Analysis

Pick of ex-FBI Chief to Lead Trump-Russia Probe: Act of Genius or Desperation?

Israeli acquaintances of Robert Mueller describe him as a decent man, likable and professional, one who makes no allowances for VIPs

Former FBI chief Robert Mueller.
JASON REED/REUTERS

“Public corruption is our top criminal investigative priority,” declared the director of the FBI nine years ago, adding that the FBI holds a unique position in tackling corruption, not only due to its skills in handling sophisticated investigations but because it is insulated from political pressure. He added that the FBI could follow evidence without worrying about retribution or accusations.

Robert Mueller was speaking to the Bar Association in Washington. He was then at the midpoint of his 12 years at the helm of the FBI, well-regarded and repeatedly getting an extension of his tenure. Barack Obama, who inherited him from George W. Bush, initiated a special extension beyond the 10-year term stipulated by law, in order to prevent a repeat of a 48-year J. Edgar Hoover term.

Along comes Donald Trump, making a mockery of Mueller’s commitment to insulate the FBI from political interference in investigations, by dumping Mueller’s successor James Comey, thereby triggering a chain of events that have returned the 72 year-old Mueller to the fore as special counsel in the Trump-Russia case. Now, as in the difficult period following the 9/11 attacks (which fell one week after Mueller took on his new role), when the FBI had to reorganize amid a grave crisis and focus on foiling terror attacks, the prestige of the bureau and the entire justice system rests largely on Mueller’s ability to restore their credibility and confidence, which were badly damaged by the Trump-Comey exchanges.

Mueller’s Israeli acquaintances describe him as a decent man, professional and likeable at the same time. Over the last decade he learned a lot from the experience of Israel’s police and Shin Bet security service in foiling terror attacks. The impression is that he makes no allowances for VIPs and doesn’t make serious mistakes such as the ones that rattled Comey during that delicate time of presidential elections, a change of administration, investigations and criticism from Congress and the media.

Mueller’s appointment is either a masterstroke or an act of desperation, depending on one’s viewpoint and on the way this ends, made by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. Rosenstein, who had a squeaky clean record as U.S. attorney for Maryland, is trying to turn himself from a scoundrel into a hero. Trump is an expert at destroying people’s reputations. When Gen. H.R. McMaster agreed to temporarily suspend his military career to serve the president as national security adviser, he enjoyed an unblemished reputation. Within weeks Trump was exploiting him as a questionable spokesman, tarnishing his image. He will most likely try to escape back into the military soon, probably with a promotion.

Rosenstein was abused earlier, when Comey’s dismissal was described by Trump as a move based on Rosenstein’s credibility. This credibility was shattered when Trump then announced he had intended to fire Comey in any case, and that Rosenstein had just been a hired tool. Rosenstein considered resigning but then bucked up and remained in the system, apparently to save it from Trump.

Trump arrived in the White House from Manhattan, innocent of any understanding of Washington. The complex web of ties between intelligence and law enforcement agencies at all levels is unfamiliar to him. Earlier on, he was exposed to it from a particular angle during the bitter strife between the New York Police Department and the FBI. The NYPD, which lost 23 of its members (joining some 400 firefighter and emergency and Port Authority workers) in the 9/11 attack, never forgave the haughty federal agents, who had held in their hands the fateful clues, for not stringing them together in time to apprehend the people plotting to hijack planes and fly them into the Twin Towers.

In accepting the present assignment, Mueller enjoys extensive freedom of action. In practice he is immune to dismissal. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, America’s Miri Regev, played innocent this week when claiming that the president could hire and fire at will. In fact, firing an FBI director requires the consent of the attorney general or his deputy, while firing a Supreme Court justice requires congressional assent.

Trump should have remembered Deep Throat

If Trump had bothered to look into presidential history, he would have realized that messing with FBI directors can be toxic. Richard Nixon courted disaster when he overlooked Mark Felt, No. 3 in the FBI, when appointing a new director. Felt subsequently became Deep Throat, the key source for Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate affair. Comey, not a media-shy person himself, has also improvised an explosive device in the form of a memorandum of his meeting with Trump, in which the latter asked him to desist from investigating links between his adviser Michael Flynn and the Russians. This memo has exploded and severely injured the president.

When Trump challenged Comey by mentioning taped recordings of their talks, he should have known he was dragging in a long history of taped conversations between presidents and FBI directors, mainly in the 1960s.

Nixon will always be remembered as the most reviled recorder, but he was actually the sixth president to engage in such recordings, following four Democrats and one Republican. At first he had reservations about this practise and wanted to dismantle the equipment left behind by Johnson. The need was always there to document conversations so as to resolve different versions of who said what and what the president’s position had been. If Trump is recording his conversations it should be possible to get transcripts of what he said to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian ambassador, in order to ascertain what was really said.

