Armerding: Obama's denial misses key questions about surveillance of Trump
But that is a typical “straw man” allegation -- a blatant diversion from what should be a substantive discussion, and investigation, into government surveillance of Trump and those close to him.
Unfortunately for Trump, he has no one but himself to blame for the diversion. He caused it. It was Trump who made the accusation, in yet another of his tweet-storms, putting the focus on what is almost surely not true but is also essentially irrelevant.
He is the one who handed a straw man to his opponents, which they could easily and scornfully swat down with the enthusiastic assistance of a compliant and selectively blind media.
Hence, for the past few weeks, we have all been fed a steady diet of modifiers -- the accusation is “baseless,” “unsubstantiated,” “unsupported,” “without evidence,” etc.
Hence an Obama spokesman could issue a carefully worded denial: “Neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen.”
And with that, we’re all supposed to think there is nothing more to say on the topic.
Which, on this single, specific, irrelevant question – did Obama “order” a wiretap on Trump? – is true. Of course he didn’t.
But that is not, or shouldn’t be, the point. The point is, the fact that Obama didn’t order it doesn’t mean it, or some very similar level of surveillance, didn’t happen. Presidents don’t directly issue such orders. All of that stuff happens in ways that allow a president to claim his hands are clean; it’s done in the classified, clandestine world of our intelligence agencies and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.
Even Jon Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter, tweeted a warning to the press not to expand on the denial’s exact wording: “I’d be careful about reporting that Obama said there was no wiretapping. Statement just said that neither he nor the WH ordered it.”
So, the relevant question is: How much, when and what kind of surveillance have Trump and his associates been under for the past year or more?
The likely answer to that is quite a lot. Because there is already evidence.
Indeed, since before the president took office, the “intelligence community” has been publicly offering proof that Trump and his team have been under surveillance, through a series of selective leaks about contacts with Russian officials. One leak was used to take out former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Another was aimed at undermining Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The New York Times reported in January that U.S. intelligence agencies were examining “intercepted communications” in connection with their investigation into “possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump.”
Gee, what’s another word for “intercepted communications”?
Before Trump took office, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer confirmed indirectly on national television that Trump and his people had been under surveillance by U.S. spy agencies.
“Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you,” he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, after Trump’s had criticized the agencies.
How would they be able to do that without the multiple tools of surveillance, which include tapping phones?
Then there is the Obama track record. It is now well known that his Justice Department secretly subpoenaed the private phone records of Associated Press editors and reporters. Fox News reporter James Rosen and his family were wiretapped.
Former CBS news reporter Sharyl Attkisson sued the government for hacking her computer after she began filing stories about the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi that were unflattering to the administration.
These targets are all American citizens. I’m willing to bet that Obama didn’t directly “order” that their communications be wiretapped. I’m also willing to bet that such a technicality doesn’t matter a bit to any of them. What matters is that it happened, on Obama’s watch.
Then there is James Clapper, former director of national intelligence under Obama, who told NBC’s Chuck Todd this past week that there had been no wiretapping of “the president, the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign.”
Sounds pretty airtight. It’s just that Clapper wasn’t the best person for Todd to interview, if the intent was to put a sheen of credibility on all the denials. Clapper famously lied under oath to Congress in 2013 about National Security Agency surveillance of U.S. citizens.
Of course, Todd conveniently neglected to provide that bit of context.
Then there is the, uh, unfortunate timing of the latest Wikileaks document dump, which contains details of the CIA’s covert hacking programs.
Among the revelations is that the agency conducts “false flag” operations in which it uses the “fingerprints” of another organization – possibly a nation state like Russia! – to make it look like the attack came from there.
That, of course, doesn’t prove anything, but it tends to undermine a rating of “high confidence” the agency gave to its assessment that Russian hacking influenced the U.S. presidential election.
Finally, there is William Binney, a former 36-year employee of the NSA who resigned in protest after the agency began spying on Americans as well as foreigners after 9/11. He has been saying for more than a decade what Edward Snowden documented in 2013 – that the NSA was spying on American citizens.
He told US News this past week, “I think the president is absolutely right. His phone calls, everything he did electronically, was being monitored.”
Obama’s denial that he ordered a wiretap on Trump is almost certainly true. But it is so far from the whole truth as to be irrelevant.
Taylor Armerding of Ipswich is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.