WASHINGTON, United States of America – Former members of America’s intelligence community are plumbing the depths of their reservoir of metaphors to express distress over news that the president’s son-in-law tried setting up a secret communication channel with Russia.
“Off the map,” said the former head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, telling CNN: “I know of no other experience like this in our history, certainly within my life experience.”
“My dashboard warning light was clearly on,” said James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence. He told NBC that what he heard late last year, while he was still in office, worried him: “And I think that was the case with all of us in the intelligence community. Very concerned about the nature of these approaches to the Russians.”
What Jared Kushner did after the election is not in dispute. The president’s son-in-law and future staffer reportedly suggested to Russia’s ambassador, shortly after the election, that they establish a secure channel to communicate off of U.S. radar.
What is in dispute is why.
His allies have told the New York Times that he just wanted to discuss Syria. A Trump surrogate, Rick Santorum, said the goal was just getting the Russians to back away from their alliance with Iran. Other supporters have pointed to decades of precedent for back-channel communications — from Henry Kissinger and China to Barack Obama and Cuba.
Yet his detractors question the pattern.
They ask why Kushner would suggest secret conversations with the ambassador and meet the head of a Russian bank under U.S. sanctions, failing — like a number of Trump associates — to mention it on his security-clearance form, all amid allegations Russia meddled in the U.S. election.
A former spy is scratching her head — she says she can’t come up with a good explanation.
“I cannot think of any compelling patriotic reason why any American, let alone someone working for the White House, would create secret back-channel communications with the Russians,” said former CIA operative Emily Brandwin.
“If you’re devising a secret comms plan with the Russians — to avoid your own government hearing your intentions — your loyalty is not to the U.S.”
She said that when she was at the CIA, if someone in the U.S. government did this, she can’t imagine they would maintain their security clearance or government job — plus, she assumes, there would be an in-depth investigation.
People are apparently investigating.
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Multiple reports have said Kushner’s interactions are a matter of interest in the ongoing FBI probe into interactions between Russia and the Trump campaign — part of a snowballing set of investigations examining finances, possible concealment of information and alleged election collusion.
One question involves the clearance form Kushner signed when he entered the White House.
Applicants for a security clearance must fill out that 127-page form, called an SF-86, which asks about contacts with foreign nationals. The document warns of the consequences for failing to disclose a relevant contact: “Knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines and/or up to five years imprisonment.”
That’s why Democrats argue Kushner should at least be stripped of his security clearance. Some argue he could face worse trouble than that. In a letter to the administration and the FBI, Democratic lawmakers pointed to news reports that Kushner had not disclosed multiple meetings on his SF-86.
Kushner’s lawyer says there are mitigating circumstances.
In a response to the media reports, Jamie Gorelick told the New York Times his client submitted the questionnaire prematurely on Jan. 18 — and that the next day Kushner’s office told the FBI he would provide supplemental information.
The form itself appears to leave some room for interpretation.
The SF-86 question about foreign contacts asks: “Do you have, or have you had, close and/or continuing contact with a foreign national within the last seven years with whom you, or your spouse, or cohabitant are bound by affection, influence, common interests, and/or obligation?”
A veteran Republican foreign-affairs official, now an ardent Trump critic, says it’s a troubling pattern.
“Contacts between a transition team and foreign diplomats is indeed entirely normal. What is not normal, though, is asking a hostile government to provide secure comms to avoid FBI/NSA surveillance,” tweeted Eliot Cohen, who worked in the State Department under Condoleezza Rice.
“In order to do what, precisely? The proper line (from Kushner was) simply (to say), ‘Happy to hear what you have to say to us, but we have one president at a time.’ I was on (the Mitt Romney) team (in 2012) and that was our plan.”