Calling for an independent commission to investigate Trump could be a terrible mistake

Philip Shenon writes: The drumbeat is heard—again. After every national tragedy, or in the wake of a major political scandal or economic crisis, there are calls across Washington for creation of an independent, blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission to investigate. After Pearl Harbor, there was the Roberts Commission, named for its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. After the Kennedy assassination, there was the Warren Commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. After the 2001 terror attacks, the 9/11 Commission. After the 2008 financial meltdown, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Now, Democratic leaders in Congress—and a handful of Republicans—are urging creation of an independent commission to investigate Russian tampering in the 2016 presidential election and, more specifically and explosively, whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow. The prospects of an independent investigation seemed to grow after this week’s announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the bureau has opened a counterintelligence investigation of Trump aides for their possible ties to the Russian hacking operation that targeted Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The calls for an outside inquiry were louder still after House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’s stunning claim on Wednesday that some on the Trump transition team had been swept up in government surveillance of other targets.

In welcoming Comey’s disclosure, Adam Schiff of California, the House panel’s ranking Democrat, said that, beyond the inquiries in Congress and the FBI, it was time for creation of “an independent commission that can devote the staff and resources to this investigation that we do not have, and that can be completely removed from any political considerations.” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly called for creation of a “9/11-style commission” to deal with allegations involving the Russians and the Trump campaign.

Having written histories of both the 9/11 Commission and the Warren Commission and after spending years poring over their long-secret archives, I think I speak with confidence in warning the Democrats to be careful what they wish for. Neither of those blue-ribbon investigations—especially the 9/11 Commission, most often cited by Schiff, Pelosi and their colleagues as a model for a Trump-Russia inquiry—offers much hope that an independent commission would accomplish the Democrats’ goals, at least not if those goals include getting to the bottom of this mess in a timely fashion and holding individuals accountable for their wrongdoing.

The 10-member 9/11 Commission, which was created by Congress over the initially fierce opposition of the Bush administration, is—accurately or not—held out as a gold standard for independent federal investigations. With its membership equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, it produced an elegantly written, unanimous report that documented the terrorist conspiracy behind the 2001 attacks and the larger history of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

But it is worth remembering that the 9/11 Commission got started late and took a long time to finish—the investigation lasted 20 months, with its final report not issued until July 2004, more than two and a half years after the Twin Towers fell. The logistics of actually setting up that commission were akin to organizing a small federal agency from scratch, albeit one that required a staff of dozens of experts with the highest-level security clearances.

And the 9/11 Commission achieved bipartisan agreement only because the panel abandoned any attempt at individual accountability. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Senators ask Trump adviser, Roger Stone, to preserve any Russia-related documents

The New York Times reports: Roger J. Stone Jr., an informal adviser to President Trump, has been asked by the Senate Intelligence Committee to preserve any records he may have in connection to a broader inquiry into Russian attempts to interfere with United States elections.

The letter sent to Mr. Stone, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, represents the first public indication of the scope of the committee’s inquiry, and possible connections to Mr. Trump’s campaign.

The Senate committee asked Mr. Stone, who is also under scrutiny from other federal investigators, to “preserve and retain all hard copies and electronically stored information as specified below in furtherance of the committee’s ongoing investigation into Russian actions targeting the 2016 U.S. elections and democratic processes globally.”

Mr. Stone confirmed the existence of the letter, which was dated Feb. 17. However, he said he had received it only on Friday, by email. Mr. Stone has acknowledged trading messages over Twitter with Guccifer 2.0, the online persona that officials believe was actually Russian intelligence officers.

The letter to Mr. Stone was signed by the committee’s chairman, Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and its ranking Democrat, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. Press officers for Mr. Burr and Mr. Warner declined to comment on the letter.

Democrats and some investigators, as well as some Republicans, have been watching Mr. Stone, a Richard M. Nixon acolyte and self-described “dirty trickster,” more closely since he posted on Twitter in August 2016 about John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, whose private emails were hacked and provided to WikiLeaks. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

If Russia inquiry is not ‘legitimate,’ Democrats may abandon it

The New York Times reports: They agreed just a week ago to the terms of a House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. But now some of the panel’s Democrats are warning that they may pull their support for the inquiry if it becomes mired in party-line politics.

When that might happen is unclear, and Democrats know that the current moment of even tentative comity on the Republican-controlled panel may offer their best chance for scrutinizing links between people close to President Trump and Russian officials.

