Even as evidence mounts to support the claim that the Obama Administration surveilled and even used confidential informants to essentially spy on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, apologists for the former President insist that such misuse of government power for political purposes would be totally out of character.
In fact it most certainly would not have been. Barack Obama used ill-gotten information to his benefit since the very beginning of his political career and, once he became President, the misuse of government power—especially surveillance power—was a hallmark of his Administration.
A month before the 2004 Illinois Democratic U.S. Senate primary, State Senator Barack Obama was considered a longshot. Polls showed him running far behind securities trader Blair Hull, who seemed likely to cruise to the nomination. That is until Obama campaign manager David Axelrod pulled some strings with his old employer, The Chicago Tribune, and had a reporter push to unseal records from Hull’s divorce from his second wife.
Both parties to the divorce wanted the records to remain sealed, but as The New York Times reported later, “The Tribune reporter who wrote the original piece later acknowledged in print that the Obama camp had ‘worked aggressively behind the scenes’ to push the story.”
It worked. The records showed that Hull’s ex-wife had filed for a protection order in 1998. His candidacy was toast and Obama cruised to the nomination.
In the general election, Axelrod pursued the same strategy of pressuring the media to push for the unsealing of child custody records from Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan’s divorce from Star Trek actress Jeri Ryan.
A friendly judge complied with The Chicago Tribune’s request, and the unsealed child custody records showed that Jeri accused her ex-husband of taking her to sex clubs all around the world.
Even though Ryan denied it, the resulting media scandal forced him out of the race.
Obama won in a landslide over Alan Keyes, the Republican Party’s last-minute replacement.
The lesson was learned early: Getting information about political opponents—no matter how—was the key to winning elections. And once Obama won the 2008 presidential election, he had access to nearly any information about any opponents he wanted.
And, just like he did in his Senate run, he used it.
A little more than a year into his presidency, Obama signed off on spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After National Security Agency director Keith Alexander briefed the President on the operation, which even included tapping Merkel’s cell phone, Obama allowed it to continue and reportedly expanded it to other German government officials. German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that “America conducted eavesdropping operations on the German government from a listening post at its embassy beside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, one of more than 80 such centers worldwide.”
Three years later, The Los Angeles Times reported that under President Obama, the NSA had expanded its surveillance even further, extending it to friendly foreign leaders across the globe, including those of France, Italy, Mexico, and Sweden—all of whom complained publicly about the operation against them.
Obama Administration officials claimed the President had no knowledge of this operation, but “current and former” intelligence officers told the Times that this was all but impossible, since both the White House and State Department signed off on [the] surveillance,” which targeted the foreign leaders’ phone conversations.
“Precisely how the surveillance is conducted is unclear,” The Times reported. “But if a foreign leader is targeted for eavesdropping, the relevant U.S. ambassador and the National Security Council staffer at the White House who deals with the country are given regular reports, said two former senior intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing classified information.”
In other words, the White House clearly knew. And while it could be reasonably argued that clandestine spying on foreign governments—even friendly ones—serves a legitimate U.S. government interest, spying on American Congressional leaders and journalists does not...and that’s precisely what the Obama Administration started to do the very next year.
In 2011, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich says the Obama Administration surveilled him.
“I was wiretapped in 2011 after taking a phone call in my congressional office from a foreign leader,” he wrote at FOXNews.com. “That a secret recording had been made of this call was revealed to me by the Washington Times in 2015, a full two years after I left office.
“The call had been from Saif el-Islam Qaddafi, a high-ranking official in Libya’s government and a son of the country’s ruler, Moammar Qaddafi. At the time I was leading efforts in the House to challenge the Obama administration’s war against Libya. The Qaddafi government reached out to me because its appeals to the White House and the State Department to forestall the escalating aggression had gone unanswered.”
Kucinich said he House attorneys assured him that the call was legal. The wiretapping and subsequent leaking to the Washington Times? Not so much.
“Shortly after the Times story was published, I alerted congressional leaders to the breach and then let the matter rest, assuming that a series of routine Freedom of Information Act requests I had made in 2012 before leaving office would provide answers,” Kucinich explained. “Five years later I am still waiting for FOIA responses from some of the intelligence agencies.”
As the conflict in Libya raged in 2011, the Obama Administration found itself embroiled in its first major scandal: Operation Fast and Furious—a “gun-walking” plan under which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives "purposely allowed licensed firearms dealers to sell weapons to illegal straw buyers, hoping to track the guns to Mexican drug cartel leaders and arrest them."
When one of those guns was used to kill Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, the controversy erupted, and the reporter digging the deepest on the story was CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.
Her reports blew the scandal wide open, and the Obama Administration became concerned, especially as the 2012 presidential election campaign began to ramp up.
“I had intel sources come to me and suggest that I was likely being monitored by the intel community or by certain actors in the Obama administration because of the stories I was doing,” she said later. “Long story short, some people in the intel community helped me because they thought it was so egregious.
“[They] had forensics done on my computers, multiple computers, from CBS and my personal computers. And three independent exams have seen and proven forensics that they used government proprietary software to monitor my keystrokes, planted confidential classified documents in my computer, watched much of what I was doing. [They] exfiltrated files, listened in on my audio. We have dates, times, and methods for a lot of this as well as government-owned IP addresses found in my computer.”
As shocking as these allegations were, CBS confirmed that they were all true. Attkisson’s computers had been hacked by "an unauthorized, external, unknown party on multiple occasions."
