TSG IntelBrief: A National Security Scandal
February 15, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The February 13 resignation of the U.S. National Security Advisor over lying about discussions with the Russian ambassador is unprecedented.
• The resignation has been followed by reports of more undisclosed communications between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials before the election.
• The repercussions of these events will be significant and are already crossing deep partisan divisions.
• The unfolding scandal comes at a time when the new administration is militarily involved in a number of conflicts and faces serious security challenges.
On February 13, the Trump administration’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned over newly released details regarding a December 2016 phone call he had with the Russian ambassador. Flynn’s resignation was followed by subsequent reports of undisclosed communications between other members of Trump’s inner circle and Russian officials during the U.S presidential campaign. The result has been the destabilization of one of the most critical executive branch functions: the National Security Council and its many pressing duties. The unfolding scandal is already displaying hallmarks of recent political trends, including crippling partisanship, allegations of ‘fake news’, and Russian involvement. The initial details suggest this scandal is like many previous political sagas in Washington, D.C. history; it is likely that any potential cover-up will be far more damaging than the actual incident. However, long-simmering concerns and official U.S. reports of Russian interference in the recent election, including disinformation campaigns and network hacking operations, raise the level of concern.
As the various investigations by the FBI and Congress take shape, the scope of undisclosed contacts and communication between members of the Trump campaign—and now his administration—and Russian officials will be better understood. It is difficult to overstate how unusual this situation is; a New York Times report indicated that intercepted communications included members of Trump’s campaign in direct contact with Russian intelligence officers. Indeed, there is little question that the uncertainty surrounding these new revelations will have some degree of impact on national security policies and implementation.
At one level, the system will continue to function as designed; intelligence and security professionals work in accordance with long-established procedures and protocols that are not overly dependent on individual personalities. Secretary of Defense James Mattis made note of this when asked about the scandal, saying the resignation will have no impact on his own duties, and “who is on the president’s staff is who I will work with.”
Yet at another level, the scandal is a dramatic escalation in a damaging trend. Despite a warning from the Department of Justice that Flynn had misled administration officials regarding the details of his conversation with the Russian ambassador, he remained in his post as National Security Advisor for several weeks. In a way, this allowed the conspiracies and ‘alternative facts’ swirling around the current political environment to infiltrate directly into the center of the National Security Council. At a time when unprecedented efforts are being taken to obscure facts with ‘alternative facts’ on matters as insignificant as crowd sizes, a political scandal that throws a cloud of doubt over an institution as important as the National Security Council is a concern of the highest order. National security issues have always been politicized and exploited for political gain, but the inability to agree on basic facts and norms threatens to undermine one of the most important functions of the executive branch. While the impact of these developments on the day-to-day national security operations of a country deeply involved in ongoing military conflicts and facing numerous emerging threats is not clear, the long-term impact could be destructive.
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