Still, Democrats are bracing for fights over subpoenaing witnesses and documents — including, possibly, Mr. Trump’s tax returns — since Republicans have balked at an outside, independent inquiry into what intelligence officials say was an unprecedented intrusion into an American election by a foreign power.

“I’m not going to be part of a dog-and-pony show that is not a serious effort to do an investigation because this is really serious,” said Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California. “If it’s not a legitimate and comprehensive and in-depth investigation, why would we be party to it?” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

CIA providing raw intelligence as Trump-Russia probes heat up

Politico reports: Lawmakers are trekking to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., to review classified evidence on Russia’s involvement in the presidential election. The House has scheduled its first public hearing on the issue. And the Senate is preparing to interview witnesses.

The congressional investigations into ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian officials are in full swing.

For months, the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees said their investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election were in their “initial” stages. On Tuesday, it became clear that the probes had moved into a new phase.

The CIA is now providing raw intelligence documents to committee members, according to multiple senators. Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) visited CIA headquarters on Monday to view the documents underlying the intelligence community’s unclassified assessment that Russia sought to sway the election in favor of Trump.

At Langley, Cornyn said Tuesday, he viewed “four large binders full of classified information that’s been made available to the committee to conduct” its wide-ranging investigation. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The FBI has begun preparing for a major mole hunt to determine how anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks got an alleged arsenal of hacking tools the CIA has used to spy on espionage targets, according to people familiar with the matter.

The leak rattled government and technology industry officials, who spent Tuesday scrambling to determine the accuracy and scope of the thousands of documents released by the group. They were also trying to assess the damage the revelations may cause, and what damage may come from future releases promised by WikiLeaks, these people said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Greenwald, Limbaugh, Hannity, Drudge, Assange all use same ‘deep state’ formula to push back against Russia story

The first step in dismissing someone’s concerns is to brand them as hysterical.

Trump’s ties to Russia, the hacking of the DNC, Trump administration officials lying about their communications with Russians, a global disinformation campaign that is undermining democracy and empowering right-wing authoritarian leaders and parties across the West — the attention being directed at all of this, is, some observers claim, all part of an “anti-Russia frenzy” that is being stoked in order to topple the Trump presidency.

The new coalition of left and right that has brought together Trump supporters and nominal Trump opponents, seem to be agreed on this: the best way of addressing the story of Russian interference in American democracy is to ignore Russia.

After all, if for decades you have been obsessed about the enemy in Washington, how can all this Kremlin talk be seen as anything other than another sinister plot spawned by the American masters of the Deep State?

Apparently the term Deep State is new to some on the right, but it’s popularization by Glenn Greenwald is serving the Trump camp well.

 

For those who are eager to counteract the effects of the unremitting flow of Russia-related stories involving team Trump, the latest piece of ammunition has been provided by Michael Tracey whose supposed deconstruction of the story cycle is being hailed as a “must read.”


I don’t think Greenwald gets directions from Moscow, but if he did, they would be very concise: keep doing what you’re already doing.

Facebooktwittermail

The EPA used to enjoy bipartisan support

Kendra Pierre-Louis reports: The White House is preparing to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 25 percent, according to reports published earlier this week by Reuters and The Washington Post. In addition to targeting climate change related programs by 70 percent, the administration plans to eliminate 20 percent of EPA employees.

An agency whose total operating budget is .2 percent of the federal budget—and whose mandate is protecting human health and the environment—doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for fiscal reduction. After all, most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, tend to support environmental protections. Increasingly, Americans even agree on climate change, with 70 percent of Americans believing that climate change is real, according to Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication. In fact, there are only two counties in the country—Grant County, West Virginia and Emery County, Utah—where less than half of residents believe in climate change.

But while the depths of the White House’s proposed cuts are unusual, that a Republican administration would move to curtail the EPA surprises no one who has paid even casual attention to 21st century American politics. Yes, the EPA was created by a Republican president, but bipartisan support of clean air and water proved to be a 20th century trend. Increasingly, the EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment has been bifurcated along political lines. So much so, in fact, that you might assume that support of the EPA has always been a liberal battlecry. But you’d be wrong.

“Under Reagan,” said former EPA employee Eric Schaeffer, “environmental issues were more regional than partisan. If you were John Dingell from Detroit, well, you were dragging your feet on car and truck standards. On the other hand, Dingell was great on enforcement and on hazardous waste legislation.”

