Kushner's proposal for secret communications with Russia alarms former intelligence officials; right-wing media shrug

Kushner's proposal for secret communications with Russia alarms former intelligence officials; right-wing media shrug

Former acting CIA director on Kushner’s “bizarre” conduct: “It’s a proposed secret channel through the government that is probably the most active government in the world in carrying out espionage against the United States”

››› ››› TIMOTHY JOHNSON

While former national security and intelligence officials expressed alarm over reports that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner proposed using Russian diplomatic facilities to set up a secret communications channel with the Kremlin during the presidential transition period, conservative media figures attempted to downplay the major news story by drawing inaccurate comparisons to back-channel situations from previous administrations.

Kushner reportedly proposed secret Kremlin communications channel using Russian diplomatic equipment

Wash. Post: During transition, Kushner sought to use Russian diplomatic facilities to set up secret communications channel with Kremlin. The Washington Post reported that “Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports”:

Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports.

Ambassador Sergey Kislyak reported to his superiors in Moscow that Kushner, son-in-law and confidant to then-President-elect Trump, made the proposal during a meeting on Dec. 1 or 2 at Trump Tower, according to intercepts of Russian communications that were reviewed by U.S. officials. Kislyak said Kushner suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications.

The meeting also was attended by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.

The White House disclosed the meeting only in March, playing down its significance. But people familiar with the matter say the FBI now considers the encounter, as well as another meeting Kushner had with a Russian banker, to be of investigative interest.

Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team. [The Washington Post, 5/26/17]

Reuters subsequently reported this interaction with the Russian ambassador was not disclosed on security clearance forms. [Reuters, 5/27/17]

Former intelligence and national security officials expressed astonishment at Kushner’s conduct, some saying it is potentially illegal

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden: “What manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or an appropriate idea?” Michael Hayden, who served in the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations and has headed the National Security Agency and the CIA, savaged Kushner’s proposal. From the May 27 edition of CNN’s Smerconish:

MICHAEL SMERCONISH (HOST): General Hayden, is this nefarious or is this naivete?

MICHAEL HAYDEN: Well, Michael, right now I’m going with naivete and that’s not particularly very comforting for me. I mean, what manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or an appropriate idea? So again, naivete out, doesn’t make me feel good about many things. [CNN, Smerconish, 5/27/17]

Former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin: “I can’t keep out of my mind the thought that if an American intelligence officer had done anything like this, we’d consider it espionage.” John McLaughlin, who was an acting CIA director during the George W. Bush administration, called Kushner’s reported conduct “bizarre in the sense that it’s a proposed secret channel through the government that is probably the most active government in the world in carrying out espionage against the United States” and suggested that if an intelligence officer took similar actions, the intelligence community would consider it an act of espionage. From the May 26 edition of MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell:

LAWRENCE O’DONNELL (HOST): John McLaughlin, you worked in the CIA, you come across say an intercepted Russian communication, which seems to be the source of this, what would be the internal CIA reaction to intercepting this communication from the Russian ambassador indicating that Jared Kushner wanted to set up this secret communication?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Well, Lawrence, if that’s what it was, the first reaction would be, “Is this a prank?” It would be kind of disbelief because it’s not the sort of thing that you would expect to happen in a normal transition. So oddly for me, I was thinking about it tonight, I see all of this through the eyes of an intelligence officer of course, and it’s simultaneously familiar and bizarre. Familiar in the sense that I know secret channels, used them all my life. Bizarre in the sense that it’s a proposed secret channel through the government that is probably the most active government in the world in carrying out espionage against the United States.

[...]

MCLAUGHLIN: I can’t keep out of my mind the thought that if an American intelligence officer had done anything like this, we’d consider it espionage. [MSNBC, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, 5/26/17]

Former CIA Chief of Staff Jeremy Bash: “It’s very concerning that they wanted to have these communications at Russian diplomatic facilities using Russian phone lines. That shows that they were really trying to conceal this from the Obama administration, and from U.S. intelligence.” [NBC, Meet the Press, 5/28/17]

Former naval intelligence official Malcolm Nance: If reporting is accurate, Kushner’s activity “is indicative of espionage activity of an American citizen that is working in league with a hostile government.” Malcolm Nance, who is now a terrorism analyst for MSNBC, also said that “even a fraction” of Kushner’s conduct would cause someone with a security clearance to lose it. From the May 26 edition of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes:

MALCOLM NANCE: There’s thousands of people who are out there who are on duty right now watching this who have top secret SCI, special access program clearance, knowing that in one instance, even a fraction of this, would lose their clearances, will have to ask themselves the question that they would ask in any counterintelligence environment. And that is simply this: Why? What is the motivational device that Jared Kushner, should this story be true, because we don’t know if it’s entirely true, we don’t even know what the source of this was. The Russians themselves could have leaked this story in order to create chaos. But why would he want to hide -- covert -- his communications from the U.S. government, believing that he would want to be able to use a facility obviously that would have more secure communications, to create a back-channel that U.S. cryptologic collection couldn’t get. That right there alone is covert communications, that is indicative of espionage activity of an American citizen that is working in league with a hostile government. And right now there is no FBI counterintelligence officer in the world right now that does not believe that, if this story is true. [MSNBC, All In with Chris Hayes, 5/26/17]

Politico: Former national security officials call Kushner’s conduct “not only highly improper but also possibly even illegal.” Former officials criticized Kushner on several grounds while noting “that while presidents often set up back-channel communications with various countries, it’s neither wise nor normal for a president-elect to set up such continuing contact before the inauguration, despite likely pressure from foreign countries”:

Jared Kushner’s alleged discussions with Russia’s ambassador about potentially establishing back-channel communications during the transition would have been viewed as not only highly improper but also possibly even illegal, according to former national security officials.

