Many in the media are convinced that if they create enough smoke, eventually they'll find a fire. So desperate are they to uncover a Watergate-level scandal somewhere in these early days of the Trump Administration, they're missing the actual Watergate-style scandal right before their eyes.
The problem is that in these journalists' imaginations, Trump plays the role of Nixon. But in reality, it's Obama whose being exposed as having employed Nixon's dark art of state-sponsored sabotage.
Almost by accident, here's some of what we've learned since the media's Russia/Trump digging began:
— In June, during the height of the campaign, the Obama Administration asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to grant it a warrant to conduct surveillance on members of the Trump campaign (it's unknown if they sought to conduct surveillance on Trump himself). But in a rare rebuke, the FISA court denied the Obama Administration's request. (To date the FISA court has rejected just .02 percent of more than 35,000 surveillance requests.)
— In October, the administration tries again, and this time the FISA court grants the DoJ's request. The NSA thus begins monitoring communications from a terminal at the Trump Tower. The Feds claimed to be interested in communications with one or two Russian banks accused of "financial offenses," though the surveillance has yet to produce evidence of criminality. It's also worth noting that financial crimes are typically investigated with criminal wiretaps, not the far-more expansive FISA warrants, which are intended only for matters of national security, as a former federal prosecutor, Andy McCarthy, recently noted. To date there are no reports this surveillance has stopped.
— In January, the Obama Administration pushed through a rule change that allowed the NSA to share raw material it's collected with America's 16 other intelligence agencies -- "before applying privacy protections." The New York Times reported:
The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws. These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches.
The change means that far more officials will be searching through raw data. Essentially, the government is reducing the risk that the N.S.A. will fail to recognize that a piece of information would be valuable to another agency, but increasing the risk that officials will see private information about innocent people.
— In February, holdovers from the Obama Administration leaked select portions of a call Gen. Michael Flynn had with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Yet because the leakers refuse to release the full tape -- and explain its provenance -- it's impossible to know whether the intel came from routine surveillance of Russian officials, or the Obama Administration's surveillance of the Trump campaign.
So here we have the president of the United States using America's most advanced surveillance technology, designed for monitoring foreign actors, against his domestic political opposition. Privacy protections are then rolled back so the gathered intel can be more easily shared throughout the federal government, thereby increasing the chances of embarrassing details being leaked to the press (which is exactly what's happened).
Nixon would never be so audacious.
And we're still just scratching the surface. If any of the intrepid journalists currently fishing for a Pulitzer in the dumpsters behind the Trump Tower are interested in real investigative work, here are a few questions we still don't have the answers to:
— What was the basis for the original surveillance request, and how did it differ from the successful October request?
— Why did the Obama Administration seek a warrant the FISA court, as opposed to the more usual criminal wiretap?
— Are members of the Trump team still under surveillance? Was/Is Trump himself a target?
— Are those conducting the surveillance in touch with any of their former employers in the Obama Administration? Is any of this being orchestrated from a power center outside the halls of the federal government?
— Was any of the intel gathered from these wiretaps used during the campaign? Was it shared with the Clinton campaign?
The Washington Post recently adopted the credo, "Democracy dies in the darkness." So, too, we might add, does truth not sought out. The Obama Administration's apparent use of America's spy agencies to sabotage the incoming Trump administration has all the makings of a Watergate-style scandal. If the media wants credit for exposing something big, a good first step is removing their ideological blinders.
UPDATE: After Trump tweeted Saturday morning that he's learned the Obama Administration wiretapped the Trump Tower, a spokesman for the former president, Kevin Lewis, issued a statement denying he ordered surveillance. However, the lawyerly statement left open the possibility the administration was conducting surveillance of Trump:
“A cardinal rule of the Obama Administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
Of course, this statement is not a denial the Obama Administration sought a wiretap against Trump and his aides. The only thing Lewis explicitly rules out is that the person who sought the warrant came from within the White House. But this is meaningless. As the Guardian and Heat Street both reported, the wiretap request came from Obama's Department of Justice/FBI.