Investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson has prepared an “Obama-era Surveillance Timeline.” It is a mixed bag, containing seemingly indefensible conduct by the Obama administration, but also conduct that I consider justified and proper (e.g., the prosecution of CIA leaker Jeffrey Sterling).
It’s clear to me from the timeline, though, that the kinds of intelligence abuses we’re hearing about now did not begin when Team Obama became concerned about Donald Trump. Attkisson says that in April 2009, just a few months into the Obama presidency, “someone leak[ed] the unmasked name of Congresswoman Jane Harman to the press” According to news reports, the Bush administration NSA had incidentally recorded and saved Harmon’s phone conversations with pro-Israel lobbyists who were under investigation for espionage. But it was during the Obama presidency that the information was leaked to the press.
Harman is a liberal Democrat. However, she was more hard line than most Democrats on national security. Perhaps more significantly, she was a political enemy of Nancy Pelosi.
There was also the case of Fox News’ James Rosen. In May 2010, the government secretly applied for a warrant to obtain Google email information regarding Rosen. Three years later, Fox News learned that the Justice Department secretly labeled reporter Rosen a possible “criminal co-conspirator” and “flight-risk” in obtaining warrants to monitor his movements, phone records, and emails in a leak investigation starting in 2011.
Moreover, although Attkisson doesn’t mention it, when James Rosen visited his parents he used their telephone to talk to one of his contacts. This led to the lead investigation being extended to Rosen’s parents. Creepy.
Attkisson herself apparently was the victim of surveillance after she broke, and persistently reported on, the Holder Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” scandal. In February 2013, remote intruders secretly download new spy software proprietary to a federal agency onto her work computer.
In December of that year, she says, two intelligence-connected sources separately told her that she was likely under government surveillance due to her reporting. One source told her the government has pushed the envelope like never before and that public would be shocked to “learn the extent that the government is conducting surveillance of private citizens.”
Around that same time, Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, both Democrats, who had classified knowledge as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, publicly warned of the “back-door search loophole” or incidental collection of innocent Americans. Said Udall:
[T]here is nothing to prohibit the intelligence community from searching through a pile of communications, which may have been incidentally or accidentally been collected without a warrant, to deliberately search for the phone calls or e-mails of specific Americans.
Moreover, as Attkisson points out here, incidental collection of a U.S. citizen target may be “orchestrated” for political reasons. She explains how this can be done without leaving “fingerprints.”
In the Spring of 2015, the Obama administration finished negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal. It was later reported that Obama intelligence officials had been “incidentally capturing” communications of U.S. members of Congress and organizations in the U.S. while secretly recording Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s discussions about the Iran deal.
Finally, let’s turn to surveillance relating to Donald Trump and/or his campaign. Here are key entries from Attkisson’s timeline:
July 2016: Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination for president. According to later news reports, after Trump’s nomination, internal White House logs show Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice begins to show increased interest in National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence material that included “unmasked” Americans’ identities.
Summer 2016: The FBI reportedly obtains a secret FISA court order to monitor communications of Trump adviser Carter Page, convincing a judge there’s probable cause to believe Page is acting as a Russian agent. Surveillance of Page theoretically allows government officials to “incidentally” collect communications of Trump associates (or Trump himself) if they communicate with Page.
Fall 2016: Trump opponents “shop” to reporters a political opposition research “dossier” alleging Trump is guilty of various inappropriate acts regarding Russia. The information is unverified (and some of it is false) and the press doesn’t publish it, but a copy is provided to the FBI.
November 2016-January 2017: News reports claim Rice’s interest in the NSA materials accelerates after President Trump’s election through his January inauguration. Surveillance reportedly included Trump transition figures and/or foreign officials discussing a Trump administration.
December 2016: FBI secretly monitors and records communications between Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who later became President Trump’s national security adviser.
Obama officials take steps to ensure certain intelligence gathered regarding Trump associates is “spread across the government.” One Obama official would later say it’s because they were afraid once Trump officials “found out how we knew what we knew,” the intelligence would be destroyed. However, Obama critics later theorize Obama officials were working to mount opposition to Trump’s presidency.
January 10, 2017: The media reports on the leaked anti-Trump “dossier” compiled by a political opposition research group containing unverified and at least partly untrue allegations of misconduct involving Trump and Russia.
January 12, 2017: The Obama administration finalizes new rules allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to spread certain intelligence to 16 other U.S. intel agencies without the normal privacy protections.
Feb. 9, 2017: News of the FBI recordings of Lt. Gen. Flynn speaking with Russia’s ambassador is leaked to the press. The New York Times and the Washington Post report that Flynn was captured on wiretaps discussing current U.S. sanctions, despite Flynn’s earlier denials.
The Washington Post also reports the FBI reviewed Flynn’s calls with Russian ambassador and “found nothing illicit.”
Feb. 13, 2017: Trump National Security Adviser Flynn resigns, acknowledging he had misled Vice President Pence about his Russia conversations.
March 2, 2017: In an interview on MSNBC, Obama Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas says that once President Trump was elected, she urged her former colleagues to “get as much information as you can, get as much intelligence as you can [about Trump and his associates] before President Obama leaves the administration” and get it to “people on Capitol Hill.”
March 10, 2017: Former Congressman Kucinich, a Democrat, steps forward to support Trump’s wiretapping claim, revealing that the Obama administration recorded his communications with a Libyan official in Spring 2011.
March 22, 2017: Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes publicly announces that he has reviewed evidence of U.S. citizens associated with Trump being “incidentally” surveilled by Obama intelligence officials, and that the names and information of the Trump associates were illegally leaked and/or used, mostly in November, December and January.
March 24, 2017: The political firm that compiled the Trump “dossier” that was leaked to the press, Fusion GPS, declines to answer questions or document requests from Sen. Charles Grassley.
March 31, 2017: Democrat Adam Schiff is invited to the White House to review intel material Republican Nunes saw earlier.
April 3, 2017: Multiple news reports state that prior to the election, Rice had requested and reviewed “unmasked” intelligence on Trump associates whose information was “incidentally” collected by intelligence agencies.
April 4, 2017: In an interview on MSNBC, Rice seems to reverse herself (having earlier said she knew “nothing” about unmasking of surveilled Trump associates) and admits having asked for names of U.S. citizens previously masked in intelligence reports. Rice says her motivations were not political or to spy. When asked if she leaked names of U.S. citizens, Rice replies, “I leaked nothing to nobody.”
I have heard it said that ever since Adam Schiff saw the spreadsheet of “incidental” collection of communications involving U.S. citizens, his tone regarding the Obama administration’s surveillance has changed. I don’t follow Schiff closely enough to know whether this is true. However, it’s easy to believe that the spreadsheet revealed a vast degree of collection and possible to believe that it has given Schiff pause.