WASHINGTON — Lawmakers said today that it would be within Moscow’s known M.O. to orchestrate or join a campaign calling for the ouster of National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster.
The knives came out for McMaster among some on the right after Circa reported last week on an April letter in which McMaster tells former National Security Advisor Susan Rice that the NSC “will continue to work with you to ensure the appropriate security clearance documentation remains on file to allow you access to classified information.”
“I hereby waive the requirement that you must have a ‘need-to-know’ to access any classified information contained in items you ‘originated, reviewed, signed or received while serving,’ as National Security Adviser,” the letter adds.
Intelligence officials told Bloomberg’s Eli Lake that McMaster “concluded that Rice did nothing wrong” in using her authority to request that some U.S. names in FISA surveillance connected to the Trump-Russia investigation be unmasked. The Weekly Standard reported that revoking Rice’s clearance would actually have been out of the norm and that McMaster wrote the letter to all former national security advisors as has been customary, and even the current clearance doesn’t allow continued asking privileges for sensitive info.
Rice met last month with the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he didn’t ask Rice about the accusation that she leaked names. “The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes, and I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” Burr said. “But clearly there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public, which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”
McMaster also succeeded last week in getting ride of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was named senior director for intelligence programs at the NSC under former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. Cohen-Watnick provided House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) with the documents that started the unmasking furor.
In addition to coming under fire for other housecleaning at the NSC, critics contend that McMaster, who eschews the term “radical Islam,” isn’t strong enough on terrorism and isn’t pro-Israel. As the hashtag #FireMcMaster spread last week, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks social media activity from accounts and bots linked to Russia’s influence operation, found the hashtag to be the most-tweeted among 600 such accounts.
On Friday, Trump issued a statement defending his national security advisor: “General McMaster and I are working very well together. He is a good man and very pro–Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who introduced a green-card reform bill with Trump last week, called McMaster “a great American” this morning on CBS, adding “there are not many generals out there who are highly decorated in two different wars and also have bestselling Ph.D.s about civil-military relations.”
“I was happy to bring him to the president’s attention in February. I’m pleased that the president chose him to be his national security adviser. Glad to know, as the president said on Friday, that they’re working very well together,” Cotton said.
The senator said he didn’t want to comment on reports of Russian influence activity surrounding calls for McMaster’s ouster, “but I will say that Russia has a long history of using disinformation, deception, subterfuge and espionage to influence Western democracies.”
“That happened in our election last year, when Russian intelligence services hacked into those emails and released them. It happened in 1983, when Russian intelligence services were behind much of the protests against the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces to Western Europe,” Cotton said. “So, it should come as no surprise that Russia continues its effort to manipulate Western democracies in a way to sow discord and disagreements between our countries in NATO and within the United States or any other Western European country. And it’s something the United States obviously must be on guard against.”
“It shouldn’t surprise any American to know that Russia uses its money and its intelligence services to spread disinformation, use subterfuge, deception, and manipulation to try to divide political opinion within the United States, within any Western European country, or among NATO countries. That’s one of the techniques that Russia has used for decades, during the Cold War and during the Putin era.”
House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told CNN today that he believes the Russian troll operation is “indicative of the idea that the Russians don’t particularly like General McMaster.”
“They may not like his policies, what he’s advocating to the administration, or they may just be seeking to sow further discord among Trump administration officials, feeling that that would weaken the administration,” Schiff added. “I think General McMaster is a good man. I met him in Afghanistan when he was working there. I think he’s a straight shooter. And I hope that the president will ignore those voices.”
“He is one of the people, frankly, one of the few people, that people on both sides of the aisle have confidence in that are within this administration.”
Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said this morning he’s “certainly suspicious of a concerted effort directed at” McMaster.
“You know, I tell audiences, and I told Congress in June, the cyber threat is going to get worse before it gets better in this country. Bad cyber actors are becoming more aggressive, more ingenious and more tenacious,” Johnson told CNN. “And that’s why we need a national campaign from the president, from the next secretary of Homeland Security, to really address this problem. Nothing would surprise me at this point in terms of their capabilities.”
In an interview aired this weekend with Hugh Hewitt on MSNBC, McMaster, without broaching the subject of the ouster campaign, slammed Russia’s “very sophisticated campaign of subversion and disinformation and propaganda that is ongoing every day in an effort to break apart Europe and to pit political groups against each other.”