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Russiagate: Proof Obama’s Justice Department placed Trump campaign under surveillance

FISA surveillance of Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort before, during and after Presidential election confirmed.

An unintended though unsurprising paradox of the Russiagate investigation is that though it has failed to produce any evidence of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign team – because no such collusion took place – it is increasingly flushing out evidence of disturbing behaviour against the Trump campaign by former officials of the Obama administration.

Thus a few days ago we had the admission from Susan Rice that members of Donald Trump’s transitional team were placed under surveillance before the inauguration for no other reason supposedly than that they met with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (a US ally) and that she then circulated (“unmasked”) their identities for no very clear reason internally across the US bureaucracy.

Surveillance of Paul Manafort and of the Trump campaign

Now we have confirmation that Paul Manafort, who was briefly chaired Donald Trump’s campaign team and who continued to play an active role in the campaign thereafter, was the subject of two FISA warrants obtained by Obama’s Justice Department, and was placed under surveillance before, during and after the Presidential election, and that he was still under surveillance at the start of this year.

The confirmation has come in a story published by CNN, which along with the New York Times and the Washington Post has been the main media outlet driving the Russiagate scandal.

US investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort under secret court orders before and after the election, sources tell CNN, an extraordinary step involving a high-ranking campaign official now at the center of the Russia meddling probe.

The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump.

Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to three sources familiar with the investigation. Two of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive.

Note the careful use of the word “wiretap” the implications of whose I will discuss below.

The surveillance of Manafort took place over an extended period, with a short during 2016.  It was carried out on two different pretexts.

The first supposedly related to the allegations which have swirled around Manafort and which originate in Ukraine that he had some sort of corrupt relationship with the previous Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych, which was overthrown in February 2014 as a result of the Maidan coup, and which he undoubtedly did work for

The FBI interest in Manafort dates back at least to 2014, partly as an outgrowth of a US investigation of Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president whose pro-Russian regime was ousted amid street protests. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was accused of corruption, and Ukrainian authorities claimed he squirreled millions of dollars out of the country.

Investigators have spent years probing any possible role played by Manafort’s firm and other US consultants, including the Podesta Group and Mercury LLC, that worked with the former Ukraine regime. The basis for the case hinged on the failure by the US firms to register under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that the Justice Department only rarely uses to bring charges.

All three firms earlier this year filed retroactive registrations with the Justice Department.

It hasn’t proved easy to make a case.

Last year, Justice Department prosecutors concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges against Manafort or anyone of the other US subjects in the probe, according to sources briefed on the investigation. 

The FBI and Justice Department have to periodically seek renewed FISA authorization to continue their surveillance.

Note the admission that no evidence of wrongdoing by Manafort involving Ukraine has come to light, and that CNN does not make clear when the FISA authorised surveillance as opposed to the FBI investigation of Manafort’s dealings with Yanukovych began.

This supposedly Ukraine related surveillance of Manafort apparently ended at some point in the first half of 2016.  By May 2016 Manafort at least was no longer under surveillance.  However the surveillance later resumed, possibly in August 2016 or perhaps a little later, this time under the aegis of the Russiagate investigation

The FBI then restarted the surveillance after obtaining a new FISA warrant that extended at least into early this year.

Sources say the second warrant was part of the FBI’s efforts to investigate ties between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives. Such warrants require the approval of top Justice Department and FBI officials, and the FBI must provide the court with information showing suspicion that the subject of the warrant may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.

It is unclear when the new warrant started. The FBI interest deepened last fall because of intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves, that reignited their interest in Manafort, the sources told CNN. As part of the FISA warrant, CNN has learned that earlier this year, the FBI conducted a search of a storage facility belonging to Manafort. It’s not known what they found.

The conversations between Manafort and Trump continued after the President took office, long after the FBI investigation into Manafort was publicly known, the sources told CNN. They went on until lawyers for the President and Manafort insisted that they stop, according to the sources.

It’s unclear whether Trump himself was picked up on the surveillance.

(bold italics added)

Here it is worth making a number of points.

