What’s the big spy scandal in Washington? Depends which party you’re asking

A summary of the two Washington spy scandals

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama fretted in his final days as president that Americans are so bitterly divided by politics, so isolated and esconced in disconnected conversations, that it would be easy for a hostile foreign actor to exploit them: just play one side against the other.

Look no further than this week’s events. 

A major spy scandal has erupted in Washington — that much, America’s warring parties can agree on. They’re just talking about different scandals.

One side sees a foreign-based spy tale, with President Donald Trump’s team neck-deep in it. The other sees a domestic-spying scandal where Trump is the victim and Obama’s team the culprit.

Here’s a summary of both.

—Snooping on Trump:

The White House says the true outrage involves the Obama administration spreading dirt on Trump’s team during the presidential transition, by allegedly playing fast and loose with national-security rules.

Here’s one example: Who leaked news that cost Michael Flynn his job as Trump’s national-security adviser, wherein he spoke with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., then lied about what topics they discussed?

Multiple reports are now zeroing in on Flynn’s predecessor as a key actor. They say Obama adviser Susan Rice repeatedly requested that intelligence services perform so-called “unmasking” — revealing the names of Americans referred to in intelligence chatter.

She doesn’t deny it. Nor was it illegal or wrong, she says.

There are strict rules for sharing information on American citizens. Say U.S. spies are monitoring a foreign target,  and an American’s name comes up in conversation; the name is redacted, and referred to in transcripts as something like “U.S. Person One.”

When it’s later presented to Rice, she can request to know the identity of the U.S. person. Under U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18, unmasking is allowed under about 10 conditions.

It must have some foreign-intelligence value. But that’s vaguely defined in the law. Definitions can include someone acting as a foreign agent; disclosing unauthorized information to a foreign power; or just being connected to a crime.

Rice insisted that only serious cases came to her. And only when there was a legitimate reason did she send an unmasking request, which went through formal channels: “We’d only do it to protect the American people, to do our jobs,” Rice told MSNBC.

“Absolutely not for any political purposes, to spy, expose, anything.”

She confirmed an increase in such activity last year. It was no secret the Obama administration was probing Russia’s role in the U.S. election — a redacted version was even released to the public.

That’s the scandal, says Trump.

He says it vindicates his claim he was wiretapped by Obama. He accuses the mainstream media of under-covering this important story. The president’s son praised a pro-Trump blogger for reporting Rice’s role.

Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: “In a long-gone time of unbiased journalism he’d win the Pulitzer, but not today!”

—Russia, Russia, Russia:

A Russian money-laundering ring operated inside Trump Tower. Gambling profits were run through a financially struggling plumbing company. Dozens pleaded guilty in 2013; the two main actors worked from their apartments in Trump’s building. 

Trump was not involved with that. Yet he did business with another Russian convicted of money-laundering. When asked about his business partner Felix Sater in 2013, Trump walked out on his BBC interviewer.

Trump’s campaign manager did work in eastern Europe for a pro-Putin party and was forced to quit mid-campaign. Also, Paul Manafort had failed to disclose millions in payments he helped move into the U.S.

Manafort also lived inside Trump Tower.

He also ran a political consulting firm with Roger Stone — Trump’s longtime political adviser. Stone admitted he was in touch with Wikileaks, just before it started releasing politically damaging batches of emails stolen by Russian intelligence.

Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, in December, met the head of a Russian bank that’s under U.S. sanctions.

Two other meetings made news Monday: a man Trump listed as a campaign adviser admitted handing information to a Russian spy years ago. Another report said a Trump donor, and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, went to the Seychelles to set up a back-channel dialogue with Vladimir Putin.

Russians had collected blackmail material on Trump, says a dossier sent to U.S. officials by a retired British spy. Since the release of that report, several Russians suspected of being connected to it have turned up dead.

Michael Flynn was fired in February. Trump’s first national security adviser was paid a $45,000 speaking fee by Russian government television after leaving the U.S. military, and sat next to Putin at a formal dinner. He missed the deadline to disclose that, and his lobbying for Turkey.

He was followed out the White House door by a Russian-born aide to Trump — Boris Epshteyn quit his job two months into it, and didn’t explain why. 

Members of Trump’s own party have questioned a dichotomy in his behaviour: frequent criticism of U.S. intelligence services, and defence of Putin. 

An espionage historian says it’s almost impossible for Americans to keep track of all these stories. Vince Houghton, a student of espionage, speaker of Russian, and curator at Washington’s Spy Museum, says the danger is they lose sight of what matters.

“There’s an old intelligence concept of separating signals from noise,” Houghton says.

“What I’m worried about is we’re getting so inundated with news every day that the American public will not be able to separate the signal from the noise.”

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

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