Kellyanne Conway took a lot of heat some weeks back for suggesting that there could be “alternative facts” in political discourse, and no doubt she deserved it. But now we seem to have alternative news outlets giving starkly alternative interpretations of the facts, which seems pretty similar to alternative facts. The journalistic equivalent of Ms. Conway’s unfortunate digression can be seen in Tuesday’s New York Times and its handling of a highly significant Bloomberg View article about the mishandling of intelligence information in the Obama White House.
Bloomberg reporter Eli Lake revealed that White House lawyers learned last month that “on dozens of occasions” Susan Rice, President Obama’s national-security adviser, sought the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports. It turns out that these persons were connected to Donald Trump’s campaign and transition effort.
We have all learned in recent weeks that the names of American citizens can be pulled into intelligence-gathering operations involving foreigners—say, for example, when foreign officials are discussing Trump operatives or when foreign officials are actually conversing with Trump team members. But the identities of U.S. citizens typically are “masked” so they aren’t known outside closely controlled intelligence circles.
But Rice repeatedly asked for, and was granted, the identity of at least one Trump official, to be pieced together with information on what he had been doing. Lake quoted one unidentified U.S. official as saying this was “valuable political information on the Trump transition such as whom the Trump team was meeting, the views of Trump associates in foreign policy matters and plans for the incoming administration.”
In other words, this had all the markings of political espionage—an effort to find out, through misuse of intelligence-gathering methods, what the opposition was doing and planning. Lake leaves no doubt that this isn’t how things normally are supposed to be done in our government. “Indeed,” he writes, “much about this is highly unusual: if not how the surveillance was collected, then certainly how and why it was disseminated.”
And how does the New York Times play it? It plays it down, way down.
The headline reveals the “alternative facts” sensibility of the paper: “Trump tries to deflect scrutiny on Russia, citing a ‘crooked scheme’ by Obama.”
In other words, the Times sees no significance in what Susan Rice did except insofar as it unleashed another unconscionable and flimsy screed from the president. The paper suggests that the president’s “broadside” accompanied reports “in conservative media” (the alternative media, as the Times apparently views it) about Rice’s activities. The Times lead makes clear that the reporters, Peter Baker and Matthew Rosenberg, will not under any foreseeable circumstances take seriously the questions raised by Bloomberg.
“President Donald Trump,” they write, “sought to turn attention away from the Russia investigation Monday, saying that ‘the real story’ was what he called a ‘crooked scheme against us’ by President Barack Obama’s team to mine U.S. intelligence reports for information about him during last year’s presidential campaign.”
The reporters then inform us that they talked to former national-security officials (presumably Obama people) “who spoke on the condition of anonymity” and described the Rice requests as “normal and justified.” The reporters then helpfully explain, “The process of ‘unmasking’ Americans whose names are redacted in intelligence reports, they said, is not the same thing as leaking them publicly.”
A good thing, too, because leaking them publicly would be illegal. But the Times itself has reported that Obama issued an executive order allowing for much greater distribution of intelligence reports within the national-security apparatus, thus rendering them more likely to be leaked. And the Times also reported that Obama administration officials, in the last days of their tenure, scrambled to ensure that raw intelligence information, which is closely held, was processed into reports that could be more freely disseminated.
The aim, according to the Times, was to ensure that Trump officials couldn’t take control of that information and thus prevent disclosure of evidence related to possible Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election—or worse, cover up proof of collusion between the Trump team and Russia. The Times reported all this breathlessly, giving rise to inevitable suspicions on the part of discerning readers that surely the Times was on to a big story.
But no proof of any such collusion has emerged, which isn’t say it didn’t happen but does suggest perhaps a more measured approach by the Times might be in order.
On the other hand, it now has become difficult to ignore this evidence that at least some Obama officials did in fact collect political information on the opposition Trump team. The Wall Street Journal editorial page reports a source’s revelation that Rice “also examined dozens of other intelligence summaries that technically masked Trump official identities but were written in such a way as to make obvious who those officials were.” Thus, says the Journal, the masking was “meaningless.”
In a particularly telling revelation, the Journal also says its source said that “none of these documents had anything to do with Russia or the FBI investigations into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.” That removes the cover that the Obama people were simply trying to protect the country from that apparent collusion.
The Journal, which has not been particularly favorable to Trump since his emergence in last year’s presidential campaign, says the news about Rice’s unmaking role “raises a host of questions” for the congressional intelligence committees as they pursue their investigations into the questions surround possible Russian activities and political surveillance. For example: “What specific surveillance information did Ms. Rice seek and why? Was this information related to President Obama’s decision in January to make it possible for raw intelligence to be widely disbursed throughout the government? Was this surveillance of Trump officials ‘incidental’ collection gathered while listening to a foreigner, or were some Trump officials directly targeted, or ‘reverse targeted’?”
Good questions, all. But don’t expect the New York Times to answer them, let alone ask them. The folks there are chasing alternative facts.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, DC, journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, is due out from Simon & Schuster in September.