- - Tuesday, May 9, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Spending other people’s money is the favorite pastime in Washington, but taking up the magnifying glass to follow the trail of mischief-makers, real and imagined, is a close second. The trail of Russian collusion, if any, with associates of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election has gone stone cold, but the investigation of the suspected Obama administration spying on the Trump team continues to turn up evidence. The trail is leading uncomfortably close to home.

Determined that no stone remains unturned in the strange case of Michael Flynn and how he was cashiered as President Trump’s National Security Adviser, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday grilled two Obama administration officials, Sally Yates, the former Acting Deputy Attorney General, and James Clapper, the Obama director of National Intelligence. Hours of carefully coached testimony produced Ms. Yates’ telling of her fears that Mr. Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his communication with the Russians, leaving the former general open to blackmail: “The underlying conduct that Gen. Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.”

Plenty of talk about “communication” and even “compromise,” but “collusion”? Not much. In fact, nothing. Democrats have spent the months since the November election searching feverishly for evidence that Mr. Trump’s associates worked hand-in-glove with the Russians to disrupt the election. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, visited CIA headquarters last week for a briefing on the purported connivance. Asked later whether she learned of any evidence of collusion, she replied: “Not at this time.”

The Flynn affair appears to be an intriguing one-off. Of more concern is the suspicion that Obama advisers seized on the collusion theory to justify surveillance of Trump associates. Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice is a central figure in a practice that swept up U.S. citizens communicating with foreign targets of government surveillance. Almost 2,000 such persons were unmasked in 2016 alone, according to a recent National Security Agency report, a sudden increase over the previous year, when 654 persons were unmasked.

The revelation prompted Sen. Rand Paul to tweet on Friday, “I have formally requested from the WH and the Intel Committees info on whether I was surveilled by Obama admin and or the Intel community!” Mr. Paul, like Donald Trump, was a 2016 Republican candidate for the presidency.

Mr. Clapper conceded that he had seen in the course of his duties documents that unmasked Trump associates. But Susan Rice’s chair was empty at the Senate committee hearing because, according to her lawyer, the invitation to testify was simply a “diversionary play” meant to distract from the investigation into Russian interference in the election. Refusing to explain her part in the unmasking doesn’t sit well with the president. “Susan Rice, the former national security adviser to President Obama, is refusing to testify before a Senate subcommittee next week on allegations of unmasking Trump transition officials,” the president tweeted. “Not good!”

The former national security adviser needs to explain the need to spy on thousands of Americans during the election year. If Mr. Paul were indeed one of those unmasked, it would not be unreasonable to wonder whether the Obama administration zeroed in on Republican candidates for no other reason than they took a phone call from overseas.

Facts make better footing than innuendo along the path of discovery. The Russian collusion probe is thus far hitting a dead end, but the Trump team surveillance investigation is full of surprises. Americans are entitled to know who ordered the rash of unmaskings and why. The baying of hounds is getting louder and culprits may soon be cornered.

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