“There was Guy Molonari, a Republican from Westchester,” Schaeffer added, “if you’ve ever seen pictures of Frankie Vallens and the Four Seasons, he looked like him. He always had this kind of satiny jacket, big white hair. He was very green—the environment was a big issue for him.”

Schaffer joined the EPA under George H.W. Bush and served through both of Clinton’s terms into George W. Bush’s administration. In 2001, Attorney John Ashcroft awarded Schaeffer, then the director of the EPA’s office of regulatory enforcement, the Justice Department’s John Marshall Award for public service for his work on settling oil refinery cases. And yet, this dedicated public servant only lasted a short time into George W. Bush’s administration. He wasn’t the only one. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The huge problem with appointing special prosecutors

Peter Zeidenberg writes: Prosecutors are not journalists, and their job is not to inform the public of the results of their investigations. Rather, their mission is to gather all of the relevant facts and determine whether a crime was committed and, if so, whether it can be proved in court beyond a reasonable doubt. Their work, when done properly, is done in secret. Indeed, violations of grand jury secrecy can result in serious sanctions from the court.

If, after a full criminal investigation, it was determined that a crime occurred but the critical evidence was not obtainable — say, for purposes of argument, that this evidence was in Russia, unobtainable by subpoena — then it would be improper to seek an indictment. Critically, the entire investigation would then remain secret. It would be a violation of law for a prosecutor to make public the results of a grand jury investigation that did not result in an indictment.

Further, it is entirely possible that there could have been improper or inappropriate contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence without U.S. laws having being broken. If, for example, a Trump campaign operative actively coordinated with WikiLeaks the release of Clinton campaign emails — originally hacked by the Russians — the public would be justifiably outraged. But that does not necessarily mean the conduct was illegal. Were a special prosecutor to reach such a conclusion, the public would remain entirely in the dark. All they would know is that, after many months — or, more likely, years — of investigation, the special prosecutor had packed up his or her bags and gone home. No special reports. No Comey-style news conferences. Just radio silence.

Needless to say, this would be highly unsatisfactory. The public has a right to know, conclusively, whether their president’s campaign coordinated in any fashion with a foreign power — even if that coordination did not amount to a violation of U.S. law. Conduct can be wrongful — even reprehensible — and still not necessarily be criminal. The remedy for such conduct should be political. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How Trump is beating the Russia rap

John R. Schindler writes: … you need to know a lot of things to grasp the full scope of Russian spy-games against America and how they impact our politics right now.

You need a deep understanding of Russian spycraft, what Moscow calls konspiratsiya (yes, “conspiracy”), which goes back a century and more. The good news is that Kremlin spy-games have remained remarkably consistent over time; the bad news is they’re very intricate and long-term. Russian intelligence agencies are far more aggressive and risk-taking than Western counterparts and they are much more patient. In Moscow, successful espionage operations are measured in decades, not years.

You also need a deep understanding of how the Russians conduct offensive counterintelligence operations, particularly the recruitment of moles inside the enemy’s spy services. The Trump presidency is one piece of a complex Putinist puzzle which includes the long-term, far-reaching penetration of American intelligence agencies by Russian spies. Here the Snowden Operation forms a portion of a much bigger espionage story which must be unraveled to understand how 2016 happened.

Last, you need a deep understanding of how Russian intelligence disseminates propaganda, what the Kremlin calls Active Measures, against their foes. Particularly important is the use of disinformation, which the KGB and its successors have perfected over decades, and they now can disseminate it quickly and easily online. Above all, what’s required to get to the bottom of the Trump mystery is a well-honed ability to unravel the full scope of interlocking Russian spy-games in their strategic — not just tactical — complexity.

The good news for the White House is that the number of people in the West who can grasp all that is rather small. Even in our Intelligence Community, this specialization is rare and customarily considered somewhat odd. You need to understand the Russian mindset, which means you should speak their language and comprehend how they think. You need extensive knowledge of Kremlin spy-cum-propaganda operations going back many decades. That expertise is hardly ever achieved by scholars, so we’re talking about people with a lot of education but also practical experience in high-level counterespionage against the Russians.

To say nothing of the fact that the Russians routinely use provocateurs and fake opposition to muddy the waters whenever questions arise about nefarious Kremlin activities. Vociferous haters of Moscow and all its works have an odd habit of turning out to be secretly on the payroll of Russian spy services, while the Kremlin has employed provocation on an industrial scale for more than a century to confuse the West in its efforts to understand what the Russians are really up to. Chekists like Vladimir Putin take enormous pride in their seasoned ability to run rings around confused foreigners until they get lost in the vaunted “wilderness of mirrors.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Democrats invite immigrants and refugees to Trump’s first speech to Congress

McClatchy reports: It took Sil Ganzo a moment to grasp what Rep. Alma Adams was saying.

