There are two competing storylines in the wake of the Michael Flynn resignation.
One, from Trump opponents, is focused on Flynn, his troubling communications with the Russian ambassador, and what Flynn (and even Donald Trump) knew and when. (Flynn stepped down after news organizations reported that transcripts of his conversations with the ambassador showed he had discussed sanctions while Barack Obama was still president, and contrary to previous denials by Flynn and VP Mike Pence, who received incomplete information from Flynn.)
The second narrative, pushed by Trump himself, is focused on this question: Who is doing the leaking? The New York Times boils the different narratives down to a divide between legacy media and conservative partisan sites.
When you take a big step back, the second narrative boils down to this: Someone (or more than one person) is leaking (possibly) classified information about secret (warrantless?) domestic spying by the National Security Agency into a foreign ambassador and the private communications of an American citizen (Flynn).
However, one person’s leaker is another’s whistle blower, and critical information in the public interest would have remained unknown without news media leaks (think: Watergate). Some believe Trump is throwing out the leak card to divert attention from the content of the leaks.
It’s clear there’s someone leaking in a way that’s not doing the president any favors. And it’s certainly possible that both issues are of parallel concern. Trump has tweeted that he suspects the NSA and FBI are behind the leaks, and his rapport with the CIA is strained at best; this is a turn around from his seeming lack of concern about hacks into Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC.
The “who’s behind the White House leaks” narrative has taken on growing currency after new reports that the United States’ intelligence community may be conducting a shadow war to take out Trump and has so lost trust in the new president that it’s withholding some information from him (according to The Wall Street Journal). In this scenario, Flynn was small potatoes, with the POTUS the real prize.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Members of the Intelligence Community So Distrust Trump That They’ve Stopped Sharing All Information With Him, a Report Says
The Wall Street Journal came out with that bombshell, although, as with The New York Times and Washington Post articles that sank Flynn, the Journal story is based on anonymous sources.
According to the Journal, intelligence agencies are withholding some information from Trump, on things such as intelligence methods, because they are worried about (perhaps ironically) leaks.
The CIA’s head denies the account in WSJ, however:
The article begins, “U.S. intelligence officials have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised.”
Although they didn’t tell past presidents every single detail, according to the Journal, the uniqueness here is that they are motivated by distrust of Trump. As a former Obama official sees it:
Flynn – who also was regarded as a hothead in some corners – has now lost his national security clearance, while it’s reviewed.
One news story that flew somewhat under the radar: A few days before Flynn resigned, a top deputy of his named Robin Townley was “rejected for a critical security clearance, effectively ending his tenure on the National Security Council and escalating tensions between Flynn and the intelligence community,” according to a Politico story dated February 10.
Politico reported that Townley’s security clearance was rejected by the CIA, but did not explain what gave the agency concern, beyond painting the Townley denial as part of conflict between Flynn and the CIA and CIA concerns about Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador, the latter of which led to the national security adviser’s downfall a few days later.
2. The Republican Chairman of the House Oversight Committee Wants an Investigation Into the Leaks
Two key Republicans are seeking an investigation into the Flynn leaks, according to CNN. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent the letter to the Inspector General, CNN reported.
In the letter, which you can read here, Chaffetz and Goodlatte expressed concern about “the potential inadequate protection of classified information.”
Thus far, CNN reports, Chaffetz has declined to investigate Trump’s purported ties to Russia. The New York Times reports that conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham and politicians like Senator Ron Johnson have advanced the leak narrative.
3. Trump Has Tried to Shift Attention From Flynn to the Leak Question & May Pick an Ally to Investigate the Intelligence Agencies
Since the Flynn story broke – including the devastating angle that Flynn (by his own admission) did not give the Vice President complete information, Trump has attempted to shift the conversation to leaks and been vague when asked about Flynn’s ties to Russia – or his own. In a series of tweets, the president even tried to lay the blame at the feet of the NSA and FBI.
