusion that he can’t even describe, much less prove?

You either fight back against this sort of thing or you get rolled over by it.


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