News that special counselor Robert Mueller has turned his attention to Erik Prince’s January 11, 2017 meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian banker, a Lebanese-American political fixer, and officials from the United Arab Emirates, helps clarify the nature of Mueller’s work. It’s not an investigation that the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is leading—rather, it’s a cover-up.
After all, Mueller took his job not at the behest of the man who by all accounts he is likely to professionally and personally disdain, Donald Trump, but of the blue-chip Beltway elite of which he is a charter member. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed him nearly a year ago to lead an investigation without parameters. That’s because Mueller’s job is to obscure the abuses of the US surveillance apparatus that occurred under the Obama administration.
The fact that someone at the level of former FBI director was called in to sweep up the mess left by bad actors in the bureau and Central Intelligence Agency and other parts of the intelligence bureaucracy suggests that the problems are even worse than previously thought. And that means the constituency for Mueller’s political intervention is enormous.
Mueller is said to believe that the Prince meeting was to set up a back channel with the Kremlin. But that makes no sense. According to the foundational text of the collusion narrative, the dossier allegedly written by former British spy Christopher Steele, the Kremlin had cultivated Trump himself for years. So what’s the purpose of a back channel, when Vladimir Putin already had a key to the front door of Mar-a-Lago?
Further, the collusion thesis holds that the Trump circle teamed with high-level Russian officials for the purpose of winning the 2016 election. How does a meeting that Erik Prince had a week before Trump’s inauguration advance the crooked election victory plot? It doesn’t—it contradicts it.
Erik Prince may well be involved in questionable practices that would make people’s blood run cold. For one thing, he owns and operates a private army, which he rents to unsavory characters—as well as the US government. Maybe Prince was trying to drum up some sort of business with Russia, energy-related, or mercenary-related. Who knows?
The idea that whenever anyone who supported Trump, or even voted for him, met with a Russian national the dish on the menu was treason is the stuff of Cold War B-movies. But it is also evidence of something more than prosecutorial overreach. The fact that Mueller has zeroed in on Prince points to a key motive behind his ongoing investigation.
Prince was thrown into the middle of Russiagate after an April 3, 2017 Washington Post story reported his meeting with the Russian banker. But how did anyone know about the meeting? After the story came out, Prince said he was shown “specific evidence” by sources from the intelligence community that the information was swept up in the collection of electronic communications and his identity was unmasked. The US official or officials who gave his name to the Post broke the law when they leaked classified intelligence. “Unless The Washington Post has somehow miraculously recruited the bartender of a hotel in the Seychelles,” Prince told the House Intelligence Committee in December, “the only way that’s happening is through SIGINT [signals intelligence].”
Mueller presumably knows whether Prince’s name was indeed unmasked and then leaked to the press—and that the leak was a crime. Mueller certainly knows that most of the case he has regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election was built by abuses of the foreign intelligence surveillance apparatus and other related crimes that are punishable with jail time. The identity of Trump’s short-tenured National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was swept up and leaked to the press in the same way as Prince’s. It was leaked to the same newspaper, the Washington Post.
As I explained last week, the identity of Attorney General Jeff Sessions was also unmasked from intelligence intercepts and leaked to the Washington Post. The fact that the FBI had secured a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on Carter Page was also leaked to the Post. The warrant on Page was secured on the basis of the findings in the Steele dossier, an unverified piece of opposition research paid for by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee.
As director of the FBI during the post-9/11 period, when foreign intelligence surveillance and its abuses made regular front-page headlines, Muller knows exactly how the system can be abused—and what the penalties are. He also recognizes that Russiagate is evidence of how it was abused, and who abused it—including some of the same people he worked with during his 12-year tenure as FBI director.
The purpose of the Mueller inquiry is therefore not to investigate the mostly ludicrous-seeming charges in the Steele dossier, but to protect the institution of the FBI, former colleagues, as well as the national security surveillance system. Therefore the inquiry has to cover up the sinful origins of the collusion narrative itself—which was born in repeated abuses of power and subsequent crimes committed by US officials in the intelligence bureaucracy and the Obama administration.
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Robert Mueller is a man of integrity, an honorable public servant—both Republicans and Democrats say so. Yes, Mueller served the American public and helped protect it at a time when American nerves were frayed. And his tenure as FBI director shows signs of how that strain took a toll on him both personally and professionally.
Mueller oversaw one of the bureau’s biggest cases ever, the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and infected another 17. “The director was always the leader of the anthrax investigation, period,” the former head of the FBI’s Washington field office Michael Mason told the Los Angeles Times. Focusing on a virologist named Steven Hatfill, Mueller was certain he had the right man. As he told congressional leaders in January 2003, a bloodhound had identified Hatfill as the terrorist. Hatfill was cleared in 2008, and won a $5.8 million settlement from the U.S. government. Having wasted millions of dollars without ever arresting the actual criminal, Mueller refused to ever admit that he or the bureau had erred.
Mueller critics cite the Hatfill case as evidence of his sometimes unhealthy zeal and refusal to change course in spite of the facts. Another episode from the post-9/11 period goes directly to the heart of the investigation he is currently conducting.
In March 2004, Mueller’s longtime colleague and friend James Comey raced to the hospital bed of John Ashcroft to prevent the then Attorney General from reauthorizing a surveillance program. According to a 2007 Washington Post account, Mueller was one among several US officials, along with then deputy attorney general Comey, who threatened to resign if the George W. Bush White House reauthorized a “warrantless eavesdropping program.” The program allowed, explains the Post, “the NSA to monitor e-mails and telephone calls between the United States and overseas if one party was believed linked to terrorist groups.”