Ganzo, founder and executive director of ourBRIDGE for kids, thought that Adams’ telephone call was an inquiry to learn more about the organization that provides an after-school program a welcoming environment to immigrant and refugee children from around the globe.

But it was about her background and history.

“I am what it means to be an immigrant,” she said. “I was born and raised in Argentina and I came here with nothing more than a dream. There were people who encouraged me to go for it. I improved my English and, here I am, doing what I always wanted to do. And now I feel it’s my responsibility to do that for others.”

Adams, D-N.C., invited Ganzo to be her guest inside the House of Representatives chamber Tuesday night for President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress.

Adams joins other congressional Democrats in bringing immigrants, refugees or advocates to Trump’s speech to protest his actions on immigration. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, Texas, has invited two Syrian refugees in a show of defiance against Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.

And freshman Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California has invited Yuriana Aguilar – a Mexican-born University of California, Merced, alumnus, who was brought to the U.S. when she was a child – to be her guest for Trump’s prime-time speech. Aguilar is now an instructor in the department of physiology and biophysics at Rush Medical College in Chicago. Her research focuses on the human heart. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S. inquiries into Russian election hacking include three FBI probes

Reuters reports: The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is pursuing at least three separate probes relating to alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. presidential elections, according to five current and former government officials with direct knowledge of the situation.

While the fact that the FBI is investigating had been reported previously by the New York Times and other media, these officials shed new light on both the precise number of inquires and their focus.

The FBI’s Pittsburgh field office, which runs many cyber security investigations, is trying to identify the people behind breaches of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems, the officials said. Those breaches, in 2015 and the first half of 2016, exposed the internal communications of party officials as the Democratic nominating convention got underway and helped undermine support for Hillary Clinton.

The Pittsburgh case has progressed furthest, but Justice Department officials in Washington believe there is not enough clear evidence yet for an indictment, two of the sources said.

Meanwhile the bureau’s San Francisco office is trying to identify the people who called themselves “Guccifer 2” and posted emails stolen from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s account, the sources said. Those emails contained details about fundraising by the Clinton Foundation and other topics.

Beyond the two FBI field offices, FBI counterintelligence agents based in Washington are pursuing leads from informants and foreign communications intercepts, two of the people said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Trump dodges, then dismisses, Russia scrutiny

Politico reports: President Donald Trump dodged and then dismissed lingering questions about his relationship with Russia during his long-winded news conference on Thursday — first describing recent reports on the scrutiny as “fake news,” then saying he has no knowledge of campaign associates contacting the country before the election.

“No, nobody that I know of,” Trump said.

Trump did not, notably, say definitively that his campaign had no contact with Russian officials, but vaguely offered that he had no knowledge that it had. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How Trump changed Americans’ view of Islam – for the better

Shibley Telhami writes: Four polls during the election year revealed extraordinary, progressive and unexpected shifts that cannot be explained by events during that year. Attitudes toward “Muslim people” became progressively more favorable from 53 percent in November 2015 to 70 percent in October 2016.

Even attitudes toward Islam itself (generally more unfavorable than attitudes toward Muslims) showed significant improvement: favorable attitudes went from 37 percent in November 2015 to 49 percent in October 2016, reaching the highest favorable level since 9/11.

This kind of large shift does not normally take place in one year unless there are extraordinary events taking place. In fact, there were some consequential events that would have led one to expect the opposite shift: terrorism in the name of Islam in San Bernardino and Orlando, as well as a heated campaign year during which the Republican candidates, and many of their supporters, voiced much anti-Muslim rhetoric.

So, how are these kind of shifts possible in a single year?

One hint comes from the partisan divide on these issues. Almost all the shifts came from Democrats and independents, not Republicans. Among Democrats, the shift was significant enough to impact overall results. Favorable attitudes toward Muslims improved from 67 percent to 81 percent. Favorable attitudes toward Islam went from 51 percent to 66 percent. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Why Flynn’s resignation matters

David Frum writes: Stop talking about the Logan Act.

It was not the violation of this antique and ignored piece of anti-Jacobin legislation that has touched off the biggest foreign-policy scandal since Watergate.

