The United States is much better off without Michael Flynn serving as national security adviser. But no one should be cheering the way he was brought down.
The whole episode is evidence of the precipitous and ongoing collapse of America’s democratic institutions — not a sign of their resiliency. Flynn’s ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn’t the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function.
President Trump was roundly mocked among liberals for that tweet. But he is, in many ways, correct. These leaks are an enormous problem. And in a less polarized context, they would be recognized immediately for what they clearly are: an effort to manipulate public opinion for the sake of achieving a desired political outcome. It’s weaponized spin.
In a liberal democracy, how things happen is often as important as what happens. Procedures matter. So do rules and public accountability. The chaotic, dysfunctional Trump White House is placing the entire system under enormous strain. That’s bad. But the answer isn’t to counter it with equally irregular acts of sabotage — or with a disinformation campaign waged by nameless civil servants toiling away in the surveillance state.
– From The Week article: America’s Spies Anonymously Took Down Michael Flynn. That is Deeply Worrying.
I never intended to write about the Michael Flynn affair. I figured it had been covered to death and I probably wouldn’t have anything to add to the conversation. That said, I hadn’t been following the story closely so I decided to get caught up by reading a diverse selection of articles on the topic. One of my favorite sources on such subjects is Glenn Greenwald, and I eagerly read his latest piece on the matter: The Leakers Who Exposed Gen. Flynn’s Lie Committed Serious — and Wholly Justified — Felonies.
There are several key points he outlines in the piece, most of which I agree with. First, he proves that the leakers committed serious felonies under the law. Second, he states that if illegal leaks lead to the disclosure of information that is clearly very much in the public interest, then such action is not only justified, but ethically necessary. I agree with this as well. Where he doesn’t really convince me, is the argument that this particular leak represented some sort of great public service. He writes:
This Flynn episode underscores another critical point: The motives of leakers are irrelevant. It’s very possible — indeed, likely — that the leakers here were not acting with benevolent motives. Nobody with a straight face can claim that lying to the public is regarded in official Washington as some sort of mortal sin; if anything, the contrary is true: It’s seen as a job requirement.
Moreover, Gen. Flynn has many enemies throughout the intelligence and defense community. The same is true, of course, of Donald Trump; recall that just a few weeks ago, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer warned Trump that he was being “really dumb” to criticize the intelligence community because “they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”
It’s very possible — I’d say likely — that the motive here was vindictive rather than noble. Whatever else is true, this is a case where the intelligence community, through strategic (and illegal) leaks, destroyed one of its primary adversaries in the Trump White House.
But no matter. What matters is not the motive of the leaker but the effects of the leak. Any leak that results in the exposure of high-level wrongdoing — as this one did — should be praised, not scorned and punished.
Glenn’s conclusion here is that the Flynn leak exposed high-level wrongdoing. What wrongdoing are we talking about specifically? Yes, it seems he clearly lied to the public and Mike Pence about the content of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. The lie to Mike Pence in particular led to Pence embarrassing himself publicly by repeating that lie, and this betrayal seems to be the primary motivator (from my seat) of why Trump fired him. Others are referring to potential violations of the Logan Act, but as we learned from Lawfare:
Flynn certainly breached protocol. He may also have broken the law by interfering with U.S. diplomatic efforts while still a private citizen, which is forbidden by the Logan Act. The centuries-old law is vague, however, and has never resulted in a conviction. Furthermore, there may be significant First Amendment problems with enforcing it. Officials became more alarmed when Flynn was not forthcoming with Vice President-Elect Pence and others, possibly including federal agents, about the conversations. Those officials feared that Flynn’s dissembling might open up him up to risks of blackmail.
Yes, Flynn was a private citizen, but he was less than a month away from being a high-level government official, and the Obama administration was doing everything it possibly could to antagonize Russia during its last few weeks in office. I’m not justifying what Flynn said in those conversations, or the lies he told about it, but there’s a key problem with this whole leak. It wasn’t really a leak meant to inform the public. It was a leak to specific journalists, at specific papers, with a clear intent of political assassination through the manipulation of public opinion via cryptic releases of filtered information.
For example, here’s how the New York Times reported on the information in its February 9 article, Flynn Is Said to Have Talked to Russians About Sanctions Before Trump Took Office:
WASHINGTON — Weeks before President Trump’s inauguration, his national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, discussed American sanctions against Russia, as well as areas of possible cooperation, with that country’s ambassador to the United States, according to current and former American officials.
Throughout the discussions, the message Mr. Flynn conveyed to the ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak — that the Obama administration was Moscow’s adversary and that relations with Russia would change under Mr. Trump — was unambiguous and highly inappropriate, the officials said.
But current and former American officials said that conversation — which took place the day before the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia over accusations that it used cyberattacks to help sway the election in Mr. Trump’s favor — ranged far beyond the logistics of a post-inauguration phone call. And they said it was only one in a series of contacts between the two men that began before the election and also included talk of cooperating in the fight against the Islamic State, along with other issues.
