Yeah, I know, I know – the same ol’ tired tweet that everyone and their mother has been beating into the ground over the past 3 weeks. What am I possibly going to add that hasn’t already been said by this point? Nothing. It’s just another bullshit figment of Trump’s imagination that he shouted out to the world while sitting on his golden throne at Mar a Lago at 7am. It’s been proven demonstrably false and so much time has been wasted on it that I don’t plan on wasting anymore. But it does lead into what I do want to talk about, and that’s FISA warrants – what they are, how and why they’re granted, and why it’s important for the next several weeks.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 was created to do a couple things. We were in the middle of the cold war, and the NSA and the FBI wanted the authority to conduct surveillance on foreign spies living in the US. However, it was also right after Watergate, and the government didn’t want one individual (ie the President) to be able to order a wiretap on anyone at any time, like Nixon did. So they created a secret court system to approve domestic surveillance on foreign operatives. The NSA or the FBI presents evidence to a judge with no political affiliation. There is a process and a paper trail (albeit secret), and it greatly minimizes the opportunities for abuse. Who do FISA warrants target? Foreign agents or people acting for a foreign government. Who is protected? US citizens like you and I. We have rights under the constitution, and there needs to be evidence that we’ve committed a crime before the government can listen to our communications. On Law and Order, they call it ‘probable cause’.
This is why the White House was freaking the fuck out for three weeks. And why they doubled-down on that asinine “wiretapping” claim produced from Trump’s uncooperative bowel movement. Why they blamed Obama and British intelligence, and burned bridges with our allies abroad and their own allies among moderate Republicans on capitol hill. “Trump was an American citizen who had committed no crime, and the government had no right to collect his private communications.” Or so they ranted.
But see, here’s what a FISA warrant doesn’t protect you from. If you’re an American citizen who regularly talks to foreign spies, then a) you need to find different friends, and b) if their phones are tapped, your shit’s on record. Sorry, pal; should’ve drunk dialed your ex instead. Embarrassing, yes, but a lot easier to explain to the authorities.
Which leads us to incidental collection and the idea of masking and unmasking names. Foreign agents talk to and about Americans all the time, and because a FISA warrant specifically targets foreign agents, any American names that are mentioned in conversation must be blocked out from official reports, or masked. You and I can’t show up in an intelligence report compiled through a FISA warrant. However, exceptions can be made, if surveillance captures a person’s direct involvement in a crime. Here’s Example (A), a recorded conversation between 2 foreign agents who mention a US citizen in a way that is unrelated to the investigation:
Russian #1: My friend, do you watch this TV show, The Bachelor?
Russian #2: Da! Very good show! I like reading the blogs as well. My favorite is lifeaftersf.
Russian #1: I have heard of this one. This xxxxxx x xxxxx is not funny man. Jokes are all the same. Plus, he never predict winner. This Lovely Better Half seem like nice woman, though.
Russian #2: Da, I would very much like my own LBH. Too bad she’s married to this xxxxxx x xxxxx, he is – how do Americans say? – a deekhead? But enough of this talk – do we kill Ivan tomorrow?
Russian #1: Yes, we shoot him in head and dump body in San Francisco Bay.
In this case, Edward M Keene is not relevant to the crime being planned. I am mentioned in passing conversation, so my name is x’ed out. It is masked. As opposed to Example (B):
Russian #1: Tomorrow, we shoot Ivan. I have found man – Edward M Keene – who will let us use his garage. Then we dissolve body in bathtub.
Russian #2: Same Edward M Keene that write Bachelor blog? How much must we pay?
Russian #1: Twelve pack of beer and Russian nesting doll for little girl. Very low price.
Russian #2: This Edward M Keene is very dumb man.
Russian #1: Da, very dumb and very unfunny. His wife is nice woman, though.
Russian #2: VERY nice woman. Why is she with such a stupid, stupid man?
In this case, I am actually taking part in the crime, and therefore relevant to the investigation. My name is not x-ed out in the official report; I am unmasked.
