The FBI made clear the extent of surveillance it conducts against even minor Russian intelligence operatives in a 2015 case concerning three low-level spies who had been arrested in New York.
“In the course of this investigation, the FBI has employed a variety of lawful investigative methods. For example, the FBI has conducted extensive physical and electronic surveillance of the defendants — including the covert placement of microphone-type listening devices in certain locations; the covert placement of video cameras in public locations; the monitoring and recording of the phone calls of certain of the defendants; and the use of a confidential source,” says the criminal complaint accusing Evgeny Buryakov, Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy of working for the SVR, the Russian intelligence service.
The complaint continued: “In addition, and among other things, the FBI has lawfully obtained multiple audio recordings of discussions involving certain of the defendants that occurred at various locations within a secure office in Manhattan used by SVR agents to send and receive intelligence reports and assignments from Moscow Center.”
A retired FBI supervisor who oversaw surveillance operations confirmed to The Daily Beast that agents are also able to monitor and record conversations in the Russian Mission to the United Nations complex in the Bronx and at the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C.
“The exact same thing in Washington,” the retired FBI supervisor said.
“Every telephone, every room, is bugged, every one of them is monitored.”
He is certain that this included the communications between Gen. Michael Flynn and the then Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak.
“Any calls from Flynn to a Russian guy or from a Russian guy to Flynn… they were recorded,” the retired FBI supervisor said. “If you’re talking to any [Russian] official in New York or Washington, you can bet the conversation is being recorded.”’
The retired FBI supervisor said the agents perpetually renew a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant authorizing them to conduct electronic surveillance against the Russians.
“Every 90 days, they go in," he said. “It’s a rubber stamp.”
Whether or not the Trump administration views the Russians as an adversary, the FBI certainly does. The retired supervisor recalled that when he was starting out he would speak to veteran agents who had been conducting surveillance with whatever technology allowed for since at least the early 1950s.
“It certainly goes back to then,” he said
And all of this must have been known to Gen. Flynn, who was previously assistant director of national intelligence in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) as well as the Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.
Flynn had to know he was being recorded when he spoke to the Russian ambassador. He also had to know it is a crime to lie to the FBI. Why then did he lie when agents questioned him about those conversations?
Part of the explanation may be a tendency during his tenure with the DIA to tailor the truth to his purposes. The New York Times has reported that his subordinates spoke of “Flynn facts.”
And this proclivity to offer “Flynn facts” may have been a key element of his bond with the tireless purveyor of “Trump facts.”
That melding of alternate realities with the Commander in Chief may have led Flynn to feel armored against anything as niddling as being charged with lying to some lowly FBI agents.
That would be particularly so because these lies involved what is described as “a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team” in the Statement of the Offense that accompanied Flynn's guilty plea on Friday.
But none of that explains why there was any need to lie in the first place. The retired FBI supervisor could discern nothing manifestly criminal about an incoming administration exchanging messages with the Russians.
“I’m not quite sure how much of that stuff is illegal,” the retired supervisor said. “There clearly is no smoking gun unless this guy has something. He must have a better story to tell.”
Perhaps there is something telling in the quick willingness of Flynn to do the bidding of the Russians regarding the sanctions and the Russian willingness to comply with Flynn’s request regarding a UN resolution.
Perhaps Flynn and others of the Trump inner circle feared the immediate mutual compliance pointed to an established relationship.
The word for that would be collusion.
In telling the lies, Flynn was only doing what people routinely do upon encountering the FBI. The retired supervisor says he encountered so many people in the field who lie to the FBI that when his kids once asked him, "How do you know we're lying?' he replied:
“For 25 years, people have been lying to me every day. What I don’t know is when you’re telling me the truth.”
For Flynn to have been let off with only a plea to such a minor charge signals to the retired supervisor that the FBI had him on much more serious crimes. The retired supervisor figures they might well include Flynn’s dealings with the Turkish government, which appear to be illegal indeed.
Flynn failed to register as a foreign agent after taking $500,000 from the Turkish government. His efforts on its behalf as he was about to become Trump’s national security advisor included asking the outgoing holder of the post, Susan Rice, not to arm a group of Syrian Kurds as part of the plan to attack the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa. The Trump administration’s first big move regarding terrorism was to impede action against ISIS.
Flynn is also said to have sought to arrange for an opposition leader, Fethullah Gulen, to be seized in the United States and spirited back to Turkey. Flynn is further said to have sought to secure the release of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold dealer with ties to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Zarrab was arrested while with his family in Disney World on charges of conspiring to evade the sanctions against Iran.
Last month, federal prosecutors confirmed speculation in the Daily Beast that Zarrab had flipped and gone from a defendant to a witness against the banker who is his alleged co-conspirator. He may well have made himself even more useful to prosecutors by providing information about Flynn and the Turks.
The purveyor of “Flynn facts” may have then found himself facing the reality of a prison cell. Special Counsel Robert Mueller appears to have offered Flynn a deal.
“Let him plead guilty on absolutely nothing, but let him walk on what he could have done real jail time for,” the retired supervisor surmises.
In exchange, Flynn would have agreed to testify to truths behind the “Trump facts.”
“Inner workings of the inner circle,” the retired supervisor said. “I assume that’s where they’re going.”
If the stipulations that accompanied Friday’s guilty plea are true — and not just more “Flynn facts” — the Trump inner circle was party to his discussions with the Russian ambassador.
Vice President Mike Pence was apparently not in on it and took seemingly genuine offense when Flynn told him he had not discussed the sanctions with Kislyak. Trump then outdid himself by firing Flynn for lying.
"He didn't tell the vice president of the United States the facts and then he didn't remember, and that's just not acceptable," Trump told reporters. "I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence."
Flynn still knew larger facts that had prompted the lies. Trump made sure to call Flynn “a fine man” even as he fired him.
Trump repeated that assessment when he subsequently urged then FBI Director James Comey to drop the Russia probe.Comey refused and Trump soon after fired him.
The words for that may prove to be obstruction of justice.
Trump followed that bit of recklessness by hosting a White House visit one day later with none other than the Russian ambassador Kislyak, along with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.
The FBI operatives who routinely follow Kislyak could only have been stunned by what transpired in that Oval Office meeting. The three Russian spies who were arrested in New York in 2015 must have been equally amazed.
As if out of a Russian spy’s wildest dreams, the president of the United States personally presented his two visitors with intelligence that had been given to us by another country on the condition we keep it to ourselves.
Rather than go to all the trouble of entrapping some poor soul with a honey trap and blackmailing him into providing ever more sensitive information through secret codes and dead drops, the Russian simply walked into the Oval Office to get highly sensitive stuff without even asking for it.
Trump reportedly also told the two Russians, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Meanwhile, as the purveyor of “Flynn facts” pled guilty to the crime of lying to the FBI, the purveyor of “Trump facts” should be glad that it is not a crime to lie to the American public.