Will the House’s probe into the illegal disclosure of Michael Flynn’s identity to the Washington Post, reportedly made by a U.S. intelligence official in January, ever amount to anything?
It might, if the chairman and ranking member of the Intelligence Committee get a straight answer to the question they posed today to the most senior officials in U.S. intelligence.
The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee asked the three leaders of the intelligence community Wednesday about any time during the last seven months of the Obama administration whenever any of its agents and officials improperly named, or “unmasked,” and disseminated the identities of American citizens picked up in intelligence collection.
That’s the right question. It’s the right question not just about the Michael Flynn kerfuffle, but about the “wiretapping Trump” kerfuffle. It’s the key to the whole mess – and has been all along, as I laid out in posts on 23 February and 6 March.
It’s been out there since the beginning, but people who don’t have expertise in the field haven’t generally understood it. “Unmasking” and disseminating the identities of American citizens (in legal language, “U.S. persons”) who are picked up incidentally in routine surveillance against authorized targets has been the obvious source of the intel leaked on Flynn. It’s also the obvious method by which Trump Tower was “wiretapped.”
Literal wiretaps probably weren’t used in any of the relevant cases. Wiretapping is old-school technology. It is still sometimes used, just not very often now, as compared to the constant monitoring of digital communications. Today, digital communications data is recorded in bulk, and searched later for the targets that become interesting to intelligence or law enforcement, for one reason or another. That includes voice data (“phone calls”), as well as text-based data of various kinds.
When FISA warrants were sought against Trump-connected communications twice in 2016 – and I pointed this out in the earlier posts – they would have been warrants to retrieve data from the store of it that is constantly recorded. We can be sure the data is constantly recorded on Trump Tower, in particular, because there are targets of national security interest with space leased there. Those targets include the two Russian banks mentioned in the June 2016 warrant application (see my 6 March post).
We have known for some years now that this kind of surveillance is going on. The formal methods and rules have shifted, but the effect remains basically the same. National security has given NSA carte blanche to record every digital signal that passes through a hub anywhere in the world, including the United States. NSA doesn’t have to tap anyone’s phone specifically. The collection is done at the multiplexing hubs maintained by the telecom industry.
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