It may be true that President Trump illegally conspired with Russia and was so good at covering it up he’s managed to outwit our best intel and media minds who've searched for irrefutable evidence for two years. (We still await special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings.)
But there’s a growing appearance of alleged wrongdoing equally as insidious, if not more so, because it implies widespread misuse of America’s intelligence and law enforcement apparatus.
Here are eight signs pointing to a counterintelligence operation deployed against Trump for political reasons.
1. Code name
The operation reportedly had at least one code name that was leaked to The New York Times: “Crossfire Hurricane.”
2. Wiretap fever
Secret surveillance was conducted on no fewer than seven Trump associates: chief strategist Stephen Bannon; lawyer Michael Cohen; national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn; adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner; campaign chairman Paul Manafort; and campaign foreign policy advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.
The FBI reportedly applied for a secret warrant in June 2016 to monitor Manafort, Page, Papadopoulos and Flynn. If true, it means the FBI targeted Flynn six months before his much-debated conversation with Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
The FBI applied four times to wiretap Page after he became a Trump campaign adviser starting in July 2016. Page’s office is connected to Trump Tower and he reports having spent “many hours in Trump Tower.”
CNN reported that Manafort was wiretapped before and after the election “including during a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Trump.” Manafort reportedly has a residence in Trump Tower.
Electronic surveillance was used to listen in on three Trump transition officials in Trump Tower — Flynn, Bannon and Kushner — as they met in an official capacity with the United Arab Emirates’ crown prince.
The FBI also reportedly wiretapped Flynn’s phone conversation with Kislyak on Dec. 31, 2016, as part of “routine surveillance” of Kislyak.
NBC recently reported that Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney, was wiretapped. NBC later corrected the story, saying Cohen was the subject of a “pen register” used to monitor phone numbers and, possibly, internet communications.
3. National security letters
Another controversial tool reportedly used by the FBI to obtain phone records and other documents in the investigation were national security letters, which bypass judicial approval.
Improper use of such letters has been an ongoing theme at the FBI. Reviews by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General found widespread misuse under Mueller — who was then FBI director — and said officials failed to report instances of abuses as required.
“Unmasking” — identifying protected names of Americans captured by government surveillance — was frequently deployed by at least four top Obama officials who have subsequently spoken out against President Trump: James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence; Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Susan Rice, former national security adviser; Sally Yates, former deputy attorney general.
Names of Americans caught communicating with monitored foreign targets must be “masked,” or hidden within government agencies, so the names cannot be misused or shared.
However, it’s been revealed that Power made near-daily unmasking requests in 2016.
Prior to that revelation, Clapper claimed ignorance. When asked if he knew of unmasking requests by any ambassador, including Power, he testified: “I don't know. Maybe it's ringing a vague bell but I'm not — I could not answer with any confidence.”
Rice admitted to asking for unmasked names of U.S. citizens in intelligence reports after initially claiming no knowledge of any such thing.
Clapper also admitted to requesting the unmasking of “Mr. Trump, his associates or any members of Congress.” Clapper and Yates admitted they also personally reviewed unmasked documents and shared unmasked material with other officials.
5. Changing the rules
On Dec. 15, 2016 — the same day the government listened in on Trump officials at Trump Tower — Rice reportedly unmasked the names of Bannon, Kushner and Flynn. And Clapper made a new rule allowing the National Security Agency to widely disseminate surveillance material within the government without the normal privacy protections.
6. Media strategy
Former CIA Director John Brennan and Clapper, two of the most integral intel officials in this ongoing controversy, have joined national news organizations where they have regular opportunities to shape the news narrative — including on the very issues under investigation.
Clapper reportedly secretly leaked salacious political opposition research against Trump to CNN in fall 2017 and later was hired as a CNN political analyst. In February, Brennan was hired as a paid analyst for MSNBC.
There’s been a steady and apparently orchestrated campaign of leaks — some true, some false, but nearly all of them damaging to President Trump’s interests.
A few of the notable leaks include word that Flynn was wiretapped, the anti-Trump “Steele dossier” of political opposition research, then-FBI Director James Comey briefing Trump on it, private Comey conversations with Trump, Comey’s memos recording those conversations and criticizing Trump, the subpoena of Trump’s personal bank records (which proved false) and Flynn planning to testify against Trump (which also proved to be false).
8. Friends, informants and snoops
The FBI reportedly used one-time CIA operative Stefan Halper in 2016 as an informant to spy on Trump officials.
Another player is Comey friend Daniel Richman, a Columbia University law professor, who leaked Comey’s memos against Trump to The New York Times after Comey was fired. We later learned that Richman actually worked for the FBI under a status called “Special Government Employee.”
The FBI used former reporter Glenn Simpson, his political opposition research firm Fusion GPS, and ex-British spy Christopher Steele to compile allegations against Trump, largely from Russian sources, which were distributed to the press and used as part of wiretap applications.
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These eight features of a counterintelligence operation are only the pieces we know.
It can be assumed there’s much we don’t yet know. And it may help explain why there’s so much material that the Department of Justice hasn’t easily handed over to congressional investigators.