Obviously, I am not an intelligence expert and this is a simplified scenario, but you get the point. Wait – there’s a point, you say? Or am I just buzzed and rambling at the keyboard again? Maybe, but there is a point, too: today, the narrative from the White House changed. Up until now, they argued that the surveillance was illegal. That Obama ordered it. That the British spied on Trump Tower. It was all a witch hunt. Whatever. Mean people are doing bad things to Trump. But today, that all changed. During Sean Spicer’s press briefing, he said, no less than 4 times, that the administration was concerned about individual names being illegally unmasked in intelligence briefings. Devin Nunes, chairman of Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which has oversight of this investigation, said he was concerned about members of the Trump administration showing up on reports without being properly masked.
You see what they’re not doing? They’re not arguing about whether or not the intelligence is true.
They know the evidence is there, and they’re trying to get in front of it. Think about it: the White House and the GOP have given up trying to convince us that there was no contact between the Trump campaign and the Russians. They’ve given up trying to convince us that the surveillance was illegal. They’ve given up on all of it and there’s only one argument left for them to make: whether or not Trump’s name should have been masked or unmasked in the intelligence reporting. Whether the incidental collection was Example A or Example B from above. Not whether Trump or his surrogates talked to Russians who were trying to disrupt our election – that’s a given now – but whether or not the Trump campaign helped them do it. They’re preparing to argue guilt or innocence.
Look, I try not promote conspiracy theories or get people’s hopes up, but this is big. Like, Bigly Big. And hey, these conversations between Trump’s campaign and the Russians could be totally innocent. Maybe the Russian ambassador wanted to know the best steak house in lower Manhattan, and he gave Donnie a call. Who knows. But I’ve seen a lot of people lie about a lot of crap in my life, and this administration isn’t acting like it’s innocent. They’re acting like “Holy shit! Which conversations did the NSA record?” And instead of playing it cool, they’re a) lying about it, then changing their story and lying about it again and b) distancing themselves from every possible scapegoat within a country mile (paging Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, please). Seriously, Spicer had the stones to say that Manafort had a “minor role with the campaign for a limited time.” He was the campaign chairman for four fucking months! He ran the campaign longer than Bannon did. It’s crazy.
None of this is a good look. None of it. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. And keep this in mind: any bad rumors you’ve heard about Donald Trump in the past – his bankruptcies, Trump university, his womanizing, whatever – they’ve never turned out better than you initially thought. No one ever looked back and said “oh, that was no big deal. What were we worried about?” Whenever there’s smoke around this guy, it always, always, turns out to be worse than you think. And the smoke is starting to get real thick….
So where does that leave us? If you’re a Trump supporter, I don’t know, man… I didn’t really understand how you could support the guy before, and I understand it even less after the past 2 months. But if you’re still behind him, get ready to dig your heels in, because every preconception you have about him is going to be challenged in the coming weeks. You’re gonna have to work awful hard to ignore the truth when it comes out. Not to mention, even if Trump does survive, will he have enough political capital left to do all the crap you sent him to Washington to do? Pence is starting to look like your best bet at this point, right?
If, like me, you hate Trump… look, it’s still early in the game and the Republicans are hugely incentivized to bury this thing. They haven’t held the Presidency and both houses of congress since 2007, so the damage from the scandal has to outweigh the damage from impeachment. In other words, it has to get way worse before it gets better, so I wouldn’t get too excited yet. But I’ll tell you this: last night, I put a bottle of champagne in the fridge, just to make sure it was nice and cool. Ya know, just in case something really amazing happens in the next 8 weeks or so. I’m not saying a celebration is right around the corner, but I’d bet money it’s coming. Get ready, folks.
‘Cos, there’s indictments in them there hills…
PS: For the record, this is an opinion piece. I read a lot about this stuff, but I don’t have access to non-public information, and anything that sounds like conjecture should be taken as such. Regardless, there’s still no chance this clown lasts four years. In the Short term? Trump has a 37% approval rating plus an FBI investigation for collusion and possible treason hanging over his head. There’s no way anyone’s hitching their political wagon to this horse. Combine that with all of those pissed off town halls over the past few weeks, and that ACA repeal going to the floor tomorrow is dead on arrival. Then again, this is all Ryan’s baby, so who knows… but at this point can we all at least accept the fact that there’s never everevereverever going to be a wall?