Why Did the FBI Leak the Comey Memo?
Prof. Robert English, who worked for the U. S. Department of Defense, tells Paul Jay that a deep Russophobia and the interests of the military industrial complex are driving the permanent state to exaggerate the significance of Trump’s transgressions so they can torpedo a more rational approach to U.S. Russia relations; that said, Trump and friends financial corruption involving Russian oligarchs may emerge as the real story
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that a memo written by James Comey states that President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into General Flynn. Now, this was all about Flynn’s contacts with the Russians. He had attended an RT — the Russian television network — dinner in Moscow, he apparently held some discussions there, he was paid for attending that dinner. He also did some lobbying on behalf of Turkey and was paid for that, and the investigation also has to do with whether Flynn has something to do with the alleged interference of the Russians in the American elections. And this is a big breach of etiquette for a president to … More than etiquette, I suppose — protocol, even the law — to tell an FBI director not to investigate something. I guess that’s illegal. Trump, of course, and the White House denies this.
But underlying all of this, and all the furor, is a fundamental assumption. It’s a term that’s used constantly in the media and by the various political pundits on the media, which is “Russia is our adversary.” You have to basically assume that the adversary, Russia, has an antagonistic relationship with the United States, and then underneath all of that, then you have Flynn and Comey investigation and so on. Because if Russia isn’t the great adversary, then it’s unlikely there’d be such a to-do about all of this.
Now joining us to talk about the Comey affair, the Trump affair, and just what is the issues in terms of the US-Russia relationship, is Robert English. Robert is a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He specializes in Russian and post-Soviet politics, US-Russian relations, and national security policy. He formerly worked for the US Department of Defense and the Committee for National Security, and has published widely in both academic and policy journals. Thanks very much for joining us, Robert.
ROBERT ENGLISH: Happy to be here.
PAUL JAY: Okay, so every day another storm, another drama. First of all, what do you make of … Maybe the most interesting thing in all of this Comey thing today isn’t Trump asking him to stop the investigation; that’s not a great shocker. The more interesting thing is somebody at the FBI who has access to the Comey memo reads it to a journalist at the New York Times. There’s a lot of people out to get Trump here.
ROBERT ENGLISH: Yeah, you’re pointing to this larger problem, which is this chaos, this infighting, and not just in a sort of careerist bureaucratic way, but a kind of serious pitched battle between different factions — in this case, between those in the Trump administration who seem to want a fresh start with Russia, to try to begin cooperation on things like Syria, terrorism, and so forth, and those dead set against it, who are now using leaks and so forth to … In part, to fight their battles. And so the bureaucratic, the nasty, the backstabbing, the leaking, is one area of issues, but you’re pointing to this larger fundamental. Can we get along with Russia? Is it worth trying to reset relations? And even if he’s not the best executor so far — and he’s not — is Trump’s basic idea of “We can get along with Russia, let’s give it a try” a good one? And I happen to think it is; it’s just being carried out awfully clumsily.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, I think one needs to separate the intent of Trump for wanting better relation with Russia, which one can analyze, and the policy itself. The policy of having a détente, although why there even needs to be a détente is kind of a question mark … But why is so much of the American foreign policy establishment, the political class, the military leadership, the vast majority of that whole stratum wants to maintain a very antagonistic position towards Russia, and why?
ROBERT ENGLISH: You know, four or five reasons that all come together, pushing in this Russophobic direction. We’ve always had sort of unreconstructed Cold Warriors, people who never were easy with the new Russia, right? Zbigniew Brzezinski and people of that ilk, who wanted to just push Russia in a corner, take advantage of its weakness, never give it a chance. Then you have people in the military-industrial complex, for lack of a better term, whose vested interests lie in a continued rivalry, and continued arms-racing, and continued threat inflation. You have other people who normally would be liberal progressive, but they’re so angry at Hillary Clinton’s loss, they’re so uncomprehending of how someone they see as vulgar and unqualified as Trump could get elected, that they’re naturally unwilling to let go of this “the Russians hacked our election, the Russians got Trump elected” theme, and therefore, Russia is even bigger enemy than they would be otherwise. These and other strains all come together in a strange way. Some of this is the hard right, all right? Some of it is from the left, some is from the center. And across the board, we have ignorance. Ignorance of Russia.