(1) It is now clear that Paul Manafort is the main focus of Robert Mueller’s investigation and that the success or failure of the investigation and of the whole case of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia rests on Mueller being able to press a case against him.

(2) It is completely unclear (at least to me) why a FISA warrant was used to carry out the first Ukraine related surveillance of Manafort, which ended some time in early 2016.

On the face of it the FBI investigation of Manafort that was taking place at that time seems to have centred on allegations of corruption by Manafort involving his dealings in Ukraine.  That would suggest a criminal not a counter intelligence probe.

In that case any surveillance of Manafort connected to that probe would appear to a require a conventional warrant issued by a conventional criminal court, not a secret warrant, issued by the FISA court, which is an intelligence connected court.

This is important since if Manafort had been placed under surveillance as a result of a conventional warrant issued by some conventional criminal court he would at some point have presumably been informed about it, and which would have been in a position to contest it.

Instead the secret intelligence related FISA court was used, suggesting a counter intelligence operation, resulting in Manafort being placed under surveillance presumably without his knowledge and possibly for an extended period (the CNN article says that the FISA warrant had to be renewed repeatedly).

I am not familiar with US legal practice, but on the face of it this looks to me like a case of misuse of the FISA court and its procedures to make possible extended surveillance of a US citizen against whom no evidence of wrongdoing was ever found.

In light of this, especially since CNN says that the FISA warrant was repeatedly renewed despite no evidence against Manafort coming to light, the Ukraine related allegations which have been made against Manafort start to look like an excuse rather than the true reason for the surveillance.

(3) As the CNN article admits, the application to the FISA court, both in connection to the Ukraine related investigation and in relation to the Russiagate investigation, was authorised by senior officials of Obama’s Justice Department and of the FBI.  In the latter case that would undoubtedly have included the FBI’s director, James Comey, who at the time was leading the investigation.

(4) The CNN article all but says that Donald Trump himself was caught up in the surveillance of Manafort.

The article says that Manafort continued to have regular meetings with Trump right up to the start of this year whilst the surveillance was underway.  CNN also says that Manafort had what CNN calls a “residence” in Trump Tower, where Donald Trump until he moved to the White House had his main residence and office.

CNN claims not to know whether Manafort’s “residence” was “wiretapped”.  In reality, given that Manafort was under surveillance, and given that the ostensible reason for the surveillance was to investigate claims of collusion between him as a member of Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russia, it beggars belief that it wasn’t.

As CNN admits, back in March President Trump caused a storm when he claimed in a series of tweets that his telephones in Trump Tower had been wiretapped on President Obama’s orders during the election period.

The claim was widely ridiculed and criticised.  However it is now confirmed that the telephones of Paul Manafort – at the time one of Donald Trump’s closest associates – were indeed being ‘wiretapped’ during the election period, with the virtual certainty that Manafort’s telephones in his “residence” in Trump Tower – the same building where Donald Trump had his main residence and office – were part of this ‘wiretap’.

Moreover given Trump’s and Manafort’s closeness to each other at the time, and the physical proximity between them since they were occupying “residences” in the same building, it is hardly implausible that Trump from time to time used the telephones in Manafort’s “residence” during the election period, in which case his conversations would have been picked up as a result of the ‘wiretap’.

Though the evidence is not yet conclusive, I am going to express here my view that it was this chain of events which was the probable cause of Donald Trump’s outburst in March.

(5) Lastly, CNN provides a clue as to what it was which precipitated the renewed interest in Paul Manafort, which resulted in the surveillance of him resuming in late summer or early autumn.

Manafort was ousted from the campaign in August. By then the FBI had noticed what counterintelligence agents thought was a series of odd connections between Trump associates and Russia. The CIA also had developed information, including from human intelligence sources, that they believed showed Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered his intelligence services to conduct a broad operation to meddle with the US election, according to current and former US officials.

Compare these words with the very similar words in a Washington Post article dated 23rd June 2017

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump…..

