Friday, March 03, 2017

Cruising the Web

I'm having a hard time getting all worked up about this Jeff Sessions story. Both sides are demonstrating stupidity.

Mostly, Sessions just seems to have been terribly inept. He was asked a question by Al Franken about what he'd do if stories about Russian involvement in the election were borne out. He just should have said that he would certainly investigate any allegations of illegality. Instead he blabs about being a campaign surrogate himself and that he never had contact. As a lawyer, doesn't he know he should give the most minimal answer possible to a long question like that? Or he could give a carefully-parsed, Clintonian answer and say he never discussed the campaign with a Russian official. His story is that he talked with the Russian ambassador with two of his aides present. Why wouldn't one of those aides have reminded him that he had indeed met with the Russian ambassador and should correct his answer. I understand that he must have met with hundreds of people and that it's hard to remember each one he met with. I have around 100 students and I'll talk to one about some day they're going to be absent or a day they're making up a test and, unless I make a note of it, I'll have no memory of the conversation the following week, much less months later. But come on, if he's asked about meeting a Russian official, wouldn't he or his aide remember that they had a meeting? Doesn't he have an appointment book?

It just seems like a stupid omission that he should have corrected as soon as he realized that he'd made a misstatement. Sessions looks dumb, which is not the quality we want in an attorney general. He created the impression of dissembling when lying was unnecessary. If he'd just come out and said that he never discussed the campaign with a Russian official, but had discussed normal senatorial business with the Russian ambassador, it would have been nothing remarkable. Instead we have a day of crazy allegations and back-and-forth, just when the Trump administration was hoping for a story all about Trump's push to increase defense spending.

But what is it that the Democrats imagined or are alleging took place at this meeting? Do they really think that the Russian ambassador reached out to a prominent supporter of Trump in September and to say, "Hey, we're going to release all this embarrassing stuff from John Podesta's emails to help Trump win and then, when your guy gets elected, we want you guys to lay off about Ukraine and Syria? Did the Russians know more about how the vote was going to come out than all those pundits who assured us that Trump had no chance? Are we supposed to believe that there some sort of quid pro quo discussion held there in front of two of his aides?

Rich Lowry wonders why Sessions would have lied to answer a question he wasn't asked.
What I find remarkable is that Franken didn’t ask Sessions about any contacts he himself might have had with the Russians. He asked him what he would do if Trump officials had such contacts. So, Sessions wasn’t being pressed about his own contacts and deny having any, he volunteered that he didn’t “have communications with the Russians.” If Sessions was deliberately lying here, he went out of his way to lie under oath for no discernible reason. Who does that? Especially if, assuming for the sake of argument that Sessions had a cognizance of guilt, there were about a thousand different ways to dance around Franken’s question without creating this vulnerability.

There is also the phrase Sessions used, “communications with the Russians,” which it seems is pretty clearly meant to denote the sort of nefarious coordination that Franken is getting out. All of this suggests that the most reasonable reading is that Sessions wasn’t thinking of his two contacts with the Russian ambassador — one of which was very informal in a large group — in this context. (I’m not an expert on Russian intelligence operations, but it is hard to believe that the Kremlin sends its ambassador to the U.S. to brief U.S. senators about them and coordinate how to carry them out.)

The Sessions answers have created a big political headache for him and obviously he should have been more careful. But like so much else since the election, the hysteria doesn’t come close to matching the underlying facts.

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I find the Democrats' faux outrage amusing. These are the people who had no problem with supporting Eric Holder, the first sitting member of a president's cabinet to be held in contempt of Congress. They didn't mind all the people that Bill Clinton had traipsing through the White House and paying to stay over in the Lincoln Bedroom. And they shrugged off the story of a Chinese billionaire with ties to the Chinese government funneling illegal campaign donations to the Clinton 1996 reelection campaign and DNC. Imagine how upset the Democrats would be if Russia had funneled money into Trump's campaign. But when the Chinese did in 1996...not a blink. And they have sanctified Ted Kennedy. None of them acknowledge or seem to care that he approached the Soviet Union ahead of the 1984 Reagan election campaign to propose an actual quid pro quo whereby he'd help the Soviets if they'd help make it harder for Reagan to govern. Really.
Kennedy made Andropov a couple of specific offers.

First he offered to visit Moscow. “The main purpose of the meeting, according to the senator, would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they may be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA.” Kennedy would help the Soviets deal with Reagan by telling them how to brush up their propaganda.