A Chicago Tribune writer offered a counter view, painting Trump’s response as Nixonian: “A good president will use these leaks as sources of information — who is upset, and why? A poor president will circle the wagons, trying to keep knowledge of what’s happening within the administration within a tighter and tighter circle, which only serves to make those who legitimately are supposed to be part of the policy-making process even more upset, and the policy made without proper inputs even less likely to succeed.”
However, other sites think Trump has a point. The Daily Caller wrote, “The whole thing looks like a massive underground campaign inside an intelligence community ticked off at Trump and partial to former President Obama to undermine the new administration.”
According to The New York Times, Trump is now considering naming Stephen A. Feinberg, a New York Billionaire,”to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.”
4. President Obama Also Went After Leakers & a Controversial Former Member of the Intelligence Community Says the Intelligence Community Wants to Ensure Trump ‘Will Die in Jail’
Trump is not the only president to go after leakers. President Obama did his share of that, although his actions weren’t clouded with allegations of strange ties to Russia, of course. In 2013, The Hill reported, that under Obama “six current and former government officials have been indicted in leak-related cases so far, twice the number brought under all previous administrations combined.”
In one controversial prosecution, the Justice Department obtained Associated Press phone records, arguing that leaks to the wire service threatened national security after the AP reported on a foiled Al-Qaeda operation. The Washington Post noted, “The aggressive investigation into the possible disclosure of classified information to the AP is part of a pattern in which the Obama administration has pursued current and former government officials suspected of releasing secret material.”
However, while Obama’s administration went after reporters’ information on leakers, the president wasn’t at war with the intelligence community.
John Schindler is a former analyst with the National Security Agency with a controversial past, according to Raw Story. He tweeted on February 15, “Now we go nuclear. IC war going to new levels. Just got an EM fm senior IC friend, it began: “He will die in jail.”
An ABC News reporter took note:
Schindler was responding to a tweet that asked, “I can kind of guess but what do you think is going on inside NatSec right now after Trump’s “intelligence” tweet this morning?”
IC refers to Intelligence Community. He also tweeted this about the president:
On Twitter, Schindler described himself as “#Natsec columnist @observer, security consultant, author, provocateur, bon vivant, polyglot, counterintelligencer, cat guardian. Formerly NSA, NAVSECGRU, NWC.” His Twitter page is filled with pictures of cats, historic military leaders, and comments on Russia.
In a column in the Observer that ran before the Wall Street Journal story, Schindler wrote, “Our Intelligence Community is so worried by the unprecedented problems of the Trump administration—not only do senior officials possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, there are nagging questions about basic competence regarding Team Trump—that it is beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust.”
The article describes Schindler as “a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.”
Schindler has a background full of controversy. Gawker reported that he is “a former naval officer who worked as a counterterrorism operative at the NSA for more than a decade, Schindler has long defended that agency’s secret surveillance efforts while attacking information activists like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald.” He’s been defined as a conservative talking head.
The Associated Press reported in 2014 that he resigned as a U.S. Naval War College professor “following an investigation into a complaint that he took a racy photo that wound up online.”
5. Trump’s Rhetoric & Refusal to Accept CIA Assessments on Russia Has Reportedly Alienated CIA Agents
In January, a former CIA acting director who had supported Hillary Clinton predicted a “wave” of resignations at the CIA because of Trump’s rhetoric and “rejection of the CIA’s assessment about Russia’s interference” in the presidential election, reported The Hill.
In December, Trump’s “reluctance” to receive daily intelligence briefings made news, with USA Today reporting that Trump had only received four such briefings since being elected. Trump’s transition team released a statement after a Washington Post article reported that “Russians were working to get him (Trump) elected.” It said, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” according to USA Today.
CNN has reported that other (unnamed) Trump aides also had contact with Russian officials, although the content of it was not clear.
According to the Guardian, Trump’s speech at Langley in his first official act as president did him no favors because he “stood before the agency’s memorial to its dead officers and delivered an often self-referential and highly political speech that included an untruthful claim that his inauguration was better attended than those of Barack Obama.”