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The President and the leaks: Sessions and Coats finally act

That Donald Trump’s Presidency is being effectively sabotaged by a campaign of leaking from inside the US government bureaucracy is disputed by no one.

That many of these leaks flagrantly violate the law and have been used in the most unethical way – for example to engineer the removal of General Michael Flynn – is rarely said, but is also undoubtedly true.

That former top officials of the preceding Obama administration are involved in these leaks, and that the viscerally anti-Trump media is actively colluding in the serial law-breaking involved in the leaks, is also widely known and is also undoubtedly true.

Lastly, that President Trump has been pushing for a criminal investigation of the leaks since soon after he took office, is indisputable also.  Here is what I wrote about it in February shortly after the press conference President Trump held following the resignation of General Flynn.  Here is what I said about it then, in an article I wrote on 17th February 2017

This in part also explains the criminal investigation into the leaks he has asked the Justice Department to tell the FBI to undertake.  Clearly he understands that until he has mastered his bureaucracy and proved to the Russians that he is the master of his own house there is no sense in his negotiating with them.  That he has done what he previously hinted at, and has asked the Justice Department to instruct the FBI to investigate the leaks, he has now confirmed

Yes, we’re looking at them very — very, very serious. I’ve gone to all of the folks in charge of the various agencies and we’re — I’ve actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks. Those are criminal leaks. They’re put out by people either in agencies — I think you’ll see it stopping because now we have our people in. You know, again, we don’t have our people in because we can’t get them approved by the Senate.

(bold italics added)

Note that the highlighted words all but confirm a point I have repeatedly made: that the reason Trump has been unable to act against the leakers before is because the Department of Justice under Sally Yates has been working against him.

To be clear this is going to be a very different investigation from the various FBI investigations into the nebulous claims of contacts between President Trump’s campaign team and the Russians details of which have been appearing all over the media.  As Trump himself all but says – and as the FBI investigators undertaking them surely know – those investigations are a complete waste of time, and will lead nowhere, because no-one has identified a crime for anyone to investigate.

By contrast in the case of the leaks that brought about the downfall of General Flynn, not only is there no doubt a crime was committed, but The New York Times and CNN know the identity of the perpetrators, and probably enough is already known about them anyway to make it possible to identify them without too much difficulty.

Unlike the investigations into the allegations that are being made against Donald Trump’s campaign team, this investigation therefore stands a very strong chance of success, resulting in arrests, charges and legal action.

I would guess that already by now as I am writing this various people in The New York Times, CNN, the US intelligence community, and former officials of the Obama administration, are busy phoning their lawyers.

It is now clear that my expectations in February that an investigation of the leaks would quickly take place I wildly underestimated the extent of the resistance to the President’s call.  It turns out that it was not only Sally Yates at the Justice Department who was resisting the President’s demand for an investigation of the leaks but that this resistance extended right across the bureaucracy.

A key figure in defeating the President’s wish for a proper investigation of the leaks was almost certainly former FBI Director James Comey, who seems to have developed a strong personal dislike of the President and to have been acting working against him, probably because he had convinced himself that the fantastic conspiracy theories peddled about the President and his associates during the Russiagate allegations are true.

The result is that the FBI throughout Comey’s tenure resisted the President’s demands for an investigation of the leaks which have been undermining his administration.  Indeed it is a certainty that many of the leaks which have been undermining the President and his administration have originated from within the FBI itself.

The President sacked Comey on 9th May 2017, in part at least because of Comey’s refusal to heed the President’s request for a proper investigation of the leaks.  Since then the FBI has been without a director, with Acting Director McCabe mistrusted by the President because of his closeness to Comey and his wife’s political ambitions.  It is now that the FBI finally has in Christopher Wray a Director of the President’s choice.

Meanwhile the President has made no secret of his growing frustration at the delay in getting a proper leaks investigation started.  Much of the anger the President has expressed about his Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the leadership of the Justice in recent weeks stems from the President’s frustration at the failure to get the leaks investigation he has been insisting on going.

Today however we have a formal announcement from Attorney General Sessions and Director of National Insurance Coats that such an investigation is finally underway.  Here is a video of Sessions and Coats announcing it

In Coats’s words

Any disclosure outside of authorised channels is a criminal offence. And we will simply not tolerate the illegal release of classified information.  If you improperly disclose classified information, we will find you, we will investigate you, we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law, and you will not be happy with the result.

Coats’s involvement is obviously key to the success of the investigation since he is able to mobilise the gigantic resources of the US intelligence community to support it.  The press conference however spoke of other more conventional tools – such as subpoenas of news organisations that peddle the leaks – being used to extract information and help identify the leakers.

I do not agree with those who deny the need for such an investigation by saying it will prevent whistleblowing.  Nothing about the leaks which have been been happening over the last few months resembles whistleblowing.  On the contrary they have been a cynical exercise in destabilising the President and his administration by using the media to spread anonymously damaging but uncorroborated stories about him.  As such they have not safeguarded democracy; they have undermined it.

I would add that complaints from mainstream media organisations like the Washington Post and the New York Times that the new leaks investigation threatens free speech looks to me especially ironic given the zeal of these organisations in seeking to close down what is called alternative media.

Whilst it is unfortunately possible that action which may now be taken against the leakers will create precedents which may in future be used against genuine whistleblowers, the blame for that will rest first and foremost with the media, who have thrown all journalistic standards aside by colluding in this cynical abuse of the practice.

Whether the leaks investigation which has now been announced will be effective remains to be seen.  If it is then it will drastically change the atmosphere around the President and his administration, as well as Robert Mueller’s Russiagate inquiry.

Before closing off on this question, I will make a few personal points on the subject of leaks:

(1) as a fundamental principle information which is leaked anonymously should never be given equal weight to information which is given openly and publicly, and where the second contradicts the first it is the second which should always be preferred unless there are overwhelmingly strong reasons to do otherwise;

(2) journalists should use anonymously leaked material very sparingly, should publish it extremely infrequently, and before doing so should where possible look to corroborate it from open sources.  They should always consider the possible motives of the leaker, and should ask themselves whether publication of the material genuinely serves the public interest as opposed to serving some other purpose;

(3) journalists always ought to consider very carefully the security implications of leaking anonymously sourced information, especially when it appears to come from the security services;

(4) last but not least, there is no doubt that some reported “anonymous leaks” are simply covers for journalistic inventions, and that is an especially strong reasons to be wary of them.

There are very few journalists today who I trust to handle and report anonymously sourced material properly and accurately, and I look with the deepest misgivings when it is handled by anyone else.  Amongst those journalists – or persons who exercise journalistic functions – I would include Julian Assange, Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry, Glenn Greenwald and one or two others.

Obviously this is something which requires very long experience and in-depth knowledge of a sort which is possessed by very few.  Quite obviously the army of journalists employed by CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the rest, which have breathlessly repeated every story the anonymous leakers within the US bureaucracy have fed them, do not possess it.

What do you think?

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