The sacking of Michael Flynn as national security adviser has intensified the frenzy over possible Russian interference in the election. The New York Times published an editorial comparing the Flynn imbroglio to Watergate, expressing “shock and incredulity” that Trump campaign officials were in contact with Russian intelligence officials, demanding a congressional investigation of “whether people at the highest levels of the United States government have aided and abetted the interests of a nation that has tried to thwart American foreign policy since the Cold War.” President Trump, of course, scorns the charges as “a ruse” and “ridiculous.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called an emergency meeting of Democrats to plan how to spotlight the issue.
When Washington heads into one of these feeding frenzies, judgment is often the first casualty. It’s worth remembering what is at stake.
After the election, we learned that the CIA and the FBI — with the more tentative agreement of other intelligence agencies — concluded that Russian intelligence officials ran a covert operation that hacked into and leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, with the purpose of hurting Clinton. Upon reviewing the still-secret report, President Obama, after affirming the results of the election, punished the Russians, expelling 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other restrictions.
To date, the evidence released publicly for this explosive charge — in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Jan. 6 report — is so threadbare that the Times conceded that it “contained no information about how the agencies had collected their data or had come to their conclusions.” Clearly, an independent commission should be created to report on what was done and what should be done to protect against it in the future. It is shameful that Republicans in the Congress have chosen to block this effort.
The sacking of Flynn also raises fundamental concerns.
According to intelligence agency leaks, intercepted conversations between Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Flynn, then the incoming national security adviser for President-elect Trump, suggest that Flynn may have urged the Russians not to overreact to the Obama sanctions. Putin chose not to respond in a traditional tit for tat. According to the leaks, intelligence agencies went to acting attorney general Sally Q.Yates with concerns that Flynn might be subject to Russian blackmail. She took those concerns to Trump. Weeks later, Flynn was fired for misleading Vice President Pence, among others, about the substance of his conversations.
But the Times editorial board and others suggest that mere contact with Russian officials is somehow nefarious, if not criminal — and that to suggest better relations are in the offing with a new president is virtual treason.
This is simply bizarre. Trump spoke positively of Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the campaign, stating he would seek to enlist Russia in the fight against the Islamic State. If Flynn was reassuring the Russian ambassador that Obama’s sanctions wouldn’t dissuade Trump, he was doing what any national security adviser might do for a president-elect.
Flynn is — as anyone reading his writings would discover — unfit to head the National Security Council. But talking to the Russian ambassador or to purported “Russian intelligence officials” about the intentions of the incoming president is hardly subversive.
What should be of concern is the leaking of officially classified and intercepted telephone conversations — in what was clearly a successful effort to target and take out Flynn. That Trump has railed against the intelligence leaks should not discredit this concern. The intelligence community’s use of leaks of secret information to undermine a president constitutionally elected by the American people — no matter how unfit we consider him to be — is an ominous precedent.
Trump’s expressed hope for cooperating with Russia raised significant alarm at high levels of the national security establishment. The exaggerated Russian threat helps justify bloated military budgets and unify increasingly fractious allies. As Robert Hunter, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, recently observed: “Allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election campaign become a tool to limit, if not cripple, President Trump’s attempts to change the downward course of U.S. and Western relations with Russia.”
Sadly, common sense is getting lost in the frenzy. Clinton supporters inflate the importance of the purported Russian hacks to excuse her painful defeat. Democrats see the scandal as a way to undermine Trump.
In the targeting of Trump, too many liberals have joined in fanning a neo-McCarthyite furor, working to discredit those who seek to deescalate U.S.-Russian tensions, and dismissing anyone expressing doubts about the charges of hacking or collusion as a Putin apologist. But, as the Nation has editorialized, “skepticism isn’t treason; instead it’s essential to establishing the truth.”
In fact, better relations with Russia are in our national interest. Cooperation on nuclear proliferation, arms control, terrorism and other issues is vital to our security. Consolidating a zone of peace in Europe cannot happen without Russian engagement. As a leading oil producer, Russia must be part of the global effort to address climate change. Increasingly dangerous steps between two nuclear powers — a Russian spy ship off our coast, near misses of planes over Syria, provocative NATO exercises on the Russian border — could easily spiral out of control.
Foreign interference in U.S. elections is unacceptable. Leaks of secret intelligence to discredit an elected president are bad precedent. We need an independent investigation that reports publicly on what happened and what steps are necessary to protect against both. What we don’t need is a replay of Cold War hysteria that cuts off debate, slanders skeptics and undermines any effort to explore areas of agreement with Russia in our own national interest.
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