A month-old interview on MSNBC, largely unnoticed at the time, has reemerged and generated intense interest over an apparent admission: Officials in the outgoing administration may have spread surveillance information about President Donald Trump and his associates.
The discussion with MSNBC host Mika Brezinski on March 2 focused on a New York Times story that appeared the day before under the headline, “Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Hacking.”
“What she said precisely tracks with what many of us have been saying: The Obama administration did abuse national security information.”
The story quoted unnamed former government officials who described efforts to “leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.” The information included evidence passed along by U.S. allies of meetings between Russian officials and Trump’s associates, and communications — intercepted by American intelligence agencies among Russians — among Russians discussing contacts with Trump officials.
Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense, left the government in 2015 and now works as a fellow at the Atlantic Council. She told Brezinski that she urged her former colleagues to “preserve” the intelligence.
“It was more actually aimed at telling the [Capitol] Hill people, ‘Get as much information as you can and get as much intelligence as you can before President Obama leaves the administration,’ because I had a fear that somehow that information would disappear with the senior people who left,” she said. “So it would be hidden away in the bureaucracy.”
Just in case there was any ambiguity, Farkas made clear her concern was the incoming Trump administration.
“The Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about the staff, the Trump staff’s dealings with Russians, that they would try to compromise these sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence,” she said. “So I became very worried because not enough was coming out in the open, and I knew that there was more.”
She added, “That’s why you have the leaking. People are worried.”
Farkas’ Comments ‘Too Good to Be True’
Some national security experts said Farkas’ comments lend credibility to allegations that outgoing Obama administration officials mishandled classified information for political reasons.
“What she said precisely tracks with what many of us have been saying: The Obama administration did abuse national security information,” Fred Fleitz, a former CIA officer, told LifeZette. “It was almost too good to be true.”
Fleitz, now senior vice president for policy and programs at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, said there are appropriate ways to preserve national security information.
“If they had concerns, they could bring it to the FBI,” he said.
Joseph diGenova, who served as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia under Ronald Reagan, said Farkas and the former administration officials she referred to should be questioned under oath.
“Ms. Farkas made a major blunder and, in fact … probably confessed to a crime or knowledge of people who committed a crime,” he said. “It was a remarkable interview and amazing it went unnoticed at the time.”
Democrats desperately have tried to keep the focus away from possible illegal leaks and on suggestions that Trump associates behaved inappropriately during the transition period — and maybe even played a role in Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
But the Times story that Farkas and Brezinski discussed offers ample evidence that someone in the Obama administration broke the law. The story cites transcripts of wiretaps showing that incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn asked Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to hold off on retaliating for sanctions that Obama imposed on Russia for the election meddling.
The identity of Americans swept up during surveillance of foreign targets — as Flynn apparently was — is supposed to be disguised in U.S. intelligence repots. The fact that his name appeared in the Times story indicates that not only was his name “unmasked,” but that government officials with access to that information shared it with reporters.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the National Security Council had uncovered other instances of unmasking and that administration officials would share it with the chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
James Kallstrom, a former assistant director of the FBI, told LifeZette it is troubling that Farkas even knew about the intelligence reports that she urged officials to spread to congressional staffers.
“How does somebody who’s not even in the administration anymore, who’s in civilian life, have access to this information?” he asked. “What kind of conspiracy cabal is this?”
Obama Relaxed Restrictions on Surveillance Data
Kallstrom pointed to reporting by the news site Circa that Obama in 2011 relaxed rules restricting who had access to raw data from the National Security Agency, including the names of Americans mentioned in phone conversations and emails.
Kallstrom said that represents a sharp break from how the government handled such information when he worked for the FBI.
“That was the most highly secretive stuff in the world,” he said.
Fleitz, of the Center for Security Policy, said it is possible that Farkas kept her security clearance after leaving government. He said that is common when former government officials, for example, go to work for government contractors.
Either way, Fleitz said, it would be inappropriate to discuss disseminating intelligence information beyond the tight circle of officials who are tasked with handling it.
He also questioned why so many in Washington regard as “established fact” the conclusion of U.S. security agencies that Russia meddled in the election in order to help Trump and hurt Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He said he does not think Russia believed Trump could win.
Fleitz pointed to reports that Russian agents tried to hack into the computer systems of both major parties but succeeded only with the Democrats.
“Maybe all they did was exploit the fact that the Democrats left the barn door open,” he said.
Fleitz said the Obama administration did little to counter cyber threats, not just from Russia but from China, as well.
“If we could get the politics out of it, we could focus on the real problem,” he said.