After President Trump launched a firestorm with his tweets this weekend about the Obama administration “wiretapping” Trump Tower, officials who served in the Obama administration denied that it had happened.
Well, in a manner of speaking, they denied it. As Rick Moran suggests at PJ Media, FBI Director James Comey’s denial is a little odd. It is couched in the form of a request to the Department of Justice (Comey’s boss) to deny it. Moran postulates the following:
Why didn’t Comey just release the statement of denial himself? He’s a senior Justice Department official and presumably would be in the know about any surveillance warrants issued by intelligence agencies. Perhaps the director believed such a statement would be too self-serving. He would be seen as trying to exonerate himself when it would be more effective if the denial came for the department itself.
It’s an interesting way to look at it. But the end result it still this: Comey hasn’t issued a categorical denial. That’s the full-stop bottom line. Asking DOJ to issue a denial sounds like a denial, of course – but it also sounds like something that would have been better communicated in an interoffice memorandum, rather than via a public statement.
It’s possible that Comey is signaling something different from what Moran suggests: not that a denial from DOJ would be more “effective,” but that DOJ is going to have to deny it on DOJ’s behalf, because Comey can only speak for the FBI, to the extent he is aware of what his agents have been doing. He doesn’t know what people on the DOJ staff have been doing.
Why does that matter, when it comes to “wiretapping”? We’ll get to that in a moment.
Meanwhile, James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, issued a specific – and narrow – denial:
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC this morning that as far as his agencies, “there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the president, the president-elect at the time, or as a candidate, or against his campaign.”
Asked if there was a FISA order to monitor Trump Tower, Clapper replied, “Not to my knowledge.”
“I can’t speak for other authorized entities in the government or a state or local entity,” he added.
The narrowness here lies not in Clapper’s caveat that he’s not speaking for other agencies, but in his statement that there was no wiretap activity against Trump, his campaign, or Trump Tower.
That matters for the same reason that Comey’s interesting appeal to DOJ matters. But perhaps it’s not the reason you imagine.
It’s quite possible that the Obama administration sought to obtain “wiretap”-quality intelligence on Trump and his staffers by a method no one has mentioned yet. The method existed the entire time – throughout 2016 – but did not depend on a FISA warrant to authorize the FBI or NSA to target the Trump campaign or Trump Tower for collection.
I emphasize those words because they’re the ones that matter. Everyone writing about this in the mainstream media is focused on whether the FBI was targeting Trump/Trump Tower for collection (i.e., literal wiretapping or other focused collection against emails, etc.) under a FISA warrant. It has been extensively reported that the FBI sought such warrants, for collateral purposes relating to two Russian banks, in June and October of 2016. The first request was denied, but the FISA court granted the request in October.
When Comey seems to deny that the FBI wiretapped Trump Tower or the campaign, that’s what people have in their minds. So it sounds like someone is not being straight with us. Was there, or was there not, collection against Trump-related communications in Trump Tower? If there was, under the FISA warrant reportedly issued in October, why the coy evasions now?
The “back door” to collecting against the Trump campaign
But there’s another possibility, and in my view, it’s a more likely one. It fits all the facts, just for starters. It’s this: NSA doesn’t need a FISA warrant to target the Russian banks – or any other foreign entity connected with those banks, or doing business in Trump Tower.