The CIA breakthrough came at a stage of the presidential campaign when Trump had secured the GOP nomination but was still regarded as a distant long shot. Clinton held comfortable leads in major polls, and Obama expected that he would be transferring power to someone who had served in his Cabinet.

The intelligence on Putin was extraordinary on multiple levels, including as a feat of espionage.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin

(bold italics added)

Here is what I wrote about these words in the 23rd June 2017 Washington Post article in an article which I wrote on 24th June 2017

That this refers to the Trump Dossier is clear from the highlighted words.

The Trump Dossier purports to be a “report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the US Presidential race”, which is exactly what the report mentioned in the article is said to be.

The timing is right, with the early parts of the Trump Dossier dated to June 2016 and Brennan sending out his memorandum to Obama in August 2016.

No other report other than the Trump Dossier fitting the description of the report in the Washington Post article is known to exist, and the Washington Post article says that “Putin is a remarkably elusive target”, which makes it all but certain that no other such report exists.

Moreover the Washington Post article slips out these further very interesting comments about the report mentioned in the article

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

(bold italics added)

The Trump Dossier is not a US confection but was compiled by Christopher Steele, who is British, and who is a former agent of the British intelligence agency MI6.  The fact that the Washington Post story says that “the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country” therefore again clearly points to the Trump Dossier, which originated not in the US but in Britain.

In light of these comments I do not think there is any doubt that it is the early sections of the Trump Dossier that are being referred to, and which were what caused Brennan to send his memorandum to the White House in August.

The close similarity in words between June’s Washington Post article and the latest article published by CNN revealing the surveillance of Paul Manafort again points to the Trump Dossier as being the cause.

In other words it was the circulation of the Trump Dossier over the course of the summer, and the credence given to it by some officials in the Obama administration and the CIA, which led to the surveillance of Manafort being resumed in the late summer or autumn of 2016.

Conduct of the Manafort investigation

In the last few weeks Robert Mueller’s investigators have put Manafort through the legal equivalent of the ‘third degree’.  The extent of the pressure on him is set out in an article which has appeared in the New York Times

Paul J. Manafort was in bed early one morning in July when federal agents bearing a search warrant picked the lock on his front door and raided his Virginia home. They took binders stuffed with documents and copied his computer files, looking for evidence that Mr. Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, set up secret offshore bank accounts. They even photographed the expensive suits in his closet.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, then followed the house search with a warning: His prosecutors told Mr. Manafort they planned to indict him, said two people close to the investigation.

The moves against Mr. Manafort are just a glimpse of the aggressive tactics used by Mr. Mueller and his team of prosecutors in the four months since taking over the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia’s attempts to disrupt last year’s election, according to lawyers, witnesses and American officials who have described the approach. Dispensing with the plodding pace typical of many white-collar investigations, Mr. Mueller’s team has used what some describe as shock-and-awe tactics to intimidate witnesses and potential targets of the inquiry.

Mr. Mueller has obtained a flurry of subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify before a grand jury, lawyers and witnesses say, sometimes before his prosecutors have taken the customary first step of interviewing them. One witness was called before the grand jury less than a month after his name surfaced in news accounts. The special counsel even took the unusual step of obtaining a subpoena for one of Mr. Manafort’s former lawyers, claiming an exception to the rule that shields attorney-client discussions from scrutiny.

“They are setting a tone. It’s important early on to strike terror in the hearts of people in Washington, or else you will be rolled,” said Solomon L. Wisenberg, who was deputy independent counsel in the investigation that led to the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999. “You want people saying to themselves, ‘Man, I had better tell these guys the truth.’”

In the event these aggressive tactics appear to have come up with nothing.  On 6th August 2017 Mueller’s boss Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – the man who would have to approve any prosecutions or indictments before they were issued – gave an interview to Fox News (discussed by me here) in which he cast cold water on suggestions that any indictment was pending.

That Manafort is failing to ‘crack’, and that the investigations of him are drawing a blank – with no evidence presumably being found of the secret offshore bank accounts the investigators were looking for – is all but admitted by the CNN article

The government snooping continued into early this year, including a period when Manafort was known to talk to President Donald Trump.

Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to three sources familiar with the investigation. Two of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive…..

Manafort previously has denied that he ever “knowingly” communicated with Russian intelligence operatives during the election and also has denied participating in any Russian efforts to “undermine the interests of the United States.”

The FBI wasn’t listening in June 2016, the sources said, when Donald Trump Jr. led a meeting that included Manafort, then campaign chairman, and Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law, with a Russian lawyer who had promised negative information on Hillary Clinton.

That gap could prove crucial as prosecutors and investigators under Mueller work to determine whether there’s evidence of a crime in myriad connections that have come to light between suspected Russian government operatives and associates of Trump.

The FBI interest in Manafort dates back at least to 2014, partly as an outgrowth of a US investigation of Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president whose pro-Russian regime was ousted amid street protests. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was accused of corruption, and Ukrainian authorities claimed he squirreled millions of dollars out of the country.

Investigators have spent years probing any possible role played by Manafort’s firm and other US consultants, including the Podesta Group and Mercury LLC, that worked with the former Ukraine regime. The basis for the case hinged on the failure by the US firms to register under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that the Justice Department only rarely uses to bring charges.

All three firms earlier this year filed retroactive registrations with the Justice Department.

It hasn’t proved easy to make a case.

Last year, Justice Department prosecutors concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges against Manafort or anyone of the other US subjects in the probe, according to sources briefed on the investigation. 

(bold italics added)

CNN is here conflating the results of the two probes: the probe into the corruption allegations against Manafort connected to his dealings with Ukraine, and the separate probe into the Russiagate allegations.

However it is clear that the corruption allegations are going nowhere (“it hasn’t proved easy to make a case”) – a further indication incidentally that the July search of Manafort’s residence came up with nothing – whilst the surveillance of Manafort which began last year has apparently produced no evidence of illegal collusion between Manafort and Russia at all (“Two of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive…..”).

That incidentally was already admitted by CNN in an article it published on 4th August 2017 – shortly after the search of Manafort’s residence – which admitted that Manafort was not being accused of any wrongdoing, and that the evidence of illegal collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia was simply not turning up

Even at the FBI, there’s a measure of frustration over the investigation.

After a highly contentious year investigating Hillary Clinton’s private email servers and being accused of swinging the election against her, the FBI finds itself again where officials tried not to be: amid a politically treacherous investigation that has hobbled a new President.

Worse yet, some FBI officials fear the question of whether there was any criminal coordination or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia may never be answered.

One challenge is that tantalizing pieces of intelligence are missing key links because they did not develop long enough for investigators to determine their significance. These include intercepts monitored by US intelligence that showed suggestions of illegal coordination but nothing overt.

Those missing links mean that the FBI and Mueller’s prosecution team may not have enough evidence to bring charges related to possible illegal coordination with a foreign intelligence service. Instead, prosecutors could pursue financial crime charges unrelated to the election.

Investigators also face a big hurdle: those participating in the intercepted communications were foreigners, outside the reach of the FBI, who may be exaggerating or lying about events.

Some FBI officials also blame media coverage dating back to last summer for prompting some communications to cease, and making it more difficult for investigators to monitor the interactions of Russians and campaign associates.

(bold italics added)

For my detailed discussion of this 4th August 2017 CNN article here.

Compare these comments in CNN’s 4th August 2017 article about “missing links” with the frankly desperate claim in CNN’s latest article that the reason these “missing links” are not being found is because Manafort was not under surveillance for a period last year when these “missing links” might have been found (“That gap could prove crucial….”).

Given the aggressive tactics which Mueller’s team have been using as revealed in the New York Times article, and the fact that these tactics are drawing a blank, it is completely unsurprising that – as CNN revealed in its 4th August 2017 article – some of Mueller’s investigators are now taking out private liability insurance.

CNN has learned some of the investigators involved in the probe are buying liability insurance out of concern they could become targets of lawsuits from those who are being investigated, according to one of the people familiar with the probe. The Justice Department covers legal fees for employees sued in the course of their duties, but some of the lawyers want extra protection.

