Opinion | Criminal Justice

'Obamagate' backfires: Documents show Biden, Obama acted properly

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Republicans and right-wing media are in a conspiracy theory-spewing meltdown. In the wake of selective, politically motivated "leaks" of sensitive documents, conservative pundits are launching an avalanche of baseless attacks against President Trump's political opponents.

But the reality is brutally obvious: Trump is weaponizing the American government to distract from his catastrophically incompetent pandemic response and the crushing economic fallout.

While right-wing media continue to whip their audiences into hysteria over a nefarious Obama-led plot to undermine Trump, the documents - strategically released by Trump's political lackeys atop the intelligence and law enforcement communities - do absolutely nothing to further such asinine conspiracy theories. In fact, they prove the opposite.

The recently disclosed files show the Obama administration's diligence and focus in the wake of Russia's sweeping assault on American democracy. Moreover, contrary to unhinged right-wing conspiracy-mongering, the materials demonstrate Obama's dedication to upholding the FBI's independence from improper political influence.

In short, Trump's election-year ploy to distract the American public with selective leaks of sensitive information backfired. Spectacularly so.

Well-documented exceptions aside, the files also show that the Comey-led FBI deftly steered a sensitive counterintelligence investigation amid nightmarish political circumstances.

The FBI - rightly - opened counterintelligence investigations into several Trump campaign officials following a litany of Trump World contacts with shady Russian intelligence cutouts; these meetings coincided, naturally, with Moscow's brazen campaign to swing the 2016 election in Trump's favor.

The president's baseless conspiracy theory du jour holds that members of the Obama administration improperly interfered with the FBI's investigation into Michael Flynn, the first person President Trump fired (for lying to Vice President Pence and the FBI). Conservative pundits also peddle thoroughly unsupported claims that Obama appointees, as part of a vast anti-Trump plot, leaked sensitive information about Flynn's case to the media.

But the evidence is abundantly clear: Obama - unlike Trump - was adamant about staying out of the FBI's investigation into Flynn.

Trump's future acting attorney general remembered then-President Obama saying that he "did not want any additional information" on Flynn's case. Even more to the point, Obama's national security adviser noted that Obama was "not asking about, initiating or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective" regarding the Flynn probe. Instead, Obama told the FBI to proceed "by the book."

Obama, in essence, kept a wall of separation between the FBI and the presidency - as there should be. And just like that, unhinged conspiracy theories of a nefarious Obama-led, anti-Trump plot melt away.

Obama's dedication to preserving the bureau's independence from political influence also begs comparisons to Trump's shamefully improper demand for "loyalty" from an FBI director. Ditto for the president's indefensible attempts to obstruct the Flynn investigation.

Moreover, assertions that Obama and Biden "both actively followed the [Flynn] investigation" - published in these pages - fly in the face of the facts. Reviewing intelligence reports on improper interference in U.S. foreign policy is wholly separate from "actively following" a sensitive, compartmentalized FBI counterintelligence investigation. There is not a shred of evidence that Obama appointees engaged in the latter. Full stop.

Conspiracy theory-spouting pundits also assert - again, without an iota of evidence - that Obama's team leaked sensitive information about Flynn to the media as part of a broader plot to damage Trump.

Some context is in order. In late 2016, then-President Obama slapped aggressive sanctions on Moscow in retaliation for Russia's sweeping assault on American democracy. Flynn, coordinating with "senior members" of the Trump team, then colluded - in the truest sense of the term - with a high-level Russian government official to undermine U.S. pressure on the Kremlin.

Putin's uncharacteristically tepid reaction to Obama's sanctions - including the expulsion of 35 Russian spies living in the United States - left America's foreign policy, intelligence and law enforcement agencies stunned. After sifting through reams of intelligence, the FBI finally made sense of the normally combative Russian leader's tame response. Thanks to routine, legal surveillance of foreign government officials, the bureau found that Flynn asked Putin, through a Russian ambassador, not to respond to Obama's sanctions.

In other words, Trump cozied up to Vladimir Putin (via Flynn) only months after Russia's brazen attack on the 2016 election.

Two weeks later, the rough outlines of Flynn's (technically illegal) discussions with the Russian ambassador appeared in The Washington Post. Conspiracy-mongering right-wing pundits have seized upon a recently released list of U.S. officials as proof that Obama appointees leaked details of Flynn's collusion with the Russian government to the Post.

The list shows which high-level policymakers requested to "unmask," or reveal, Flynn's identity in conjunction with intelligence reporting. "Unmasking," in short, is a commonly used tool that helps senior U.S. officials put sensitive intelligence products into context. To guard against improper snooping, all requests to reveal the names of U.S. citizens incidentally caught in such reports must be sufficiently justified and approved - as they were during the Obama administration.

We now know that six U.S. government officials requested to unmask Flynn after Dec. 29, 2016, (the date of Flynn's collusive calls with a high-level Russian official) and before Jan. 12, 2017, (the date of the first Washington Post column referring to those calls). But this list of six names does absolutely nothing to further baseless charges by right-wing conspiracy-mongers that Obama appointees leaked details of Flynn's collusive calls to the Post.

Three of the six individuals who unmasked Flynn during this two-week window are career intelligence officials. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper knew of Flynn's calls before his Jan. 7 unmasking request. Then-White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough requested an unmasking on Jan. 5 to put a critical Oval Office briefing that same day into context. And former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power submitted an unmasking request on Jan. 11. But Washington Post reporters knew about Flynn's calls several days before the first column referring to them ran (on Jan. 12). In other words, the unmasking list is utterly worthless to anyone inclined to hold it up as evidence of a fantastical Obama-led plot to undermine Trump by leaking to the media.

Conspiracy theories aside, senior Obama officials like former Vice President Joe Biden had a pressing national security interest in understanding how and why an unnamed U.S. citizen (ultimately revealed to be Flynn) undercut U.S. pressure on the Kremlin after the 2016 election. We can only hope that Trump would be so diligent under similar circumstances.

Contrary to the president's conspiracy-mongering, the Obama administration operated exactly how Americans would have hoped in the wake of an astoundingly brazen - and disastrously successful - psychological operation to subvert American democracy.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.

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