The mainstream media have been doing a victory lap since the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) confirmed on Monday in testimony before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee that President Barack Obama did not wiretap Trump Tower. But that was already known.
There was only one new revelation at the hearing, and it was a bombshell: senior Obama administration officials could have known the identities of surveillance targets.
One of those targets, retired General Michael Flynn, lost his job after it was revealed that his conversation with the Russian ambassador had been monitored, and that he had discussed sanctions relief, contrary to his early private and public claims.
Yet Flynn’s identity was never supposed to have been revealed. The surveillance of the Russian ambassador, routine though it may have been, yielded classified information, and the identity of any U.S. citizen swept up in it should have been redacted.
But Flynn’s name was unmasked and leaked to the media. Moreover, the New York Times reported on Jan. 19 — with a front-page, top-of-the-fold headline on Inauguration Day — that “intelligence reports based on some of the wiretapped communications had been provided to the White House.” And the Times also reported in February that surveillance of Trump aides suspected of ties with Russia had been disseminated widely throughout the government, without privacy protections, by order of the lame duck Obama administration under newly-relaxed NSA rules, which the Times had already reported earlier in January.
Monday’s hearing “debunked” Trump’s wiretapping tweets, but left his underlying claim intact: that there was surveillance of the Trump campaign; that the results were shared throughout the government — even possibly reaching the Obama White House; and that intelligence was leaked, illegally, to the mainstream media.
In an extraordinary exchange with FBI Director James Comey on Monday, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) explored what that meant — that Obama aides could have broken the law:
GOWDY: Do you know whether Director [of National Intelligence] James Clapper knew the name of the U.S. citizen that appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post?
COMEY: I can’t say in this forum because again, I don’t wanna confirm that there was classified information in the newspaper.
GOWDY: Would he have access to an unmasked name?
COMEY: In — in some circumstances, sure, he was the director of national intelligence. But I’m not talking about the particular.
GOWDY: Would Director [of the Central Intelligence Agency James] Brennan have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen’s name?
COMEY: In some circumstances, yes.
GOWDY: Would National Security Adviser Susan Rice have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen’s name?
COMEY: I think any — yes, in general, and any other national security adviser would, I think, as a matter of their ordinary course of their business.
GOWDY: Would former White House Advisor Ben Rhodes have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen’s name?
COMEY: I don’t know the answer to that.
GOWDY: Would former Attorney General Loretta Lynch have access to an unmasked U.S. citizen’s name? COMEY: In general, yes, as would any attorney general.
GOWDY: So that would also include Acting AG Sally Yates?
COMEY: Same answer.
GOWDY: Did you brief President Obama on — well, I’ll just ask you. Did you brief President Obama on any calls involving Michael Flynn?
COMEY: I’m not gonna get into either that particular case that matter, or any conversations I had with the president. So I can’t answer that.
Gowdy’s questioning revealed an astonishing list of potential suspects. And given that the FBI and NSA testified that there was still no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the fact remains that the only crime that is known to have occurred with absolute certainty was the leaking of Flynn’s name and the contents of his conversation with the Russian ambassador.
Democrats hoped to hurt Trump. Instead, they raised more questions about Obama’s role.