President Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

When Gen. Michael Hayden visited a secret intelligence facility in the United States a decade ago while he was CIA director, the staff gave him a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Admit Nothing. Deny Everything. Make Counter Accusations.”

That motto is much-beloved by covert operators. It also seems to be President Trump’s rubric for responding to the FBI investigation of whether any members of his campaign team cooperated with Russian hackers. Maybe it’s becoming our national slogan.

There are now competing narratives for any issue that touches Russia or intelligence. And every day brings a new set of improbable facts: a cloak-and-dagger visit to the White House by a congressman who’s supposedly leading an investigation of the president; a secret meeting in the Seychelles islands between the founder of Blackwater and a Russian emissary.

Good grief! The cascade of news is dizzying. It’s like living inside a tumbling washer-dryer.

Let’s unpack some of these Russia intelligence puzzles, starting with Trump’s allegation of improper surveillance. He spent months insisting that the Russia affair was a “hoax” and “fake news.” But the FBI probe rolled on. Now Trump is arguing that the real scandal is that the Obama White House spied on his team during the transition and “unmasked” their identities to leak damaging information.

(Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Trump’s claims about surveillance deserve a review by the House and Senate intelligence committees, which oversee compliance with the legal rules governing disclosure of the names of Americans swept up in legal intercepts of foreign officials. But it shouldn’t distract the country (much less the FBI) from the larger problem of how Russian intelligence hacked our political system last year, and whether Moscow had any help from Trump’s associates.

Intelligence officers describe efforts to shift attention as “deflection,” or “misdirection.” Magicians use similar techniques to draw viewers’ eyes toward “a bright shiny object” and away from the concealed trick, says John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA and an accomplished amateur magician. He notes different variations of this distract-the-audience approach — a “shell game,” where the magician hides a ball beneath rapidly moving cups, or “second-dealing,” where the magician pretends to deal himself the top card but really takes the second one.

McLaughlin recalls moments in intelligence history when this process of misdirection was all too successful. In 1962, the Soviets distributed cold-weather parkas to missile crews heading to Cuba; they packed the missiles on ships so that they would look from overhead like vehicles; they stayed off the radio to avoid any signals that could be intercepted. In 1968, the Soviets obscured their invasion of Czechoslovakia by making it look like a military exercise. Deception works.

Part of what we’re watching these days is the turmoil of a presidential transition — with a new chief executive who’s inexperienced and thin-skinned and likes to counterpunch (even when it’s counterproductive). In Trump world, every channel becomes a back channel, and anything that touches Russia and Trump becomes radioactive.

The Trump effect was clear in The Post’s scoop about a Jan. 11 meeting in the Seychelles between a prominent Russian and Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a Trump campaign contributor. The Russian was visiting the island resort at the invitation of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the military leader of the United Arab Emirates. MBZ, as he’s known, was interested in encouraging Russia to move away from Iran; Prince apparently hoped to promote quiet contact between Moscow and the new administration.

This would probably be a nothingburger, if the FBI’s investigation hadn’t focused attention on any intersection between Trump and Russia. MBZ has been pursuing better relations with Russia for a dozen years, bringing together Russians, Arabs and prominent Americans from both parties. The Trump administration, similarly, has advertised its interest in better relations. But the overlay of Russian intelligence operations makes ordinary events seem suspect.

Trump’s entourage began looking to open contacts with Russia many months before the election. Some of these feelers may have been innocent attempts to explore diplomatic options for the new administration. Others may have been inappropriate, or even illegal, undermining U.S. policy and perhaps seeking to aid Trump’s election. That’s why we’re lucky that an FBI investigation is underway — to sort out what was appropriate from what wasn’t.

The Russia investigation has become a hammer. That’s a good thing in most ways. But it doesn’t mean that everything marked “Russia” is a nail.

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