Anti-Detente Russian Spies May Have Toppled Trump Advisor Flynn
The latest duel between President Donald Trump and US intelligence is being fought in broad daylight, yet both parties are boxing in the dark over who leaked the revelations on the phone calls by Mike Flynn to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak that led to the national security adviser’s sensational ouster this week.
Speculation and counter-speculation are their weapons of choice.
The president has made his choice.
On Wednesday, Feb. 15, he accused US intelligence of illegally giving information to American media. “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia,” he tweeted, adding in a subsequent post, “the real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
Thursday, “US intelligence agencies” shot back with a report to The Wall Street Journal, saying they hesitated to reveal to the president the “sources and methods” they use to collect information, due to “possible links between Trump associates and Russia," which they said “could potentially compromise the security of such classified information.”
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources point out that the non-revelation of sources and methods – even to the president – is par for the course for US intelligence agencies, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
The WSJ report was just a blank shot in the contest US spy agencies have fought with Trump ever since he announced his run for president in 2015.
Trump regards the US intelligence community as part of the Washington swamp he has pledged to drain. He would not be the first occupant of the White House to mistrust US spy agencies and treat their briefings with suspicion. Some of his predecessors were burned after trusting exclusively in their reports. Some too, realizing that intelligence reports may often be compilations drawn from their authors’ preconceptions or deliberately slanted to misread targets – and are famous for such misses as 9/11 – were wont to treat their intelligence briefings with a pinch of salt and then make their own decisions regardless
Trump is different in that he parades his mistrust as part of his worldview, and has surrounded himself with likeminded former intelligence officials. Mike Flynn was one example. He was head of the Pentagon’s DIA until he was fired by Barack Obama.
His insistence on “getting along” with Vladimir Putin became Trump’s most telling challenge to the intelligence community, whose deep-seated orientation poses Russia, rather than China or the Islamic State – and certainly not Iran – as America’s arch foe. This mighty colossus of manpower, budgets and top-line technology, which is built around this concept, finds itself not just under attack but under compulsion to change its shape and rewrite its missions.
Not surprisingly, it is fighting back.
The internal battle royal makes the Trump administration fertile ground for foreign agencies’ troublemaking – especially Russia’s clandestine services. On the penetration game since the late 1940s, Russian agents may be acting to deepen the rift between the US president and his intelligence community. Putin, an offspring of KGB parentage, would certainly not miss this opportunity.
From this standpoint, the White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s most important answers to questions at his briefing on Tuesday, Feb. 14 were the reiteration that the president’s “eroding trust” in his national security adviser was the reason why Flynn had to go, followed by his refusal to comment on whether any White House officials had read transcripts of the calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.
That Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence was not denied – indeed he later apologized for this. But it is not clear what was said in those phone calls, their circumstances and, most intriguingly, how they came to be leaked.
The fact is that Trump presidency suffered its biggest crisis before it was four weeks old because an unknown agent intercepted, recorded, saved and transcripted those calls and then leaked to the press the fact that they were made and part of their content.
The crisis is only beginning, since the full content of those conversations is still undiscovered, together with how many calls were recorded and who is in possession of the recordings.
DEBKA Weekly takes a look at some of the possible hands behind this huge setback.
Despite strict laws against the wiretapping of government officials — such as surveillance of their cellular or landline phones, web surfing, e-mails, and social network activities — many bodies in the US own an interest in monitoring those officials, or receiving “meta data” on who contacted them, where they were contacted from, how long they communicated, and many more details.
America has more than 15 intelligence and security services, some of them with conflicting interests. The FBI, for example, may carry out wiretapping with the consent of a person it is protecting, to ensure that this person is not threatened, blackmailed or put in danger in any other way. In contrast, intelligence organizations, such as the CIA or the NSA, may carry out wiretapping of public figures or security-related officials if they are suspected of treason, passing secrets to the enemy or committing other serious crimes.
Assuming that the US government’s technological networks are capable of carrying out surveillance of any communication network anywhere in the world, it is reasonable to suspect that one of the hundreds of thousands of employees of US intelligence organizations could have intercepted, recorded and handed out the information out of personal, political, financial, religious, national or other motives.
The conversations between Flynn and Kislyak could even have been intercepted by mercenaries using a certain type of electronic gadget containing components costing less than $2,000, including a radio receiver and a basic cellular encryption system. The services of such individuals, who do not fear arrest, trial or long jail sentences, could have easily been acquired for a reasonable fee, with funding put up by Flynn’s adversaries in both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Of course, there were two sides to the Flynn-Kislyak conversations.
The ambassador’s calls would have been routinely monitored by Russia’s internal and external intelligence services, which would not take any chances with protecting its most important ambassador in the world. They would also check on him to ensure he was only talking to persons authorized for communication during his posting in the US.
Transcripts of all his phone calls would be deposited at SVR, Russia’s external intelligence agency, at its headquarters in the Yasenevo district of Moscow.
It cannot be ruled out that an SVR official who, like some opposite number in US intelligence, is against the reset of US-Russian relations by Trump and Putin and decided to leak the conversations in order to topple the architect of that détente. An extra bonus would come from the uproar raised as collateral damage in the young Trump administration.
Other Western clandestine services may have monitored the Flynn-Kisyak phone calls – if only to store a strong bargaining chip against their American ally. They may even be members of the Five Eyes global intelligence network comprised of the US Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This would not stop some agent or politician who dislikes President Trump from leaking the existence of those calls to create havoc in his administration.