- - Monday, February 20, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington is aflame with speculation over who is responsible for the spy-versus-spy mischief that led to cashiering Michael Flynn, the president’s national-security adviser. The president appointed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his successor Monday, but the controversy over the Flynn episode will not go away.

President Trump’s critics put the blame on Russian spies trying to influence the U.S. presidential election. The charge has dimmed the esprit de corp of the new administration, but the revelation that the U.S. intelligence community is neck-deep in political shenanigans may be the longest-lasting effects of the episode. Now that the cat is out of the bag, no stone should be left unturned in getting to the bottom of the scandal and bringing the culprits to justice. (Choose your own clichs.)

As WikiLeaks dumps of Clinton campaign and Democratic Party emails roiled the election campaign and put the suspicion on the Russians, the Obama Justice Department, it turns out, sought and obtained Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court permission in October to conduct surveillance on former advisers to Mr. Trump. It’s not clear whether members of the Trump transition team were put under surveillance as well. Judicial Watch has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to any surveillance ordered by the dying Obama administration.

Mr. Flynn’s telephone calls to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak obviously were not tapped at random. If U.S. spies were targeting Mr. Flynn, it would be hard to avoid the suspicion that Mr. Obama or his aides, or both, were engaging in a form of post-election opposition research with which to tarnish the new administration. Indeed, The New York Times’ account of how the intelligence investigations entangled Mr. Flynn, writes Andrew McCarthy, a onetime federal prosecutor, in National Review, “suggests an unseemly conjoining of investigative power to partisan politics.”

If the wiretap was not targeting Mr. Flynn but was simply routine surveillance of a foreign agent, the exposure is acutely embarrassing and damaging to U.S. intelligence operations. And the identification of Mr. Flynn as a party to the telephone calls is a violation of regulations that protect the privacy of all Americans. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have written to Justice Department Inspector Gen. Michael Horowitz requesting “an immediate investigation into whether classified information was mishandled here.”

Tracking down the offender won’t be easy, thanks to a parting gift from Mr. Obama. Before leaving office, he authorized the National Security Agency to begin sharing its telephone intercepts with its 16 fellow intelligence agencies. The ranks of potential leakers expanded briskly, which might have been the intended effect. There is no evidence that Mr. Flynn’s telephone calls constituted any collusion with the Russians, as The New York Times has conceded. There is, however, suspicion that U.S. intelligence agents broke the law, either in spying on Mr. Flynn or in leaking his telephone recordings to the abundant reporters in the opposition press.

The only way to prevent future intelligence fiascoes is to get to the bottom of this one. Democrats reveling in the White House’s discomfort with the affair are determined to send the posse in the wrong direction. Senate Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer has called on federal investigators to question Mr. Trump’s campaign staff, transition team, members of his new administration, and even the president himself.

The real scandal may not be Mr. Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador, but the exposure of shadowy spooks engaged in political dirty tricks. If the plot was indeed hatched during the final months of the Obama administration, the nation deserves to know it, and to know how high the guilt reaches.

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