So today Congressman Devin Nunes, who is the chair of the House Intel Committee, suggested that Trump transition members may have been picked up in surveilled communications with foreign intelligence officials. The White House quickly seized this as substantiation of the President’s tweets on March 4, which I think it is not. There is nothing in what Congressman Nunes said that justifies or substantiates President Trump tweeting that President Obama was a bad/sick guy who had “tapped" him at Trump Tower. Remember, the critical tweet said: "Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!"
Only someone not paying close attention will see this as affording President Trump a defense of what he said about President Obama.
And - this is exactly what General Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and head of the NSA predicted on my program last Saturday on CNN. Watch this interview. And here is a partial transcript of the critical sequence. When I asked General Hayden where this story was going and what concerned him most, he said:
General Michael Hayden: I think where this is going, Michael, and I think is the lifeline that I think the administration is hoping they can grab onto is something that we call incidental collection. And it may take a minute but I can explain to you and your viewers how this might work if you like.
Michael Smerconish: Do it.
GMH: Yeah, if we’re up against a legitimate foreign intelligence target, and let me just for purposes of explanation say, we’re up against, we’re targeting, and you’d want us to do this, a Russian oligarch who is involved in money laundering or how about sanctions busting, all right. And so we’re on that target. And this is, by the way – Michael, this happens fairly routinely. If that target now gets involved in a communication to, from, or even about a U.S. person we’re still allowed to continue to cover the target. We just have to protect the U.S. person privacy. We do what’s called minimize the information. So we might say this Russian oligarch in an extended conversation with a named U.S. person so on and so forth said this. And we keep the U.S. identity minimized, unavailable, to our customers unless of course, Michael, the name U.S. identity is critical to the intelligence. Let’s say, for example, that the oligarch was actually arranging an illegal transfer of funds in which case we would unmask the identity so that we’d have a full picture of the intelligence. Now keep in mind, we’re just targeting the foreigner. This is called incidental collection and the unmasking of the U.S. identity isn’t Trump, isn’t Bush. It goes back 40 years these procedures to the reforms in the American intelligence community in the 1970’s. So I suspect if there is any example of a U.S. identity being unmasked that has any relationship to the Trump Campaign or Trump Tower – and again, Michael, very normal, very correct, very legal – I think at that point the White House goes, ah-ha, I told you so. I think this is where it’s going.
MS: Do I understand General Hayden to be predicting that perhaps the next step of this is that the Trump White House seeks to criminalize the incidental collection of U.S. intelligence? Is that what you’re saying?
GMH: Yeah, mischaracterize and criminalize, and Michael very tellingly, Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff share in ranking of the House Intelligence Committee within the last 36 hours has actually asked the American intelligence community was there any incidental collection, were any identities unmasked, and who requested the unmasking? So I do think that we are going to that point, again, which I think at the end of the day will be mischaracterized and there will be an attempt to claim that that’s some sort of violation.