The officials said that Mr. Flynn had never made explicit promises of sanctions relief, but that he had appeared to leave the impression it would be possible.
How do we know what was really said without the transcript?
During the Christmas week conversation, he urged Mr. Kislyak to keep the Russian government from retaliating over the coming sanctions — it was an open secret in Washington that they were in the works — by telling him that whatever the Obama administration did could be undone, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified material.
Federal officials who have read the transcript of the call were surprised by Mr. Flynn’s comments, since he would have known that American eavesdroppers closely monitor such calls. They were even more surprised that Mr. Trump’s team publicly denied that the topics of conversation included sanctions.
Prosecutions in these types of cases are rare, and the law is murky, particularly around people involved in presidential transitions. The officials who had read the transcripts acknowledged that while the conversation warranted investigation, it was unlikely, by itself, to lead to charges against a sitting national security adviser.
I have so many issues with the above reporting it’s hard to know where to start. Everything mentioned above is given to us secondhand via “anonymous American officials.” Nowhere do I see any specific quotes from the transcript, despite the fact that the paper admits it talked with federal officials who read it. Why not? Why must we hear about the content of the transcripts secondhand from anonymous officials? This is the most significant red flag with this whole story. If the leakers were truly interested in transparency, and wanted the public to know the truth, why not leak the transcript to Wikileaks and let the public decide?
I’ll tell you why. They didn’t do this because transparency was never the goal here. They wanted to illegally use intelligence information to take a scalp from a Trump administration they hate, and they knew they could do this via mainstream media journalists. I know what you’re thinking, Edward Snowden didn’t leak everything to Wikileaks either. He likewise picked a few journalists and trusted them to responsibly report the information. How is this any different?
It’s different in two important respects. First, we are talking about a single transcript, or a few transcripts, as opposed to the enormous intelligence data-dump that Snowden provided. Secondly, The Intercept and others who reported on the Snowden material provided a huge amount of primary source documentation for the public to see so that it could come to its own conclusion. They didn’t simply tell everyone what to think about leaked documents while refusing to share any actual content. Where are the specific, comprehensive quotes from the Flynn transcript? Why doesn’t the public have a right to see the entire thing? Instead, we are being told what happened and what to think via secondhand anonymous sources. Sorry, but this doesn’t cut it for me.
I have yet to see any excerpts from the transcript. All I’ve seen is what anonymous officials say was discussed. This is absurd. We the people should demand the content of the relevant transcripts so we can decide for ourselves just how bad Flynn’s actions were. In the absence of this, we’re essentially being manipulated on a massive scale by rogue intelligence agents and told what to think through the major newspapers. This doesn’t cut it for me. I want to see the content of these conversations so I can make up my own mind. Perhaps it’s even worse than we know. So be it. We should be treated as adults and allowed to see the actual conversation if it’s going to be made into a story of such huge national importance.
Finally, I want to end with the mind-boggling absurdity of those who wanted Edward Snowden’s head on a platter, but are somehow ok with these leaks. As Lawfare explains:
Furthermore, these leaks are criminal. As Edward Snowden has learned, the Espionage Act makes intentional disclosure of classified “communications intelligence activities” a felony if such disclosure is made in a “manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government . . . .” 18 U.S.C. § 798(a). This particular group of leakers might argue their motives were in defense of U.S. interests—to protect the nation from national security policy guided by a hand tainted by Russian influence—but under current law, that argument is highly unlikely to prevail. As Snowden well knows, there is no public interest defense to prosecution for violations of the Espionage Act.
Somehow I doubt the Flynn leakers will find themselves in the same position as Snowden, scrambling to get to a country that will provide them safe haven from the vast, vindictive reach of the U.S. government. That’s because the leakers in this case are powerful operatives of the deep state. As Greenwald explained:
It’s hard to put into words how strange it is to watch the very same people — from both parties, across the ideological spectrum — who called for the heads of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Tom Drake, and so many other Obama-era leakers today heap praise on those who leaked the highly sensitive, classified SIGINT information that brought down Gen. Flynn.
It’s even more surreal to watch Democrats act as though lying to the public is some grave firing offense when President Obama’s top national security official, James Clapper, got caught red-handed not only lying to the public but also to Congress — about a domestic surveillance program that courts ruled was illegal. And despite the fact that lying to Congress is a felony, he kept his job until the very last day of the Obama presidency.
But this is how political power and the addled partisan brain in D.C. functions. Those in power always regard leaks as a heinous crime, while those out of power regard them as a noble act. They seamlessly shift sides as their position in D.C. changes.
Finally, if you want to get a sense of the mindset behind the most adamant defenders of the Flynn leaks, take a look at the following tweets from former NSA analyst and Naval War College professor, John Schindler.
If that’s “the resistance,” I want no part of it. As I summarized on Twitter:
Thus far, “the resistance” seems to consist primarily of violent social justice warriors, and deep state sycophants.
— Michael Krieger (@LibertyBlitz) February 15, 2017
The Public Should Demand to See the Michael Flynn Transcript was originally published on Washington's Blog