Tucker Carlson’s Dangerous Game

Having written about Sean Hannity on Monday, I am loath to return so quickly to the well of Fox News Channel, but Tucker Carlson is playing a dangerous game.  I refer to this:

You can view a longer version of the clip, which makes clear that the “monitoring” to which he refers is really the alleged “unmasking” of individuals connected to the Donald Trump transition and campaign in intelligence reports, allegedly by former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice. (Why Fox would take Carlson slightly out of context on Twitter is anyone’s guess.)

However, the materials Carlson refers to were, as far as anyone knows, “incidental collection,” i.e., instances in which a foreign person or agent properly targeted for surveillance speaks to a U.S. person.  Indeed, when House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes initially made the unmasking claim public, he stated that “on numerous occasions, the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.”

Conflating the collection of surveillance intelligence (including incidental collection) with the subsequent analysis or dissemination of that material, as Carlson does here, misleads people into thinking the intelligence was collected improperly.

This is not hypothetical.  I have had people interpret and defend Carlson’s remarks as suggesting that Obama had intelligence agencies target foreign persons or agents in order to monitor the conversations of Trump and his team.

There is a term — or euphemism — for this charge: “reverse-targeting.”  It’s illegal.  There is currently no evidence that reverse-targeting occurred in this case.  Indeed, Nunes was specifically asked whether this material could be the result of reverse-targeting and he replied that didn’t know.

In the past, Edward Snowden has claimed that many DNI analysts at NSA engaged in reverse-targeting.  OTOH, Edward Snowden is a Russian stooge hiding from justice and thus unlikely to say much that does not advance the interests of his handlers.

In addition, Sen. Rand Paul, while doubting that Trump was targeted for surveillance, suggested that he might have been the subject of a “backdoor search,” which is not reverse-targeting, but a different form of improper usage of properly collected surveillance of foreign persons or agents.

At that time, Paul claimed that Pres. Obama had been the subject of such improper searches 1,227 times, which turns out to be a misleading reference to the number of times Obama was mentioned by others (in unmasked but obviously identifiable form) in communications.

Paul has also accused Susan Rice of having conducted the “backdoor searches” without any evidence to back his claim.  And when he got called on it, he tap-danced.

These days, cases of reverse-targeting are rare, generally inadvertent, and reported pursuant to current law.  (Such was not always necessarily the case.)  These reports also address the implementation of “minimization” (masking) procedures.

This lack of evidence of improper surveillance of Trump & Co., incidentally, is why people arguing that Obama spied on Trump resort to listing the Obama’s other bad acts involving surveillance.

In general, evidence of prior bad acts is not good evidence that the person or group involved committed a particular current bad act.  I could explain why this is generally true in law, but let’s skip right to an example politics and the court of public opinion.

I have previously noted that partisan Democrats once pursued nutty investigations of whether George H. W. Bush flew in an SR-71 Blackbird jet to Paris to interfere with the Iranian hostage negotiations, and whether he was involved in drug-running with the Contras in Nicaragua.  Those allegations are made no less nutty by the fact that there was an actual Iran-Contra scandal when George H. W. Bush was Vice-President.  And they are no less nutty because he used to run the CIA.

In the current climate, my favorite part of the “bad acts” argument is the Right’s strange new concern that the CIA allegedly spied on Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who were investigating the CIA’s handling of the torture issue during the Bush Administration.  The GOP — and most conservatives — were uninterested in this story at the time because they thought Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s investigation was a political witch hunt.  But now the Obama administration is to be blamed for defending the CIA’s attempt to fend it off on their own system.  OK.

So why is any of this a big deal?  After all, isn’t this whole subject murky and confusing?  There are at least two answers to this question.

First, at the crass political level, conflating issues of surveillance with issues of analysis or usage merely gives Democrats and the establishment media license to do the same in order to distract from the accusation that Rice engaged in improper unmasking, which is potentially quite serious (for what it’s worth, which isn’t much, Rice denies the accusation, though her general lack of credibility is not proof of culpability).