PAUL JAY: Now, in an article you wrote recently, you went through some of the history, and we’re going to do another segment that digs into this history more in depth, but when you look at the history of the ’90s, and Yeltsin, and the whole role of the United States in helping bring down the Soviet Union, the whole point of bringing down the Soviet Union, and standing Yeltsin up, and interfering in Russian elections to make sure Yeltsin wins, and so on, was to open Russia for privatization for American oligarchs. I don’t think the idea was to do it for Russian oligarchs, but that’s how it turned out. Is that part of what is making this section of the American oligarchs so angry about it all?
ROBERT ENGLISH: You know, when people look at Russia today, they try to explain it in terms of one evil man, Putin, and that sort of conceals an assumption that if we could just get rid of Putin, everything would be better, and that Putin is the way he is — anti-American — because he’s from the KGB. You don’t need to go back to his youth or his time in intelligence to understand why he’s very skeptical, why we have bad relations with Putin and all those around him. You don’t have to go back to the ’50s or ’40s. You can go back just to the ’90s, when we interfered in Russia, when we foisted dysfunctional economic policies on them, when we meddled in their elections repeatedly, and basically for an entire decade, we were handmaidens to a catastrophe — economic, political, social — that sowed the seeds of this resentment that continues to this day. It’s a-
PAUL JAY: Yeah, you mention in your article that the consequences of the ’90s depression in Russia far surpassed anything in the ’07-’08 recession in the United States.
ROBERT ENGLISH: They far surpassed that. They even far surpassed anything in our own Great Depression of the early 1930s, of ’29, ’30, ’31 — you know, the Great Depression, under Hoover and then Roosevelt. At that time, our economy contracted by about a quarter, and the slump lasted about three years before growth resumed. Russia’s economy contracted almost by half, and the slump lasted an entire decade, and it resulted not just in widespread poverty, but millions of excess deaths, of suicides, of people dying of despair, of heart disease, of treatable illnesses caused by the strains, the … This deep, unbelievable misery of that decade. It’s no wonder that there is deep resentment towards the US, and this underlies a lot of the Putin elites’ attitudes towards us. It’s not something pathological, Putin being a bad guy. If you got rid of Putin tomorrow, the next guy who came along, the person most Russians would probably elect in democratic elections, wouldn’t be so different. It wouldn’t be another Yeltsin or pro-Western liberal, believe me.
PAUL JAY: Well, even if everything they say about Putin is true, and I doubt and … Quite sure not everything is true. If he is such a dictator, United States foreign policy has never had any trouble with dictators, as long as they’re our dictators, so the thing drips with hypocrisy.
ROBERT ENGLISH: Hypocrisy and double standards all around are what Russians see, okay? I mean, where do you begin? Look at the recent … The vote, the referendum in Crimea to secede from Ukraine, and of course, then Russia annexed it into Russian territory, and we find that outrageous, a violation of international law, and the Russians say, “Yeah, and what did you engineer in Kosovo? You yanked Kosovo out of Serbia, you caused Kosovo to secede from Serbia with no referendum, no international law. How is that different? Right? When it’s your client state it’s okay, but when it’s ours, it’s not?” And of course the list is a long one; we could spend all afternoon going through them. So the first thing we need to do is stop the sanctimony, and deal with Russia as an equal great power.
But, you know, can I say one more thing about the ’90s that connect it with what’s going on today? In 1991, we had George Herbert Walker Bush in the White House. It was still the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was still in power for the rest of the year, and a warning came from our ambassador in Moscow, Jack Matlock, which was passed on to the White House. He had inside information from sources, from confidential sources, that a coup attempt was being planned. And, by the way, of course it happened in August of that year. That information came from our Ambassador Matlock, from his sources in Moscow, to the White House. George Bush had been instructed that this was highly sensitive, do not reveal the source of the information, keep it confidential. Bush fouled up, and within hours, he got on the phone to Moscow, a line that was open, monitored by the KGB, trying to reach Gorbachev, and he revealed the information, and he revealed the source, which went straight to the KGB. This was an unbelievable breach of confidentiality, dangerous, potentially deadly results, and the greatest irony is that George Herbert Walker Bush had been Director of the CIA before.
