Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA and two-time acting director of the agency, gave an interview to The Cipher Brief this week regarding his opinion on whether Donald Trump and his associates colluded with Russia during and after the election.
It’s sobering and cynical, and refreshingly, exactly the kind of apolitical analysis one would hope for from an intelligence official. He draws no conclusions and makes no assumptions, and does not take reporting from the media at its word. “I spent a career watching the media get a significant portion of intelligence-related stories wrong,” he said. “So, the bottom line: we should all be very careful in saying what is a fact on which to base analysis here. The real facts may be different.”
I believe that. There has been a lot of reporting on this, and even among the best publications (The NYTimes and The Washington Post), there has been the occasional inconsistency, and the occasionally breathlessly reported piece that asked the reader to draw conclusions based on facts not in evidence. For instance, the CNN piece yesterday saying that the FBI is investigating whether Sessions met with the Russian Ambassador on yet another occasion. Or that the FBI is investigating Nigel Farage. “Investigating” doesn’t mean anything until the investigation produces evidence.
Maybe a little cold water is helpful here. It’s certainly better than headlines like this, from the Palmer Report — Al Franken reveals the FBI has Jeff Sessions nailed in Trump-Russia scandal — that draw conclusions based on inferences with no basis. (There is nothing in that article that suggests that Al Franken revealed any such thing.)
Morrell also said that it was way too early to connect any dots and draw conclusions. “There are so many ‘facts’ in the public domain now that many people are connecting them in a way that has them concluding the Trump campaign must have been guilty of conspiring with the Russians in a way that would be a violation of the law. It is way too early to come to that conclusion.”
Based on media accounts alone, it doesn’t seem that early to draw definitive conclusions, but perhaps a more sober analysis of the facts — one that arrives based on the intelligence and not one designed to help sell newspapers — is helpful here.
But here is what we do know: Jeff Sessions had meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Michael Flynn had meetings and phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Jared Kushner met with Kislyak to set up secret communications using Russian communications technology. Michael Flynn attended that meeting. All three of these figures lied about those meetings or did not disclose them.
The other thing we know, as Morrell points out, is that:
The Russians [misinform and manipulate] with nearly every significant foreign official they meet, and transition officials would be no different in this regard from currently serving U.S. government officials. The best precaution is not to talk to them. The best precaution is to be aware of their influence efforts, to be careful in your conversations, and to be willing to share your exact conversation with people in the government who pay attention to Russian influence efforts.
Maybe Kushner was naive, and didn’t understand this. He had no experience in government, after all. But whatever you want to say about Michael Flynn, he spent decades in intelligence. He was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama. He knows his sh*t. He also knows the modus operandi of the Russians. They manipulate. They misinform. Knowing that, as we know Flynn does, why would he agree to the back channel communication (Flynn was in the room with Kislyak and Kushner when this discussion occurred). As Morrell notes, it is “really hard to understand what circumstance would lead the President-elect’s team to be perfectly comfortable being utterly transparent with the Russians, so much so that they ask our long-time enemy for help, hiding whatever they are doing from the U.S. Government.”
In other words, we simply do not know why so many Trump officials had contacts with the Russians, and we shouldn’t draw any conclusions yet. But, there aren’t a lot of innocent explanations available. The burden is on Trump to produce the understandable circumstances that led his team into this situation. The fact that Trump fired Comey because of the investigation, and the White House tried to get the director of the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence to kill the investigation leaves even less room for innocent explanations.
My biggest concern here is that nothing will ever materialize; that it’s a series of coincidences; that the White House will push back, dodge, and divert until the American public loses interest. But we got Robert Mueller on this, as well as a host of non-partisan intelligence officials. It will take time, but they will eventually draw a conclusion, and — according to a skeptical, non-partisan former high-ranking intelligence official with little trust in the media — there are still almost no innocent explanations available Trump.
Source: The Cipher Brief