As David French notes, we really don’t know enough yet to be forming solid opinions on whether Rice acted improperly.  My quibble with French’s piece is that he uses Russia as an example and the materials at issue here ostensibly did not involve Russia. (John Schindler provides a hypothetical intelligence report that’s much simpler and likely more pertinent to the current controversy.)

Second, on a more serious level, note the point raised early on by Andrew McCarthy in considering the mere possibility of reverse-targeting.  He observed that the pre-9/11 “wall” between law enforcement and intelligence investigators made it difficult to share information and thus effectively investigate or prevent terror attacks.

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board —a bipartisan panel in the executive branch that reviews the executive branch’s surveillance actions and also monitors civil liberty concerns — has found the sort of post-9/11 electronic surveillance at issue here “makes a substantial contribution to the government’s efforts to learn about the membership, goals, and activities of international terrorist organizations, and to prevent acts of terrorism from coming to fruition.”

To be sure, we should be concerned about the potential for abuse of these surveillance programs.  But we should be very careful that any reforms we make address actual abuses of civil liberties, not imagined ones, before deciding to risk losing the value these programs provide.

Carlson, and Paul for that matter, thus potentially do the public a great disservice by conflating surveillance with analysis/unmasking (and dissemination and leaking) to advance their partisan or ideological agendas.  A misinformed public may be persuaded to demand reforms of the law that not only do not address the potential problem seen so far in this controversy, but also cures that may be worse than the disease.

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The Insanely Low Stakes of Trump’s Steaks

Pres. Trump apparently likes his steaks extremely well done.  The punditry about this has been extreme, but not well done.  The commentary more resembles the fattiest tartare you’ve ever tasted.

First, there were the the mopes like Vanity Fair‘s Graydon Carter, the Washington Post‘s food critic, and the occasional random food blogger recoiling in horror from Trump’s vulgar taste, exacerbated by his use of ketchup.  It was of course suggested that Trump’s gauche dining habits were in some way a metaphor for his parochial and close-minded politics.

Then there were the conservatives.  Some of the movers and shakers in conservative media, the thinkers, even one of its most elegant writers appeared on some of the right’s most respected and influential platforms to defend Trump’s dietary habits, or at least to note that others would see it as an asset.

And many smart conservatives shared those columns on social media, nodding their heads at the notion that lefties’ hysteria about Trump was largely a matter of aesthetics.

Yet righties found it scandalous that then-candidate Barack Obama passed up a the campaign ritual of a Philly Cheesesteak in 2007.  And notable that he was the sort who ate arugula…and kale.  It was a metaphor, you see, for his effete liberal sensibilities and politics.

Does the Trump/Obama comparison simply reflect the long-simmering populism of the GOP?  In a word, no.

Righties also had great fun with Bill Clinton’s appetites for fast food and… women with big hair.  They were a metaphor, you see, for the decadence and generally low class of the Democrats, not to mention the seeming grubbiness of the Clintons’ scandal-laden politics.  So inferior to the patrician Pres. George H. W. Bush.

Of course, the Democrats also have done this before Trump.  Ronald Reagan supposedly liked jellybeans — a childish indulgence that reflected a simpleton who once co-starred in a movie with a chimp.  Etc., etc.

This is what happens to people who never get out of the marinade of partisanship.  It’s what drives otherwise normal people to take insane conspiracy theories seriously.  It’s the sort of thing people will look back upon with mild embarrassment, should they ever bother to reflect.

The temptation will be to justify spending time on Trump’s steak by framing it as an example of anti-Trump hysteria.  But if you pass a man on a street corner wearing a sandwich board and ranting about the Freemasons, do you stop to loudly counter him to other passers-by?  No, you don’t.  And you know why you don’t.

The other temptation will be to denigrate the Left by supposing lefties’ objections to Trump are significantly aesthetic.  To be sure, many liberals preferred Trump to Cruz and Rubio during the primaries.

But he’s Pres. Trump now.  His picks for his Cabinet were significantly Republican and often conservative.  His Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, compares favorably to the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Trump and a GOP Congress are rolling back some regulations.  And while the House GOP’s AHCA strikes me as a lame effort to marginally roll back Obamacare, Democrats will see it as the wrong sort of wealth distribution.