Then he offered to make it possible for Andropov to sit down for a few interviews on American television. “A direct appeal … to the American people will, without a doubt, attract a great deal of attention and interest in the country. … If the proposal is recognized as worthy, then Kennedy and his friends will bring about suitable steps to have representatives of the largest television companies in the USA contact Y.V. Andropov for an invitation to Moscow for the interviews. … The senator underlined the importance that this initiative should be seen as coming from the American side.”

Kennedy would make certain the networks gave Andropov air time–and that they rigged the arrangement to look like honest journalism.

Kennedy’s motives? “Like other rational people,” the memorandum explained, “[Kennedy] is very troubled by the current state of Soviet-American relations.” But that high-minded concern represented only one of Kennedy’s motives.

“Tunney remarked that the senator wants to run for president in 1988,” the memorandum continued. “Kennedy does not discount that during the 1984 campaign, the Democratic Party may officially turn to him to lead the fight against the Republicans and elect their candidate president.”

Kennedy proved eager to deal with Andropov–the leader of the Soviet Union, a former director of the KGB and a principal mover in both the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring–at least in part to advance his own political prospects.
I see that J. Christian Adams at PJ Media is thinking along the same lines about Kennedy.
That's right, folks. Even 30 years ago, Democrat senators were colluding with America's enemies to bring down Republicans.

So one of the heroes of the Democratic Party from the past 50 years actually asked the Soviets to interfere in our election for his own political gain. Think of that. Think of the Chinese money to Clinton. And then marvel at their supposed concern about foreign involvement in an election or dishonesty by a high-level official.

So pardon me if I can't clutch my pearls with shock as they all shuffle off to the first microphone they can find to pretend to be all outraged over Jeff Sessions' stupidity. Wake me up when they find some real evidence of collusion between the campaign and the Russians. I can fully believe that the Russians were determined to interfere in our election. They probably did prefer Trump win and were willing to leak damaging information on Democrats to throw a bit of sand in our electoral gears. It's the sort of thing they're doing in several European countries.

And Trump certainly had set himself for all this suspicion given his praise of Putin and refusal to criticize him at all. Trump certainly hasn't been shy about criticizing anyone else, even foreign leaders. His refusal to say anything bad about Putin has always been disturbing. It's as if he has no idea of what a malign presence on the world stage Putin is or anything at all about Putin's actions against his domestic opposition.

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If this was a cover-up by Jeff Sessions of a perfectly innocuous meeting with the Russian ambassador, it was a pretty dumb cover-up or, as the WSJ puts it "the Jim Carrey of cover-ups."
If Mr. Sessions was trying to cover up some dark Russian secret, he’s the Jim Carrey of cover-up artists. Surely he knew someone would discover a meeting in his Senate office, which isn’t exactly a drop-site in the Virginia suburbs, and the meeting in Cleveland had multiple witnesses. Like former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn not telling Vice President Mike Pence about his meeting with the ambassador, this is a case of dumb and dumber.

The most important fact so far about the larger Trump-Russia collusion story is that there are so few salient facts. The Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta were embarrassing but had little bearing on the election. The dossier of supposed contacts between Trumpians and Russians published by BuzzFeed has never been corroborated.

Democrats on the House and Senate intelligence committees investigating the ties have reported nothing of substance. What we have on the evidence so far is a hapless cover-up without an underlying scandal.

Meanwhile, news emerged Thursday that Obama Administration officials ran a government intel operation on the Trump campaign. The New York Times reports that political appointees signed off on surveillance of “associates” of the Trump campaign, though “the nature of these contacts remains unknown.” The officials then spread this raw intelligence throughout the government and to foreign counterparts, ensuring they’d be widely read and supposedly to prevent their Trump successors from covering up the truth.

Only days before the inauguration, President Obama also signed an executive order that allows the National Security Agency to share raw intercepts and data with the 16 other agencies in the intelligence community. NSA analysts used to filter out irrelevant information and minimize references to Americans. Now such material is being leaked anonymously.

This is far more troubling than a meeting with an ambassador, though Mr. Sessions acted properly Thursday in recusing himself. Democrats are also demanding a special prosecutor, but what the country needs to know is what happened, not another Patrick Fitzgerald on the political make. The intelligence committees need to finish their probes as soon as possible, and they should err on the side of making as much information available to the public without damaging innocent reputations.

