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John Bolton’s ‘false flag’ conspiracy theory about the CIA and Russia fits a clear pattern for him

Here’s what you need to know about John Bolton. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)

Update: Bolton has clarified his position in an interview with Fox News: “There are reports out that I said on Fox yesterday that I thought that the Obama administration had conducted the hack into the RNC and the DNC. It’s typical bad reporting. I’ve never believed that. I didn’t believe that yesterday. I don’t believe it today. What I do think the administration has done consistently for eight years is politicize intelligence."

This post never said Bolton accused the Obama administration of conducting the hack, though it does note that Bolton left open the idea that the administration could be involved in the alleged "false flag." In the interest of transparency, here's the relevant passage from Sunday:

ERIC SHAWN: But when you say false flag, that is a very serious charge. False flag by whom? Here’s The Washington Post -- The Post reported the CIA has concluded that individuals with close ties to the Russian government hacked the emails. Intelligence officials have determined that Russia’s goal was to help Trump win, rather than simply undermine confidence in the election. Are you actually accusing someone here in the administration or in the intelligence community of trying to throw something?
BOLTON: We just don't know. But I believe that the intelligence has been politicized in the Obama administration to a very significant degree.

The original post follows.

John Bolton, who is reportedly in line to be President-elect Donald Trump's pick for deputy secretary of state, suggested Sunday that the CIA's conclusion that Russia intervened to help Trump in the 2016 election could be a “false flag,” possibly implicating the Obama administration.

Bolton questioned why Russia would leave evidence of its hacks and left open the idea that the Obama administration could have politicized the matter.

“The question that has to be asked is, why did the Russians run their smart intelligence service against Hillary’s server but their dumb intelligence services against the election?” said Bolton, who is reportedly in line to be Trump's No. 2 in the State Department under Rex Tillerson.

The idea of a “false flag” is popular among conspiracy theorists. Essentially, it means a covert operation that is conducted in a way that points to the wrong culprit.

This is actually well-worn territory for Bolton. For as much attention as Trump's national security adviser, retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, has received in recent days for fomenting conspiracy theories, Bolton has gone down this road too — even questioning the motives of intelligence disclosures in much the same way he is doing today.

Back in 2007, Bolton alleged that intelligence agencies were trying to influence the political debate by concluding that Iran had halted its nuclear arms program four years prior.

This is politics disguised as intelligence,” the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bolton told Germany's Der Spiegel. He labeled it a “quasi-putsch” — using a German word that means to attempt to overthrow a government by force.

At the time, the National Intelligence Estimate contradicted what the Bush administration had been saying about Iran continuing to pursue nuclear weapons. Bolton would later allege that the NIE was part of the “illegitimate politicization” of intelligence.

“I know the people who wrote this intelligence estimate,” Bolton said in early 2008, according to the Jerusalem Post. “They are not from our intelligence community. They're from our State Department. It was a highly politicized document written by people who had a very clear policy objective.”

Bolton has also given voice to conspiracy theories that have become more familiar over the years and especially in recent months, involving Muslims and Hillary Clinton's health.

Back in 2012, when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was raising the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood having potentially infiltrated the American government, Bolton said during an appearance on the Frank Gaffney show — hosted by a controversial figure in his own right for his comments about Muslims — that it was a legitimate line of inquiry:

What I think these members of Congress have done is simply raise the question, to a variety of inspectors general in key agencies, are your departments following their own security clearance guidelines, are they adhering to the standards that presumably everybody who seeks a security clearance should have to go through, are they making special exemptions? What is wrong with raising the question? Why is even asking whether we are living up to our standards — a legitimate area of congressional oversight — why has that generated this criticism? I’m just mystified by it.

Bachmann, in particular, had pointed to top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin's alleged familial ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. She was roundly denounced for it by top GOP lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) and then-House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), as well as Bachmann's 2012 presidential campaign manager. The State Department called Bachmann's accusations “vicious and disgusting lies.”

Later that year, Bolton seemed to suggest that Clinton might have faked an illness in order to avoid testifying before Congress about Benghazi. Clinton's office had disclosed at the time that she fainted and suffered a concussion because of dehydration. Bolton said on Fox News:

You know, every foreign service officer in every foreign ministry in the world knows the phrase I am about to use. When you don't want to go to a meeting or conference or an event you have a “diplomatic illness.” And this is a diplomatic illness to beat the band. 

Clinton was later hospitalized and prescribed blood thinners. The episode seeded what became a cottage industry of conspiracy theories about Clinton's health during the 2016 campaign.

For months, Donald Trump's position on the hack has been that he can't hold Russia responsible because there isn't enough evidence that they're to blame. Bolton seems to have a problem with the evidence too — albeit a much different one: He won't point the finger at Russia either ... because there's too much proof.