Moreover, Dems clearly have opposition on the merits to some of the more uniquely Trumpian policies, such as the “extreme vetting” of refugees and the expansion of immigration enforcement (even though it falls short of some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric).

It’s pretty obvious that the Left’s opposition to Trump is not significantly driven by his tastes (or lack thereof).  Those tastes are just another target of opportunity for them.  But the people responding seriously to these trivial pursuits are not doing themselves or their audiences any favors.

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Sean Connery’s Advice on Trump, Russia, and Wiretapping

No, it’s not “one ping only.”

I considered really digging in on Pres. Trump’s allegation that fmr Pres. Obama wiretapped him, based on an article at Breitbart.  Although this article was based on old news stories, it was apparently all news to Trump, who then leapt to an accusation not fully supported by it.

Nevertheless, Trump’s claim served the political purpose of getting the right to focus more on the idea that the investigation(s) of contacts between people associated with his campaign may have been politically-motivated.  After all, the Obama administration abused its administrative and investigatory powers in other cases, so why not here?

My guess is that anyone reading this is already interested enough to have an opinion and that for me to add value, I would have to get very deeply into the weeds, perhaps mind-numbingly so.  Accordingly, I will try to add value by not talking about it.

Instead, I will observe that many of the people I see raising their blood pressure over this allegation (and the larger Trump/Russia narrative) tend to be at least eight years younger than I, and frequently considerably younger.  Of course, that may just reflect that I’m down with the kids.

People of that age generally have little direct and visceral memory of the time in which many conservatives thought Clinton White House Counsel Vince Foster was murdered.  Or that Pres. Clinton had some connection to a drug-running enterprise operating from Mena, Ark., and that there were mysterious deaths connected to it.

Conservatives were inclined to believe such things not only out of partisan passions, but also because the Clintons tended to be surrounded by a cloud of scandals.  The odds that Hillary Clinton turned $10,000 into $100,000 as a novice trader of cattle futures were indeed so astronomical as to defy belief.  There was evidence to suggest Hillary was involved in the firing and smearing of White House Travel Office employees in a classic bit of cronyism, even if the independent counsel declined to prosecute.

The independent counsel, however, did convict 15 people in the Whitewater scandal, including Bill and Hillary’s business partners in the the ill-fated real estate venture.  That investigation stalled when those same business partners, even after they were convicted, refused to discuss the Clintons’ role.

And there was Bill lying under oath in a sexual harassment case, the selling of the Lincoln Bedroom, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby.

The point is that when people have a shady track record, whether it be Clinton, Obama or Trump, partisans may be inclined to believe even crazy things about them.  Or at least believe them enough to want them investigated.

In fact, sometimes you don’t even need the shady track record.  I’m also old enough to recall when Very Serious People investigated whether George H. W. Bush flew in an SR-71 Blackbird jet to Paris to interfere with the Iranian hostage negotiations.  They also investigated whether he was involved in drug-running with the Contras in Nicaragua.  Apparently, if you have been director of the CIA, there is no limit to your capability for evil.

I mention this not to tell so many of those excited by the allegations against Trump or Obama to get off my lawn, Eastwood-style.  It is to observe that it is far different to have lived through the events described above than to hear or read about them.

People who have not been immersed in that sort of political climate may not understand the feeling of them.  They may not understand on an emotional level how easy it is to convince yourself that that things which seem crazy now seemed so much more reasonable to consider seriously at the time.

Given the track records of Trump and Obama, it may not be crazy to consider that there may be something (even if it’s a very soft version of the hysterics now) to the allegations against either man or their associates.  But maybe we’ll look back and — with the benefit of hindsight — conclude that some or all of it was indeed crazy.

What we do know is that there are investigations that will ultimately produce findings.  Regarding those results, as Sean Connery said as Jim Malone in The Untouchables: “Don’t wait for it to happen.  Don’t even want it to happen.  Just watch what does happen.”

Not that anyone will take that advice when there is punditry to be had.

Update: If you do want to get into the weeds on this issue, Stephen Hayes lays out what we know — and what we don’t know — at TWS.

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