President Trump could help by denouncing Russia’s election meddling and admitting that the Kremlin is acting against U.S. interests. He has already gone on record denying any personal campaign ties to Russia. If there really is nothing there, then the smart play isn’t to spar with the media and Democrats but to disarm them with transparency. A penchant for denial and obfuscation helped ruin Hillary Clinton, and we’d have thought that the people who defeated her would have figured that out.

Given all this and Sessions' role in the Trump campaign, he is exactly right to recuse himself from any investigation of contacts between Russia and the campaign. He should have announced that even earlier. He was on the campaign so it would have been improper for him to be part of any such investigation. The administration keeps having these unforced errors that they bring on themselves. And Republicans should be honest that they'd be raising a similar fuss if this had involved the Obama administration. As T. Becket Adams writes,
Sessions answered only what was asked of him, and he responded within the specific boundaries of whether the Trump campaign communicated with the Russians during the election. But offering replies that come with the silent disclaimer that, yeah, he actually talked to the Russian ambassador, but he was wearing his senator's hat then, and not his campaign surrogate hat, is the sort of legalese that defined many of the Clinton years.

If you thought "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is" was ridiculous, it seems you should also be annoyed by Sessions' defense of "I did not have communications with the Russians," especially now that his office has confirmed at least one of the conversations.

The AG's answers don't appear to be wrong, and they seem to be legally correct. Still they don't come across as honest or forthcoming. They look like he's being withholding, which is about the last thing one wants to see coming from a law enforcement agent.

One wonders if the same people enthusiastically defending Sessions' very carefully parsed responses would accept a similar defense from former AG Loretta Lynch if she were found in a comparable situation.

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Amber Phillips write in the Washington Post that it would be a shame if all this kerfuffle over Sessions and the Russian ambassador put any sort of freeze on members of Congress talking to foreign diplomats.
Those regular interactions between U.S. lawmakers and foreign officials are actually quite healthy for foreign policy, Cordesman argued. "It isn't a matter of only talking to people you like. International relations would be, should we say, even worse if you refused to have dialogue with people who were hostile."

During the Cold War, he said, anyone in the U.S. government seized an opportunity to have a conversation with Russians or Eastern Europeans. That's how hostilities get solved peacefully.

So the fact Sessions or McCaskill or any other lawmaker met with the Russian ambassador isn't really that big of a deal. What is or could be a big deal is the unknown: What was the context of those meetings, and, more importantly, why didn't Sessions disclose them during two days worth of confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate in January?

...Point is: The fact that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador isn't that unusual. But the fact he didn't disclose those meetings while under oath could be a big problem for him. And we still don't know what Sessions and the ambassador talked about, other than not "issues of the campaign."

Those two outstanding questions are what we should be debating, Cordesman said, not the fact the meetings took place. The latter is a distraction and potentially even degrading to foreign policy, he warns: "That opens up the rather dismal prospect of virtually any kind of dialogue between members of Congress and foreign officials being looked down on."

In short: Tsk-tsking meetings between foreign policy officials and U.S. officials would be a significant change in the way foreign policy is conducted now.
Hey, we know the Democrats see the value of meeting with Russian officials since 30 Senate Democrats met with Russian and Chinese envoys back in 2015 to find a way to grease the way for the Iranian nuclear agreement. I'm sure they wouldn't want to miss out on such an opportunity in the future.

Jim Geraghty points to dueling leaks about the Yemen raid. NBC News reported a couple of days ago that we hadn't gotten any "signficiant intelligence" from that raid. But now we're hearing that we actually got very useful intelligence from the raid. The New York Times is reports,
Computers and cellphones seized during a deadly Special Operations raid in Yemen in January offer clues about attacks Al Qaeda could carry out in the future, including insights into new types of hidden explosives the group is making and new training tactics for militants, according to American officials....

The information contained in the cellphones, laptop computers and other materials scooped up in the raid is still being analyzed, but it has not yet revealed any specific plots, and it has not led to any strikes against Qaeda militants in Yemen or elsewhere, officials said.

American counterterrorism officials say the Qaeda wing in Yemen is one of the deadliest in the world and poses the most immediate threat to the American homeland, having tried unsuccessfully to carry out three airliner attacks over the United States.

