The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Do Any Sources Go on the Record Anymore?

Happy Monday. Start your day by taking a look behind the curtain at the Koch Seminar Network’s efforts to pressure Democratic senators on Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Do Any Sources Go on the Record Anymore?

In this entire epic allegation of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign to influence or even swing the 2016 presidential election… how many on-the-record sources have we heard from?

Last week, we noticed that “U.S. officials” could tell NBC News that the Yemen raid yielded no significant intelligence and “American officials” could tell the New York Times that computers and cellphones seized offered “insights into new types of hidden explosives the group is making and new training tactics for militants.” A difference in assessments that stark is hard to chalk that up to a mundane difference of opinion on the value of the intelligence. It’s hard to shake the feeling that some officials are leaking a false version of events and hiding behind anonymity in an effort to influence public perceptions.

So far, the story of alleged Russian collusion with Trump has relied just about entirely on anonymous sources. Take, for example, this morning’s news:

F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, asked the Justice Department this weekend to publicly reject President Trump’s assertion that President Barack Obama ordered the tapping of Mr. Trump’s phones, senior American officials said on Sunday. Mr. Comey has argued that the highly charged claim is false and must be corrected, they said, but the department has not released any such statement.

Mr. Comey, who made the request on Saturday after Mr. Trump leveled his allegation on Twitter, has been working to get the Justice Department to knock down the claim because it falsely insinuates that the F.B.I. broke the law, the officials said.

A spokesman for the F.B.I. declined to comment. Sarah Isgur Flores, the spokeswoman for the Justice Department, also declined to comment.

Look, Trump’s claim could very well be nonsense, and probably is. But if it is akin to claiming that pigs can fly, or that Elvis ran off with Bigfoot, etcetera, you would think everyone associated with law enforcement in the Obama era would happily go on the record and declare the accusation is nonsense.

We got an on-the-record denial from Obama’s spokesman:

A cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance of any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.

Of course, that denies that President Obama ordered wiretapping of President Trump or his associates. It doesn’t deny that Trump or his associates were wiretapped.

We already know that some Trump officials’ conversations with foreign officials were picked up by U.S. intelligence services, because the wiretaps were “aimed” at the foreign officials. If you call a foreign official or diplomat, you really don’t have any expectation of privacy:

It is certainly true that U.S. intelligence services can get orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor foreign officials. The Russian ambassador, simply by virtue of his nationality and official position, is an “agent of a foreign power” under FISA and hence a valid target for wiretapping. It is publicly known and acknowledged that the U.S. government uses FISA to wiretap foreign embassies and consulates. So, the Journal may be right that Flynn was picked up on a wiretap of the Russian ambassador.

Is everyone 100 percent absolutely certain that at no point, based upon Trump officials’ chats with foreign (possibly Russian) agents, did further wiretapping go on — wiretapping that was focused less on the foreign officials and more on figures associated with the Trump campaign?

You must read former prosecutor Andy McCarthy on these subjects:

[In June], the FISA court reportedly turned down the Obama Justice Department’s request, which is notable: The FISA court is notoriously solicitous of government requests to conduct national-security surveillance (although, as I’ve noted over the years, the claim by many that it is a rubber-stamp is overblown).

Not taking no for an answer, the Obama Justice Department evidently returned to the FISA court in October 2016, the critical final weeks of the presidential campaign. This time, the Justice Department submitted a narrowly tailored application that did not mention Trump. The court apparently granted it, authorizing surveillance of some Trump associates. It is unknown whether that surveillance is still underway, but the New York Times has identified – again, based on illegal leaks of classified information – at least three of its targets: Paul Manafort (the former Trump campaign chairman who was ousted in August), and two others whose connection to the Trump campaign was loose at best, Manafort’s former political-consulting business partner Roger Stone, and investor Carter Page.

Again, everything we’re discussing comes from information in public reports, attributed to unnamed government sources. And we ought to be at least a little uncomfortable with the fact that everything we know about this investigation comes from sources who aren’t willing to go on the record or put their names next to their statements.

Ozzy Osbourne Was Wrong, This Is the True Crazy Train

Predictably, the New York Times portrays the Trump administration as mean and stingy for withholding a $647 million grant to California for “faster and less polluting electric trains.” Congressional Republicans fear the state will use the money for the endlessly-delayed, well-over-budget high-speed rail project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Deep in the Times article, we get a sense of the epic delays that “Although the authority was established more than two decades ago, it was only in 2013 that construction began on the first, 119-mile segment of the project.”

You have to look back to a January article in the Los Angeles Times to get a sense of just how egregiously mismanaged the California high-speed rail project is, citing a confidential federal government report painting a disastrous picture:

California’s bullet train could cost taxpayers 50% more than estimated — as much as $3.6 billion more. And that’s just for the first 118 miles through the Central Valley, which was supposed to be the easiest part of the route between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

A confidential Federal Railroad Administration risk analysis, obtained by The Times, projects that building bridges, viaducts, trenches and track from Merced to Shafter, just north of Bakersfield, could cost $9.5 billion to $10 billion, compared with the original budget of $6.4 billion.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority originally anticipated completing the Central Valley track by this year, but the federal risk analysis estimates that that won’t happen until 2024, placing the project seven years behind schedule.

The Federal Railroad Administration has already given California $3.5 billion in grants for the “bullet train” project. Two other glaring details in that L.A. Times story that offer vital context:

About 80% of all bullet train systems incur massive overruns in their construction, according to Bent Flyvbjerg, an infrastructure risk expert at the University of Oxford who has studied such rail projects all over the world. One of the biggest hazards of such mega-projects is a government agency that is attempting to do something highly complex for the first time…

The environmental reviews have grown ever more costly, based on an analysis of the rail authority’s documents. The original cost projection, made in a September 2010 grant agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration, put the cost at $388 million. By last August, the authority’s official “funding contribution plan” showed that cost had jumped to $1.03 billion.

The cost increase amounted to 171%. 

California’s high-speed rail has turned into such a disaster, it may have put HBO’s True Detective on permanent hiatus. Okay, that’s not directly the fault of the rail project, but the much-derided second season did have sleazy criminals trying to get a piece of the federal spending as a major subplot.

“This project is so money, baby.”

When are federal taxpayers allowed to say, “no, we’ve given you enough; if you want to build a bullet train and tracks for electric rail, California, you have to do it yourself”? Why is it unreasonable for Washington to say to Sacramento, “based on your past record, we can no longer trust you to spend this money wisely and efficiently”?

Credit the New York Times, they finally noticed that the attacks on Kellyanne Conway have the same sexist themes as the attacks on Hillary Clinton they denounced.

ADDENDA: Thanks to Jim Lakely for the kind words about the Morning Jolt. Later this month his group, the Heartland Institute, will be hosting its 12th annual International Conference on Climate Change, showcasing contrarian assessments of the latest data.

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