Now, why am I telling this story? Obviously, my first point is, presidents have fouled up, and have declassified unwittingly, or sometimes for political purposes, highly sensitive information all the time. I’m not excusing what Trump did — it looks like he was very sloppy — but the first thing to note is it’s not unusual, this happens a lot. The second thing, and let’s talk about this, is sharing information intelligence with the Russians. Guys, we’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years. After 9/11, the Russians offered us valuable intelligence on the Taliban, on Afghanistan, to help us fight back against bin Laden, and we’ve been exchanging intelligence on terrorists ever since. A lot of people wish we’d exchange more information; we might have prevented the Boston bombing. So this hysteria about sharing intelligence with our adversary, no, we are cooperating with Russia because we have a common enemy.
PAUL JAY: Now, I said in the beginning that I thought we should separate Trump’s intent from a policy, which seems more rational, not to treat Russia as such an adversary, and try to work both in Syria and other places, negotiate more things out. But when you do look at the side of intent, I don’t think you can negate or forget about the kind of historic ties that Trump has with Russian oligarchs. Some people suggest Russian Mafia. Tillerson’s energy play, they would love sanctions lifted on Russia, and I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be lifted, but the motive here is they want to do a massive play in the energy sector. So it’s not … I don’t think we should forget about what drives Trump and his circle around him, which is they have a very big fossil fuel agenda and a money-making agenda. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the policy towards Russia isn’t rational. I mean, what do you … I don’t know if you agree or not.
ROBERT ENGLISH: You know, yeah, you’re right, those are important points, and whether you agree or not with people ranging from Ron Wyden to Lindsey Graham, they’re all saying “follow the money,” and in this case, I think they’re right. All these probes, and all these suspicions that the Trump team colluded with Russian intelligence to throw the election, that they were cooperating, even coordinating with the Russians on the hacking, and then the release, I don’t believe it. It could be true — you know, I don’t have access to the evidence — but to me, it seems much more likely that what will turn up instead are financial crimes or malfeasance. People taking speaker’s fees, people consulting with oligarchs, people aiding … You know, helping with the elections with shady people, and depositing the money in the Cayman Islands or in Cypriot banks, not declaring income. I think that’s what we’re likely to find; I think that’s probably what Flynn is guilty of. But the more serious charge of collusion with an adversary, even of treason to undermine our election, I doubt it very much. You’re right to look at the energy business money, and sort of big-business oligarchic efforts to just get rich together.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, because this is so much tied up with partisan politics. The Democratic Party leadership, you know, Schumer types, they just want to wound Trump any way they can, and this is a good way to cut some knives there, to get their knives out. But the real story is the financial shenanigans, and maybe Flynn was on to that. I’m not … Excuse me, not Flynn, Comey. Maybe Comey was on to that, and maybe that’s where this thing will lead. That’s where Trump needs to fear, not the Flynn stuff.
ROBERT ENGLISH: I think you’re probably right, and again, I can only infer what might be going on, what evidence there might be, based on the subpoenas that are going out, but what we’ve heard says yeah, financial records, all these documents, evidence of … I mean, let’s go back to this issue that was the scandal of the week about five scandals ago, which means five days ago, and that was that … The reason that Flynn was fired, you’ll recall that after the election but before the inauguration, he met with the Russian ambassador, and they discussed all kinds of policy issues, including the possibility of moving towards removing the sanctions. When he got back to the White House, apparently he told Pence that they talked about other things, but he didn’t admit that the sanctions subject had come up. Therefore, he lied; therefore, he was fired. And Sally Yates, right, the … From the Attorney General’s office, has made an important point that she briefed the White House on this, she warned that Flynn had been compromised, because the Russians had something on him now.
Okay, technically they did, but come on, guys, hold on a second. Trump was about to be inaugurated, right? It wasn’t as if he somehow — Flynn — could undermine a policy of Obama’s when there were about five minutes left in the Obama administration. Secondly, the Russians and the Trump administration wanted openly — it was no secret — to move towards a removal of sanctions if they could find cooperation on Ukraine, cooperation on terror in the Middle East. There’s no secret here. Therefore, what did the Russians have on Flynn that they could have blackmailed him with? How was he compromised? Yeah, because they’d caught him in a fib, but big deal. You see how these things are being exaggerated. No doubt Flynn broke the rules, he told a lie, but it’s not a lie … It’s not the kind of information in the Russians’ possession that’s the equivalent of catching him in bed with another woman, or [inaudible 00:16:53].