Yet analysts caution that information about the group and its plots was substantially curtailed when American advisers withdrew from Yemen in March 2015 after Houthi rebels ousted the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the United States’ main counterterrorism partner.
There has been a lot of noise out there that this was a botched, worthless raid. But it does sound like they found useful intelligence that will bear fruit later. This sounds worth learning about.
The preliminary intelligence findings from the raid are contained in a three-page classified document presented to Mr. Mattis. The findings, some of which were first reported by The Associated Press, included new explosives developed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The group has specialized in developing nonmetallic bombs that can be inserted into body cavities to avoid detection. Other new insights concern Al Qaeda’s regional and global network, and training techniques that give clues to attacks it could carry out in the future.
Today CNN is reporting on some more value gained from the raid.
Several US officials told CNN Thursday that the US is now taking action to locate and monitor hundreds of people or "contacts" found as part the intelligence retrieved during the deadly raid last month in Yemen targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Some of these people are believed to be in the West, but not in the United States.

The government is taking action to find and monitor these AQAP-linked individuals because of the threat they may pose to Europe, the officials added.

The fact that officials said they are actively pursuing leads uncovered from the raid indicates that the intelligence was indeed actionable despite some media reports to the contrary.
It seems that we're getting dueling leaks set to either embarrass Trump or defend Trump. It's a terrible situation for the U.S. to have intelligence leaked simply for partisan purposes. Geraghty concludes about these dueling leaks,
Did the “U.S. officials” talk to the “American officials”? Are we sure that the first group of officials was really in a position to know if the teams had recovered valuable information? Doesn’t it take some time to figure out whether information is valuable? If you find a list of phone numbers, how long does it take to figure out if the numbers belong to other members of a terror cell, or just some guy’s buddies?

The quickly-emerging narrative of Trump critics is that this was some sort of military disaster that is somehow directly Trump’s fault. To buy into this, you have to believe that up and down the chain of command, everyone simply shrugged off unacceptable risks or eagerly embraced a mission that would kill special operations forces. Our men and women in uniform are human and imperfect, but I simply don’t buy that.

Secondly, let’s assume no valuable information was recovered… what’s the lesson? Clearly something indicated there was something of value at that target. Do we want our counterterrorism officials only launching raids when they’re 100 percent certain that they will recover valuable intelligence? If that was the standard, we never would have launched the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. This is war. Murphy’s law applies. Things will go wrong. I don’t want the people responsible for stopping terrorists to be constantly worried about who will get blamed if things go wrong. Learn from every experience, study your failures, and plan for next time.

Glenn Reynolds
is inspired by a Randy Barnett point to wonder what would happen if conservatives actually followed the Living Constitution approach to judging that liberals have enshrined. Barnett wrote,
Why would you possibly want a nonoriginalist ‘living constitutionalist’ conservative judge or justice who can bend the meaning of the text to make it evolve to conform to conservative political principles and ends? However much you disagree with it, wouldn’t you rather a conservative justice consider himself constrained by the text of the Constitution like, say, the Emoluments Clause?
Now Reynolds tries to think what sorts of decisions Living Constitution conservatives might make.
I immediately thought of one example from a few years ago: Judge Richard Posner published a book titled Not A Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency. Posner’s approach was based on the notion that the post-9/11 War On Terror was a fundamentally different sort of problem, and that the constitutional civil liberties doctrines developed by judges throughout the 20th Century weren’t suitable for this new world. In fact, when I interviewed Posner about his book, the idea that it was a “living Constitution” approach to the problem of terrorism and civil liberties came up in the interview.

Where else might we see changes? Well, I’m neither a conservative (I’m a libertarian) or a living constitutionalist, but I can imagine a few places. One is in the scope of government power. During the New Deal era, the Supreme Court — after being threatened with “court packing” by FDR — endorsed a massive expansion of governmental power on the ground that it would lead to greater efficiency in the economy. Instead, we got a bloated bureaucracy with serious accountability problems, and a disastrous expansion in spending, regulation and federal debt. Based on this experience, I can imagine a conservative justice who sees the Constitution as a “living breathing organism” that must be kept in tune with the needs of the day deciding that the New Deal Court’s decisions were mistakes that violate the Constitution, and must now be rolled back.
Shouldn't liberals be happy that conservative judges want to ground their decisions in the Constitution? Do they really want to see a Supreme Court with a majority of conservatives making up rulings to match their ideological policy preferences? Haven't they gotten enough of seeing Donald Trump use the executive powers that President Obama expanded to realize that what one side does to stretch the Constitution can be appropriated by the other side?

Here's the funny story of the day - Sean Spicer used to be the guy in the bunny suit as the Easter Bunny for the White House Easter Egg Roll during the Bush administration.
I can't even.