- - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

News is not called news for nothing. Terror attacks, cruise missile strikes, nuclear provocation — it all adds up to the headlines of today burying the headlines of yesterday. That’s why it’s essential to circle back to one story that must not be forgotten, the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Inquiring minds want to know whether the political mischief, if any, was cause or effect.

The inquiry into Russian collusion is moving on dual tracks of investigation. The first is the intelligence agencies’ probe of Donald Trump’s campaign and transition teams to see whether they colluded with Russian agents to win the election. Second is the congressional investigation into whether the Obama administration conspired to undermine the incoming Trump administration.

Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are looking into suspicions that Gen. Michael Flynn, the president’s first national-security adviser, violated federal law by failing to disclose tens of thousands of dollars in payments from Russian companies, and hundreds of thousands of dollars from Turkey, when he was being vetted for the White House job. “Personally, I see no evidence or no data to support the notion that Gen. Flynn complied with the law,” says Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, after reviewing classified documents with fellow lawmakers.

It was apparently the general’s activities that initially spooked the Obama administration. Like a creaking door heard in the dead of night, every sound aroused suspicion. The FBI used the contents of a dossier with unsubstantiated assertions, assembled by a retired British intelligence agent, to obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant, to spy on Carter Page, a onetime adviser to Mr. Trump. With that, the legal barrier to spying on the candidate’s associates was breached, and the line was blurred between legitimate surveillance and dirty tricks.

Mr. Page has not vanished into the shadows. He appeared last week on CNN to censure the use of a “dodgy” dossier as the basis of government spying, and to defend his conduct during the presidential campaign: “Nothing I ever talked about with any Russian official extends beyond that publicly available immaterial information.”

Allegations have further surfaced that Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, ordered the “unmasking” of Gen. Flynn’s name in transcripts of tapped telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador. The general’s identity was leaked to reporters, setting off an uproar that cost him his new job as Ms. Rice’s successor. Whether the unmasking was legitimate is open to debate, but it gave a probe into Russian influence the look of an attempt to spy on political opponents.

Leaking the unmasking to the press was a meant to undermine the legitimacy of the new administration.

The second line of inquiry is looking into surveillance authority. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes learned that unmasking of Trump associates was widespread and included members of President Trump’s family. Disclosing these revelations subjects Chairman Nunes to accusations of intelligence violations.

There’s more than passing suspicion that Obama associates used the FISA warrant to leverage an intelligence investigation into a remarkably partisan attack on the Trump administration. The public-interest Landmark Legal Foundation on Thursday asked the FISA court to “direct a full investigation into the leaking of surveillance activity conducted in accordance with the rulings of this court.” Judges, even secret judges, should account for mischief they unleash.

Gen. Flynn’s affairs may have been unwise and perhaps unintentionally unlawful, but does not automatically make him a threat to the republic. Improper government snoopery exposed in the process, however, might very well be.

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