PAUL JAY: And you have to even believe that he did tell the lie, because we’re being told he didn’t tell Pence. We don’t know if he’s falling on his sword to some extent here in order to protect Pence. I mean, who knows the truth of any of that? And the rest of what he did, as far as we know, with the Russians is all public. There’s a video of him speaking at an RT interview in Moscow that took place at the same time as this dinner that he was paid to attend on the 10th anniversary of RT, where he sits near Putin. There’s nothing secret about any of this; this stuff’s been out on YouTube for, like, ages.
ROBERT ENGLISH: So what you have here when you add them up is a sequence of events or small misdeeds: telling a fib about this here, Trump leaking classified information there. None of them are of the magnitude that they’re being portrayed with in the media, but when you string them together, it sounds like a hysterical series of …
PAUL JAY: So I can understand the Democratic Party, but in terms of what people call the permanent state, the deep state, they’re very engaged in this. The leaks from the FBI … We still don’t, I don’t think, unless I missed something, this thing where he … Trump talks to the Russian ambassador and the Foreign Minister, Lavrov, and gives this … Reveals this intelligence. Well, how do we know that? I mean, who’s in that room that leaked that? Or, apparently, after it took place in Washington, some White House staffers phone the NSA and the CIA. Well, you think they’ve got to call the heads of these organizations at this kind of level of information. So who’s leaking that stuff? The state apparatus — CIA, FBI, maybe NSA — they’re really antagonistic to this Trump administration. What is that about?
ROBERT ENGLISH: Again, that’s where we started, with not only the battle over “Should we try to improve relations with Russia, or are they incorrigible foes?” That’s one thing, but now this sort of bureaucratic infighting, the use of leaks, of innuendo. And again, Trump gives them the fuel to do so with these continual misdeeds and misstatements. That’s another whole arena of battle, and it’s not healthy, right, to have … And it’s his fault too. He went to war with the intelligence community on day one. But this is so dysfunctional. It’s causing us much more harm than the Russians ever could, and …
PAUL JAY: We’re going to keep this conversation going in a future segment. I do want to add … Anyone who watches The Real News knows this already. I mean, I think the Trump/Pence administration is going to prove to be more dangerous than the Bush/Cheney. I think it’s extremely dangerous what they have in mind in terms of foreign policy. But all that being said, let’s concentrate on the real stuff. Trump’s in Saudi Arabia, and they’re planning some bad stuff in the Middle East, and targeting of Iran, and back here, we’re focusing on really what should be a sideline soap opera.
ROBERT ENGLISH: Yeah. The series, the daily scandals that we’re talking about — the Comey letter today, the leak to the Russians yesterday, on and on — are kind of distracting us from the bigger picture. Not only the question of, you know, what are our common interests, if any, with Russia, and can we seriously work towards them, but also, what are we going to do in the Middle East, and what are we doing in East Asia? These pivotal foreign policy strategic issues aren’t getting much attention because of the daily soap opera. You’re absolutely right.
Let me just add at the end here — I know we’re running out of time — I’ve noted the accidental clumsy careless leak that could’ve had tragic consequences of the first Bush president. We might also note that the second Bush presidency, that administration leaked like a sieve from, you know, exaggerated false intelligence on Iraq to the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative, when it suited their purposes. And the Obama administration wasn’t a lot better. People like McCain and others were furious at some of the leaks, whether it was the Stuxnet cyber war tactic that was used against Iran, to a whole series of other military facts that were leaked selectively by the Obama administration to serve their purposes. Let’s just remember this context. Mistaken leaks, strategic leaks, dishonest leaks go on all the time in Washington, and against that backdrop, let’s not fall off the cliff here over Trump sharing some intel about terror attacks with the Russians, about our common enemy, the Islamic State in Syria.
PAUL JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us, and thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.