The Justice Department and special counsel’s office both declined to comment on the liability concerns.

(bold italics added)

Summary

What do all these revelations tell us about the state of the Russiagate investigation?  In my opinion the position can be summarised as follows:

(1) the complaints made by Donald Trump and his associates that the Obama administration placed at least some of them under surveillance before, during and after the election are turning out to be true.

Paul Manafort was placed under surveillance well before the election through what looks like a misuse of the FISA process.  During the election he was placed under surveillance again, as was Carter Page, who however had only a peripheral role in the Trump campaign. The fact that the FISA process was used shows that in both cases shows senior officials of Obama’s Justice Department were involved, and that this was not a conventional legal process, with no evidence of criminal wrongdoing existing such as might have justified obtaining a conventional criminal warrant.

Almost certainly Donald Trump was caught up in the surveillance – as he apparently found out to his great anger in March – with the surveillance being expanded after the election to take in other Trump associates such as Flynn and Kushner, often on the flimsiest pretexts, such as that they had had meeting with the Crown of Abu Dhabi, who is actually the US’s friend and ally, and who denies that he had any role in setting up a secret backchannel between the Trump transition team and Russia.

Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Adviser, has now admitted arranging for the identities of the Trump associates caught up in the surveillance to be revealed and circulated throughout the US bureaucracy, though no proof of wrongdoing or of illegal collusion with Russia by any of these people has ever come to light.

(2) By contrast all efforts to find proof of wrongdoing which might justify this surveillance are drawing a blank, with the investigators becoming increasingly desperate and aggressive as they search for evidence of wrongdoing which is simply not appearing, because of course it doesn’t exist.

An ill-conceived and improperly conducted search of Paul Manafort’s house followed up by what appear to have been unwarranted threats of a pending criminal indictment appears to have seriously backfired, coming up with nothing useful, leading to recriminations within Mueller’s team with some of them taking out legal liability insurance presumably following threats of legal action by Manafort’s lawyers.

Conclusion

Back in March, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s claims (which he has never retracted) that President Obama had his telephones wiretapped during the Presidential election, I wrote that it was the way the Obama administration had used the US intelligence community to conduct surveillance of Donald Trump and his campaign team during the election despite the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing by any of them which was the true scandal of 2016

What we now learn is that the Obama administration, of which Hillary Clinton was once a part, used the US’s federal security and intelligence agencies during the election to spy on Hillary Clinton’s opponent, Donald Trump, and on his campaign.  They did so despite the fact that no evidence existed or has ever come to light of any wrongdoing by Donald Trump or by anyone else working on his behalf or for his campaign such as would normally justify surveillance.

This is the true scandal of the US Presidential election of 2016.  By contrast the various claims of Russian interference in the election are unproven and threadbare and almost certainly wrong, whilst the claims of illicit contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia are undoubtedly false and wrong.

This statement has to be qualified in that we now know that evidence was in fact believed to exist at the time the surveillance was ordered, with some of the people who ordered the surveillance apparently believing in this evidence.  The evidence in question was however almost certainly the Trump Dossier, an uncorroborated and obviously concocted document, to which no credence should ever have been given.

The big question of the Russiagate scandal should be not whether collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russia ever took place.   The despairing comments of the investigators leaked to CNN show that no proof of this will ever be found because no such proof exists.

The big question is whether the true scandal of the 2016 election, the fact that during the election Obama’s Justice Department and the US intelligence community undertook surveillance of the campaign team of Hillary Clinton’s Republican opponent, will ever be publicly admitted in the US.

The fact that we now have revelations of surveillance of Paul Manafort and Carter Page during the election, and admissions that following the election the surveillance was further extended to include still more members of Trump’s campaign team, under the fact that this surveillance was carried out on either false (the meeting with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi) or flimsy (the Trump Dossier) pretexts, and that no senior official of the US government or member of the Congress, and no part of the establishment media, seem at all concerned, provides the answer to that question.

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