[...]

“We have back-channel communications with a number of countries,” Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, told American reporters traveling with Trump at the G-7 summit in Sicily. “What that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner, so I’m not concerned.”

Former national security officials who spoke with POLITICO on Saturday were not so dismissive.

Many said that while presidents often set up back-channel communications with various countries, it’s neither wise nor normal for a president-elect to set up such continuing contact before the inauguration, despite likely pressure from foreign countries.

Also, the idea of using the equipment of a foreign country, especially an adversary such as Russia, would be acutely alarming.

[...]

National security officials who worked in the administration of President Barack Obama were particularly concerned by the reports, which suggest Trump’s aides were trying to avoid having Obama officials overhear their conversations with the Russians.

“What could the Trump transition team not have the U.S. government hear them saying?” said Ned Price, a former CIA officer and National Security Council spokesman in the Obama administration. “Obviously, this is improper and may have been illegal. … You don’t have an innocuous explanation for this. You can’t attribute this to carelessness.”

Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Obama administration, said: “The fact that they would want to hide it not just from the U.S. public but the U.S. government is unusual, and then they would want to embed the channel inside the Russian intelligence apparatus, if true, is entirely shocking and unprecedented. It’s beyond improper.” [Politico, 5/27/17]

Conservative media downplayed the highly unusual conduct Kushner was reportedly engaged in, portraying it as opening “back-channel” communications like other administrations have done

Breitbart.com downplays report with false parallel to the Obama administration. Ignoring the fact that this was reportedly attempted during the transition period and not during the Trump administration, Breitbart.com’s Joel Pollak wrote, “There is nothing wrong or illegal about using diplomatic back channels” while baselessly suggesting that Kushner’s attempt exonerated the Trump campaign from allegations of collusion with the Russians during the election:

The irony is that the information tends to exonerate Kushner, and the Trump presidential campaign, of collusion with Russia during the 2016 elections. If Trump had been colluding with Russia already, no “back channel” would have been necessary. And the persistent, illegal leaks from U.S. intelligence officials show exactly why such a “back channel” would be entirely justified.

The president now has to evade spying by his own government.

There is nothing wrong or illegal about using diplomatic back channels. President Barack Obama used them all the time — often to dubious effect — to communicate with enemy nations like Iran. Trump was well within his rights to seek ways to communicate with Russia, with whom the young administration has had a hot-and-cold relationship. [Breitbart.com, 5/26/17]

Gateway Pundit: Kushner was just “doing his job.” Gateway Pundit, a disreputable right-wing website that frequently publishes hoaxes and other false information, wrote that the revelation Kushner attempted to set up secret communications with Russia were part of “unhinged liberal attacks on the Trump administration” and claimed that “Deep State leaked this information after listening in on more Trump transition team phone calls and spying on meetings”:

The unhinged liberal attacks on the Trump administration got personal on Friday when leaked Deep State documents alleged that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner spoke with the Russians in December.

Jared Kushner is a trusted Trump confidante and member of his inner circle. Jared is married to Ivanka Trump.

Kushner met with Russian officials briefly in December as part of his role in the transition and as a diplomatic conduit to the State Department.

Deep State leaked this information after listening in on more Trump transition team phone calls and spying on meetings.

Democrats called for Jared Kushner to be fired in their ongoing Russia conspiracy meltdown. [Gateway Pundit, 5/27/17]

CNN’s Rick Santorum: Kushner’s actions were “not inappropriate at all” and “for him to have a back channel doesn’t bother me in the least.” Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator and current CNN commentator, ignored the context in which this secret communications channell was reportedly attempted in order to downplay the significance of Kushner’s entreaties to the Russians:

DANA BASH (HOST): That was Donald Trump in February praising his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Kushner is now the focus, a focus, I should say, of the FBI’s investigation for his contacts with Russia during the transition. ...  Does this trouble you?

RICK SANTORUM: Not at all to be very honest with you.

BASH: It doesn’t trouble you, of course.

SANTORUM: Absolutely not. Look, Jared Kushner was involved in the campaign on policy, was involved afterwards in the transition, and to me it’s not inappropriate at all for him to be talking to people about -- at least the substance of what I’ve heard about, we don’t know this to be true, was, “Hey, will the Russians back away from Iran?” That’s a good thing to be talking to Russia about.

BASH: But with a back-channel? I mean to ask if he can have a communications channel directly to Moscow with a member of the presidential transition?

SANTORUM: Transition team. Yeah. Look, there are all sorts of back-channels that are established in lots of different capacities, and he’s clearly a very close confidant of the president and for him to have a back channel doesn’t bother me in the least. [CNN, State of the Union, 5/28/17]

Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel: “Back-channels are completely normal, they happen all the time.” From the May 28 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press:

KIMBERLEY STRASSEL: Back-channels are completely normal, they happen all the time. Reagan did them, Obama did them, everyone did. So I am not quite sure why supposedly having -- at least the president is now elected, setting up a back-channel with the Russians, is somehow out of balance. [NBC, Meet the Press, 5/28/17]

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