"Evidence suggests this party performed all access remotely using Attkisson's accounts,” the network said in a statement confirming the hack. “While no malicious code was found, forensic analysis revealed an intruder had executed commands that appeared to involve search and exfiltration of data. This party also used sophisticated methods to remove all possible indications of unauthorized activity, and alter system times to cause further confusion. CBS News is taking steps to identify the responsible party and their method of access."
While this was the first known surveillance of what the Obama Administration considered to be a hostile journalist, it wouldn’t be the last. But first, Team Obama had to get through the 2012 election.
They knew that they would face pressure from conservative political groups formed in the Tea Party groundswell that grew in opposition to the President’s Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010 and threatened to upend the election with unprecedented political advertising and organizing.
The Obama Administration wasn’t about to let that happen, but instead of using the NSA, it used the IRS to both surveil Tea Party group activity and hamper such activity through aggressive targeting and auditing. In order to register and maintain their status as 501(c)(3) organizations, conservative groups were singled out and made to provide lists of their donors and how much they donated, links to all web pages and blog posts, copies of all newsletters, bulletins, and flyers, and even stories or articles published about the groups.
In short, the IRS wanted to know everything, and wanted to keep those groups under its thumb.
Both Congressional and FBI investigations were quickly launched, but neither produced much since the woman at the center of the scandal, Lois Lerner, the Director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division, repeatedly pleaded the fifth.
Just three days after the IRS scandal broke in May of 2013 (long after Obama was safely reelected), the Associated Press announced that the Justice Department had subpoenaed phone records from 20 reporters in what AP CEO Gary Pruitt called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into newsgathering procedures.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” Pruitt said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Curiously, the subpoenas weren’t issued to the AP itself, but rather to its cell phone providers, including Verizon Wireless, which turned data over to the government without hesitation.
Just four days after the AP’s announcement, The Washington Post reported that the Obama Justice Department had surveilled FOX News reporter James Rosen with phone traces and email monitoring, even going so far as to track his physical visits to the State Department.
The Obama Administration considered Rosen a “co-conspirator” as it investigated a leak of information regarding North Korea. Never before had the government prosecuted a reporter in a leak case, but Attorney General Holder was apparently going to try. At least, that was the assumption until Holder said on May 15th, 2013 that he had recused himself from all leak cases so as to prevent any conflicts of interest.
He even said that he testified to that effect a year earlier.
It turns out he was lying. On May 23rd, NBC News reported that Holder himself had signed off on the surveillance of James Rosen.
Roughly a year later, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the CIA of improperly hacking into a protected database for staffers working on a damning report outlining the Agency’s detention and interrogation program.
CIA Director John Brennan called those allegations ridiculous and denied them repeatedly.
Just a few months later, though, he was forced to admit that he had been lying. An internal CIA investigation revealed that the spying on Senate staffers had taken place, and he apologized for it. Two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee called for Brennan to be fired over the unprecedented Congressional spying operation, but President Obama stood by Brennan, saying that he had tremendous faith in his leadership.
Of course he did.
Four years earlier, an email from officials at the global intelligence firm Stratfor indicated that Brennan, then an Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, “is behind the witch hunts of investigative journalists learning information from inside the beltway sources.” “Note -- There is specific tasker from the WH to go after anyone printingmaterials negative to the Obama agenda (oh my.),” the email continued. “Even the FBI is shocked. The Wonder Boys must be in meltdown mode...”
One could dismiss this as mere gossip if it didn’t foreshadow the surveillance of Sharyl Attkisson, James Rosen, and nearly two dozen AP reporters who “printed materials negative to the Obama agenda.”
And one can’t ignore the stunning similarities between the Senate Intelligence Committee spying and the Obama Administration’s surveillance of members of Congress during negotiations of the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015.
The Wall Street Journal reported:
The U.S., pursuing a nuclear arms agreement with Iran at the time, captured communications between Mr. Netanyahu and his aides that inflamed mistrust between the two countries and planted a political minefield at home when Mr. Netanyahu later took his campaign against the deal to Capitol Hill.
The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.
White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign. They also recognized that asking for it was politically risky. So, wary of a paper trail stemming from a request, the White House let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold, officials said. “We didn’t say, ‘Do it,’ ” a senior U.S. official said. “We didn’t say, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”
Stepped-up NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Mr. Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations—learned through Israeli spying operations—to undermine the talks; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes, according to current and former officials familiar with the intercepts.
In other words, the surveillance was used for expressly political ends and used to counter the Obama Administration’s political enemies—in this case Netanyahu, Jewish-American groups, and American lawmakers who opposed the Iran deal.
This misuse of spy powers would have been a stunning revelation...if it were really a revelation at all. The truth is that the Obama Administration had made a disturbing habit of spying on friendly foreign leaders and perceived political and journalistic opponents for years.
Obama himself had learned the value of secret information in his first major political campaign way back in 2004, and the near-constant pursuit of such information for political gain was a hallmark of his presidency.
Is it therefore so far-fetched to believe that the same Administration that surveilled members of Congress and journalists it felt were its enemies would spy on a presidential campaign that vowed to completely undo President Obama’s legacy?
Faced with this disturbing possibility, it seems entirely plausible—likely, even—that the Obama Administration would simply do what it had been doing for eight years: It would spy on what it perceived to be its enemy.