Or, that’s the standard account. A 2013 article by Julian Sanchez argues that Mueller and Comey’s concerns were related to a different program authorizing the indiscriminate collection of Internet metadata, even where there were no overseas connections. They believed the program could not be defended by the legal rationale employed by the Bush White House. The Bush administration solved the problem by putting that program under a different authority.
In other words, Mueller did not object to the ethical and political concerns the program should rightly raise in a democracy, only its legal basis for existing. That program existed until 2011. The program that the Post and other media believe Mueller was willing to resign over, the warrantless monitoring of e-mails and telephone calls between the United States and overseas, continued in some forms until 2015.
Some Mueller critics suggest that in threatening to resign he was simply showboating. Under his tenure, they note, the FBI was responsible for countless surveillance abuses.
Past and present FBI officials who broke the law may be seen to have the largest stake in Mueller’s investigation continuing as long as possible. The inquiry has plenty of other constituencies as well. National security hawks are rightly worried that the abuses of foreign intelligence surveillance may jeopardize programs that are designed to keep Americans safe from terrorism. For the time being, Mueller’s probe has managed to help obscure the fact those programs have sometimes been used to spy on Americans.
The press also has an interest in prolonging the Mueller probe. Russiagate is good for business, mesmerizing viewers with a grand political spectacle featuring one of the media’s biggest draws for the last several decades—Donald Trump, the boss villain who is now in the White House. Maybe most prominent among the interested media organizations is the paper that has colluded with lawbreakers in publishing the names of US persons whose identities have been illegally leaked by intelligence officials and political operatives—the Washington Post.
Coincidentally, the owner of the Post also has a major stake in letting Mueller do his work to preserve America’s surveillance and spying complex. In 2013, the same year that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought the paper that broke Watergate for $250 million, Amazon Web Services landed a $600 million deal with the US intelligence community. According to a 2017 Washington Post story, AWS created a “cloud storage service designed to handle classified information for U.S. spy agencies,” including the CIA. The cloud technology was to “usher in a new era of cooperation and coordination, allowing agencies to share information and services much more easily.”
And now some intelligence and data experts believe that the CIA cloud is how the Obama administration could have minimized its trail after unmasking US persons. “The NSA database, with its large and ongoing collection of electronic communications, can be accessed through the NSA’s cloud,” says one former senior intelligence official. The NSA can audit it and find out if analysts are violating rules. The NSA does not audit the CIA’s cloud, which is audited by the CIA’s IT people and Amazon Web Services employees who are given security clearances. Says the former official: “There are people in the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Council staff who can move information from the NSA cloud into the CIA cloud. That seems the likeliest scenario to explain how Obama officials first unmasked US persons and then shared information without leaving a trail that could be audited independently, or immediately, at every step. Since unmasking, by itself, is authorized for lawful purposes, it’s the processing and sharing, as with Susan Rice’s spreadsheets, that tell us if the information was being misused.”
Presumably, the owner of Amazon is not eager to have Amazon customers see that the company with their credit card data and buying and viewing habits on file may have facilitated the US government’s spying on American citizens to advance a campaign of political warfare.
Mueller’s assembled constituents—from spies to political operatives, and from the press to big data/big business—must look something like what some on the left as well as the right have called the “Deep State,” a sinister-sounding phrase conjuring up dark images of cutthroat Turkish paramilitary operatives. But that’s not really what happened here—even the top spooks involved in Russiagate, like former CIA director John Brennan, have spent most of their careers inside Washington mastering nothing darker than the bureaucratic arts of ass-covering and blame-mongering.
These are the Beltway insiders whose privileges Trump threatened on the campaign trail. Sure, they told each other, what Trump said about immigrants was rotten. But the real issue was that Trump—a vulgar businessman, a bestselling author with a short attention-span who never read a book in his life—had denigrated them, honorable civil servants and reputable journalists who answer to a higher calling than a reality TV star. He called us losers. And then he declared that the Obama administration and the intelligence community were spying on him.
As an intelligence bureaucrat who was never held accountable for the enormous public failure that the Hatfill case represented, Robert Mueller was the natural choice to be the public face of a campaign designed to protect the interests of an unaccountable ruling class. The range of his inquiry is dictated not by the ostensible purpose of his appointment, but by the nature and scope of the abuses and crimes he’s covering up. Should the wheels of the Mueller probe ever stop grinding, his entire constituency immediately becomes vulnerable. The public will understand what happened, who’s responsible, and who covered it up.
That’s why the investigation can’t stop; it can only keep expanding. Let Mueller do his work, Democratic and Republican elites chant together, like a mystery cult. We don’t know what Mueller knows. Somewhere, someone must have committed a crime, or told a lie, and then something that Trump did or someone who worked for him did will prove that someone did something, or that someone lied to the people in charge of the cover-up.
The problem is that by using the justice system as a political weapon to attack the enemies of the country’s elite, Robert Mueller and his supporters in both parties are confirming what many Americans already believe. That in spite of all the fine rhetoric, we are not all equal under one law. There is in fact a privileged class, a ruling class that sees its own interests as identical with the public good, and never pays a price for its failures, its abuses, and its crimes.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).