The concept of super-secret: Was Carter Page a Russkie spy last year?
We have no idea. This morning, the Washington Post offers a front-page report which turns on one key word.
That word doesn't appear until paragraph 16. We'll print the word in bold:
NAKASHIMA (4/12/17): The government’s application for the surveillance order targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out investigators’ basis for believing that Page was an agent of the Russian government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow, officials said.That one key word is "knowingly." According to that one key word, unnamed officials have now said this:
Investigators believed that Page knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow! Or so "officials" have said.
You have to wait till graf 16, but "knowingly" is a powerful word. If you believe in fundamental fairness, the following question is important too:
In what sorts of "clandestine activities" could Page have engaged? He wasn't the head of some government agency. He seems to have been a minor, rather flaky figure who was connected in some way to the Trump campaign.
In what sorts of "clandestine activities" could Page have engaged? It's a weakness of this report that this basic question isn't pondered in any way.
Absent that paragraph 16, the revelations in this report seem to be fairly weak. The whole thing turns on "knowingly." And the Post does little from there.
In what kinds of "clandestine activities" might Page have "knowingly" engaged? We'd like to see that point discussed. If you believe in fundamental fairness, you should want that too.
By our lights, Rachel Maddow isn't huge on fundamental fairness. Last night, she pretty much had Page convicted of this latest crime. That said, Maddow tends to tilt toward sending people to jail.
When Maddow described the Post's report, she repeatedly made a somewhat ironic point. There was a FISA warrant for Page, she said. And warrants of that type are just extremely secret.
Indeed, they're super-secret, she said. It formed a key part of her narrative:
MADDOW (4/11/17): We have to start with a little breaking news which has just been published by the Washington Post. And I want to say from the outset that the source of this news is very unusual."FISA warrants are super-secret," Maddow kept saying, in various ways, failing to see that the current case suggests that this simply ain't so.
this is a breaking news story about the Trump campaign and Russia. And this story springs from a very unusual leak. It's a leak of something that really doesn't usually leak.
And The Washington Post goes out of their way tonight to point out in their reporting that what is the source of this scoop that they've got, this is not a typical, you know, "people talking to the press" sort of leak. This is not something that usually gets leaked to the press. I'll just quote the way the Washington Post describes it.
This is about a FISA warrant. FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They have been leaked the contents of a FISA warrant. As the Washington Post explains, quote, "The judges who rule on FISA requests, on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests, those judges oversee the most sensitive national security cases and their warrants are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the world of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence gathering."
Nevertheless, the content of one of those warrants is what appears to have leaked tonight. At least what the Washington Post says they have obtained tonight in the Trump Russia story. That is a very unusual thing. FISA warrants don't leak.
So this is— If what the Washington Post has reported turns out to be true, this is a big advance in the story, right? It is worth, though—I can't stress this enough.
It's worth keeping in mind that FISA warrants are super-secret. First rule of FISA is, you don't talk about FISA. I mean, the existence of the court, the existence of these types of warrants often itself is treated as classified information.
Who provided this leak to the Washington Post? People, who didn't provide this leak to the Post? Below, you see the way the Post's report began.
Warning: there will be a quiz. Some math will be involved:
NAKASHIMA: The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said.Question:
The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.
"Law enforcement and other U.S. officials said?" Does that mean the Post has at least four different sources?
To our ear, there are at least two law enforcement officials involved in the leak, and at least two other U.S. officials. If that's true, that would mean that at least four different people were involved in leaking this matter.
How "super-secret" is that?
Maddow typically seems inclined to send people to jail. We're inclined to recommend fundamental fairness. As excitement builds around Page, we'll recommend our approach, not hers.
Final point—the Post could have identified the number of sources had they written with greater clarity. They could have written the phrase which is shown below, but they didn't bother:
"Law enforcement officials and other U.S. officials said."
Did at least four officials leak a matter which is super-secret? To us, that suggests that a bit of a jihad is on.
We'd like to see the Post, and perhaps even Maddow, behave in ways which are fundamentally fair. More likely, on TV at least, you'll see a lot of excitement.
Final point: "If what the Washington Post has reported turns out to be true?"
"If" is an important word too. Sources can be wrong. They can have their thumbs on the scale.