Joseph Fitsanakis: Trump’s Astonishing Wiretapping Claims Deepen Volatility Of US Politics
The absurdity of American politics reached new heights over the weekend, as President Donald Trump dramatically alleged on Twitter that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped his telephones last year. Even for a highly impulsive public figure known for his sensational and often-unsubstantiated allegations, Mr. Trump’s latest claims prompted a new sense of abnormality and astonishment in Washington. If the president is unable to prove his dramatic claims, his reliability will be further-eroded, and what little is left of his relationship with the American intelligence and national-security communities will disintegrate. If his allegations are proven, they will cause a scandal of unprecedented proportions from which American political institutions —including the presidency— will find it difficult to recover.
Mr. Trump appears to claim that Mr. Obama personally instructed the machinery of government to intercept the telecommunications of his campaign in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. But experts —including the present author, whose PhD focuses on government-sponsored wiretapping— correctly note that, barring a complete and systematic breakdown of law and order at the highest levels of the American government, Mr. Trump’s claims cannot possibly be true. American presidents have not been legally allowed to order wiretaps since 1978, when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was established. Prompted by the abuse of executive power revealed through the Watergate scandal, FISA forces government agencies to seek the approval of specially mandated judges before installing wiretaps. If an agency like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wants to wiretap an individual or group suspected of acting as agents of a foreign power, it must convince one of 11 federal district judges who rotate on the FISA court that the case warrants a wiretap order. Thus, before authorizing the wiretap, a FISA judge must be convinced by examining the available evidence presented before him or her.
Usually FISA counterintelligence cases involve foreign subjects who are suspected of operating in the US as unregistered agents of a foreign power —that is, spies or handlers of spies. However, if the case proposed by the FBI involves the targeting of American citizens’ communications, then the application for a wiretap must be personally reviewed by the US attorney general. Only if the attorney general approves the application does it get sent to a FISA judge. That is precisely why President Trump’s allegation is so explosive: if Mr. Obama personally directed a law enforcement or intelligence agency to wiretap the Trump campaign’s telecommunications, it would mean that a US president deliberately violated FISA regulations and kept the Department of Justice in the dark while wiretapping the telecommunications of American citizens. Alternatively, it could be the case that the attorney general and a FISA judge both approved a request to wiretap the Trump campaign’s telecommunications. But if that is the case, it would mean that both the Department of Justice and the FISA court were privy to overwhelmingly convincing evidence that Mr. Trump or some of his collaborators were acting as agents of influence, or even unregistered agents, of a foreign power. The third option is that Mr. Trump’s allegations are baseless, which would mean that an American President has wrongfully accused his predecessor of deliberately breaking the law in an unprecedented fashion. None of these potentialities are easy to fathom or lightly dismiss.
It is important to note here that this latest uproar is connected to the central issue that has rocked the Trump administration from its very first day in office —namely the alleged collusion between the president’s team and the Russian government. This matter has already prompted the dramatic resignation of Mr. Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. It may eventually result in the resignation of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who last week said that he would recuse himself from any probes into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. These developments appear to mirror the progress of ongoing counterintelligence investigations into the activities of Mr. Trump and his deputies. The existence of these probes has been rumored since January of this year. On January 11, the London-based broadsheet The Guardian alleged that last October a FISA judge did approve a wiretap request that involved members of Mr. Trump’s election campaign. Another British source, the BBC, repeated these claims on January 12, citing unnamed intelligence sources. And on January 18, the US-based McClatchy news agency claimed that six different American intelligence agencies, including the FBI, were simultaneously probing alleged Russian covert assistance to the Trump election team. When adding to the mix an inquisitive press, which consciously seeks to fight back against what it perceives as Mr. Trump’s dismissive behavior against it, it becomes clear that a massive storm is about to engulf American politics.
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Ultimately, the simplest way for Mr. Trump to substantiate his astonishing claims is to order that the alleged FISA warrant, as well as the data resulting from the alleged wiretaps against him and his aides, be declassified. As president of the US, he can be privy to any and all information he chooses to inquire about, regardless of its classification level. If he refuses to declassify the information, then he will inevitably come across as hiding crucial evidence from the court of public opinion. No matter what happens next, it is undeniable that political life in America has entered its most volatile and unpredictable state since the mid-1970s. With every day that passes, and every tweet that Mr. Trump issues, the consequences of this volatile state of affairs for the US and for the world are becoming increasingly difficult to calculate.
Joseph Fitsanakis is Senior editor IntelNews