Almost 300 such conversations, many of which deal with or include Hoover, can be found in the Johnson Library. These make for riveting oral history. Johnson, a former senator and Vice-President who was an old ally of Hoover and rival of his boss, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, can be heard trying to influence Hoover, soften him up, urging him to give up information. Shortly after the Kennedy assassination Hoover updates him on the Oswald investigation, as well as on the circumstances that allowed Jack Ruby, a close friend and gay partner of Dallas police force members, to assassinate Oswald at a police station. Newsreel photographers who needed daylight had asked the police not to transfer Oswald for the extension of his remand during the night.

“My brother” Johnson calls Hoover, “My best friend in town.” Johnson checked if Hoover would oppose the inclusion of former CIA director Allen Dulles in the Warren commission investigating the Kennedy assassination. Hoover didn’t want a presidential commission, the appointment of which would signify a lack of confidence in the FBI investigation which was already underway. The CIA was an FBI competitor in many areas, especially in South America and in foiling Soviet espionage. Later, when the FBI investigated the murder of civil rights activists in Alabama and the involvement of local policemen and judges cropped up, Dulles’ name cropped up again in conversations between Hoover and Johnson, when Alabama’s governor asked for someone to come down and chill his racist public which was complaining about the FBI.

The most interesting conversation, similar in principle to Russia’s intervention in Trump’ 2016 election, took place between Johnson and Hoover’s liaison officer at the White House Deke DeLoach shortly after the 1968 elections. Nixon barely defeated Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s VP. His victory was aided by the standstill in the peace talks during the Vietnam War. If some breakthrough had taken place earlier, Nixon might have lost for the second and final time.

The Saigon government, supported by the Americans, was mostly responsible for the stalemate, calculating who would be better as the next president. This wasn’t the only such case – Menachem Begin in 1980 preferred a Reagan victory over Jimmy Carter. Both cases are precedents for Vladimir Putin’s intervention on behalf of Trump against Hillary Clinton. In 1968, Johnson suspected that Nixon, directly or through intermediaries, had urged South Vietnam to harden its positions in talks with the North until after the elections. DeLoach’s conversation with Johnson sounds like a political-professional discussion between a prosecutor or assistant Attorney General and a department head at a security agency. DeLoach tells the president, two months before Nixon takes over, how someone in Nixon’s campaign had talked to the main lobbyist for South Vietnam, who then phoned the South Vietnamese ambassador.

Internal conversations with American citizens were simply recorded as numbers, durations and the identity of both sides. Conversations with embassies such as the South Vietnamese, Israeli and Russian ones were wiretapped. The South Vietnamese embassy’s contacts with the lobbyist were thus taped by the FBI.

On assuming office, both Johnson and Nixon were experienced in foreign and defense matters after years in Congress and as vice-presidents. They were no strangers to security briefings and understood the different levels of classification. How can these two as well as George Bush, former head of the CIA, former governors Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush compare to the boastful ignoramus Trump, who badmouthed US intelligence services during the Obama years but now revels in the “wonderful intelligence” he receives.

Claim of 'right' to reveal secrets is ridiculous

Trump in his own statements made the link between the two aspects of the FBI investigation, the security (Russia) and the criminal (obstruction of justice, conflict of interest). His claim of being authorized to reveal classified information as he sees fit is ridiculous, as if he had said that as supreme commander he could endanger soldiers on a whim or launch nuclear missiles out of boredom.

This baseless claim is made in Israel as well, feeding on the weakness or naveté of attorneys general when prime ministers make use of nuclear or intelligence secrets to justify their actions. Permission given after the fact has been called here “the doctrine of guardians of classified information.” The person at the top is allowed what others aren’t in divulging secrets, since he is the guardian.

This folly was apparently introduced to security issues from the world of commerce, where the secrets belong to the employer, not the employee. The employer enjoys the freedom to withhold or divulge information. However, the parallel fails in affairs of state, since a president or prime minister does not own state secrets. They belong to the state, and a president or prime minister has no standing above other holders of these secrets.

When a senior official risks divulging intelligence in an unauthorized manner, there could be three reasons why. When in 1972 Henry Kissinger warned Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin not to tell Egypt what Nixon and Brezhnev were planning, since Egypt was penetrated by Israeli intelligence, he put an intelligence source at risk. He did this knowingly, believing the purpose of this was more important than obtaining information on Brezhnev’s talks with Sadat.

Intelligence isn’t self-serving. An American-Russian peace deal dictated to Egypt and Israel was more important than an intelligence source. Kissinger couldn’t imagine that four decades later his classified conversation would be published.

The second reason is an honest mistake. The person forgets that the information he’s sharing is highly classified. The results can sometimes be disastrous. The foreign leader reports back home, or to a third party, and the local intelligence service apprehends and executes the spy or tears out the listening device.

Trump alone may be in the third group, of people just gabbing for the sake of making an impression, boasting that he possesses secrets and knows how they were obtained as well. In any case information that could be passed through regular channels was probably already transmitted. Trump’s big mouth has landed him in trouble, with a possible incrimination and loss of his job. Former FBI directors have a score to settle with him.