Nobody would care if an incoming national security adviser had confidential conversations with an ambassador of a hostile foreign government before Inauguration Day, if it were believed that the conversations served a legitimate and disinterested public purpose.

But that is exactly what is doubted in this case.

To put the story in simplest terms:

1) Russian spies hacked Democratic Party communications in order to help elect Donald Trump.

2) Donald Trump welcomed the help, used it, publicly solicited more of it—and was then elected president of the United States.

3) President Obama sanctioned Russia for its pro-Trump espionage.

4) While Russia considered its response, its ambassador spoke with the national security adviser-designate about the sanctions

5) The adviser, Flynn, reportedly asked Russia not to overreact, signaling that the new administration would review the sanctions; Russia did not respond.

6) As president-elect and then president, Donald Trump has indicated that he seeks to lift precisely those sanctions caused by Russia’s espionage work on his behalf.

All of this takes place against the background of Donald Trump’s seeming determination to align U.S. foreign policy ever closer to Russia’s: endorsing the annexation of Crimea, supporting Russia’s war aims in Syria, casting doubt on the U.S. guarantee to NATO allies, cheering on the breakup of the European Union. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Gerrymandering is why American democracy is broken

Brian Klaas writes: There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress – on a par with public support for traffic jams and cockroaches. And yet, in the 2016 election, only eight incumbents – eight out of a body of 435 representatives – were defeated at the polls.

If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it’s getting rid of gerrymandering – the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens – Democrat and Republican – should be able to agree on. Indeed, polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all stripes oppose gerrymandering.

In the 2016 elections for the House of Representatives, the average electoral margin of victory was 37.1 percent. That’s a figure you’d expect from North Korea, Russia or Zimbabwe – not the United States. But the shocking reality is that the typical race ended with a Democrat or a Republican winning nearly 70 percent of the vote, while their challenger won just 30 percent. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

ISIS celebrates its success in scaring Americans — calls Trump’s travel ban ‘The Blessed Ban’

Business Insider reports: The terrorist group ISIS has reportedly branded President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration “the Blessed Ban” as it seemingly proves that the West is at war with Islam.

New York Times terrorism correspondent Rukmini Callimachi reported from Iraq that ISIS has been talking about Trump’s travel ban, which bars refugees and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries — identified as hot spots for terrorism — from entering the US.

“I reported here in Nov/Dec of last year,” Callimachi tweeted on Wednesday. “Guess what’s different on this trip? Everywhere I go, Iraqis want to ask about the visa ban.”

Callimachi is in Mosul, ISIS’ stronghold in Iraq that is slowly being liberated from the terrorist group.

She said a resident of western Mosul, which is still under ISIS control, told her translator in a phone call that ISIS is also discussing the ban.

“The resident said ISIS has been openly celebrating the ban,” Callimachi tweeted. “They’ve even coined a phrase for it: الحظر المبارك — or ‘The Blessed Ban.'”

Callimachi explained why: “ISIS sees this as *their* doing. They succeeded in scaring the daylight out of America.”

“ISIS, according to this resident of Western Mosul, thinks their terror tactic worked. They frightened the most powerful man in the world,” Callimachi said, referring to Trump. [Continue reading…]

Business Insider reports: President Donald Trump’s executive order barring refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the US is one of his most popular so far, according to a new poll from Morning Consult and Politico.

The order has a 55% approval rating among voters polled, with 35% saying they “strongly approve.” Thirty-eight percent of voters said they disapprove.

Opinions about the order fall along party lines — 82% of Republicans support the ban, and 65% of Democrats oppose it. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Shutting down speech by Elizabeth Warren, GOP amplifies her message

The New York Times reports: Republicans seized her microphone. And gave her a megaphone.

Silenced on the Senate floor for condemning a peer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, emerged on Wednesday in a coveted role: the avatar of liberal resistance in the age of Trump.

Late on Tuesday, Senate Republicans voted to halt the remarks of Ms. Warren, already a lodestar of the left, after she criticized a colleague, Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general, by reading a letter from Coretta Scott King.

Instantly, the decision — led by Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, who invoked a rarely enforced rule prohibiting senators from impugning the motives and conduct of a peer — amplified Ms. Warren’s message and further inflamed the angry Senate debate over Mr. Sessions’ nomination. He is expected to be confirmed later on Wednesday.

In the meantime, some of her peers from the Democratic caucus, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, have read Mrs. King’s letter without facing any objection, prompting some activists to raise charges of sexism. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail