The Democrats’ Trump/Russia collusion narrative took a major hit this week when Facebook leaks about Russia-linked ads forced disappointed Dems to walk back their anti-Trump messaging. Congressional leaders, in the meantime, have reportedly renewed their focus on Team Obama’s election-year political espionage.
The anti-Trumpers’ promising story-line — “Trump and Russia colluded on Facebook” — had to be downgraded to merely “Russia sought to create incivility and chaos” when it was discovered that the Russia-linked group in question promoted issues and groups on both sides of the political spectrum.
According to Facebook’s investigators, the company sold up to $150,000 worth of ads to a Russian government-affiliated troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency, which bought the ads through hundreds of phony Facebook pages and accounts.
The intelligence community describes the Internet Research Agency as “a state-funded organization that blogs and tweets on behalf of the Kremlin.”
At least one of the over 3,000 Russia-bought ads, which Facebook will soon turn over to Congress, promoted Black Lives Matter and specifically targeted audiences in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, CNN reported on Wednesday.
The Black Lives Matter ad appeared on Facebook at some point in late 2015 or early 2016, the sources said. The sources said it appears the ad was meant to appear both as supporting Black Lives Matter but also could be seen as portraying the group as threatening to some residents of Baltimore and Ferguson.
New descriptions of the Russian-bought ads shared with CNN suggest that the apparent goal of the Russian buyers was to amplify political discord and fuel an atmosphere of incivility and chaos, though not necessarily to promote one candidate or cause over another. Facebook’s review of Russian efforts on its platform focused on a timeframe from June 2015 to May 2017.
These ranged from posts promoting Black Lives Matter to posts promoting gun rights and the Second Amendment to posts warning about what they said was the threat undocumented immigrants posed to American democracy. Beyond the election, Russians have sought to raise questions about western democracies.
According to the Washington Post, other ads showed support for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton among Muslim women.
“This is consistent with the overall goal of creating discord inside the body politic here in the United States, and really across the West,” said Steve Hall, a former CIA officer and CNN national security analyst. “It shows they the level of sophistication of their targeting. They are able to sow discord in a very granular nature, target certain communities and link them up with certain issues.”
Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that there’s “no evidence yet” that Russians and Trump officials colluded on the Facebook ads, but said “it’s an area the committee continues to investigate.”
While the Trump/Russia collusion investigation ran into a speed bump this week, the unmasking probe gained steam.
Congressional Republicans have turned their attention to Team Obama’s efforts to obtain highly classified intelligence information on Trump and his allies before the inauguration.
U.S officials familiar with the situation told the Washington Free Beacon that Obama administration National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s recent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee places “renewed attention on the investigation” into why highly classified intelligence community reports were obtained and then leaked to the press.
Congressional leaders are also reportedly interested in finding out why former United Nations ambassador Samantha Power and other senior Obama officials made an unusually high number of unmasking requests during the final months of the Obama administration.
“It was understood in the Bush administration that unmasking was out of the ordinary; it was something rare that you might sometimes do but needed a special and easily defensible reason for doing,” said a former official who served in several Republican administrations. “You could not ask out of mere curiosity, nor obviously for political reasons. There needed to be a clear, direct national security justification.”
He added that “it is very hard to see how an ambassador to the United Nations would ever, one single time, have such a justification, much less have hundreds of occasions for this kind of invasion of Americans’ privacy. It looks like either politics, or prurient interest.”
“The misuse of intelligence information by members of the Obama administration is a serious issue that requires an exhaustive investigation and accountability,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), chair of House Subcommittee on National Security.
“From the unmasking exploits of Obamaphiles like Samantha Power to the leaking of FISA [Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act] material, this behavior has eroded public trust in America’s intelligence apparatus and has imperiled the future authorization of key counterterrorism programs,” DeSantis added.
DeSantis last summer singled out former White House National Security Council member Ben Rhodes and other Obama officials as primary suspects in the subsequent leaks of classified information. “Congress has a lot of work that needs to get done,” he said.
Susan Rice at first denied any role in unmasking the identities of Trump transition team members that had been hidden in classified intelligence reports, but fessed up before the House Intel Committee earlier this month.
“The media stories reporting that Susan Rice admitted to unmasking Trump officials—after initially claiming she knew nothing about it—have refocused a lot of attention in Congress on this issue,” one senior congressional source with knowledge of the matter told the Free Beacon. “The ensuing media reports that [Trump transition team member] Paul Manafort was wiretapped have further intensified the sense that Obama officials were using intelligence products to keep tabs on Trump’s team.”
According to the Free Beacon, Rep. Sean Duffy (R. Wis.) is encouraging his congressional colleagues “to move past the Russia probe in pursuit of the facts about Obama’s potentially illicit spy operation on Trump associates.”
“Hillary Clinton and ‘resist’ Democrats still refuse to acknowledge that their bad ideas led them to lose the 2016 election, so they’ve created this Russia narrative to undermine President Trump and to justify their loss,” Duffy said. “The real deep-dive investigation should be on the breaches of national security by unmasking of American citizens and the leaking of sensitive information by the Obama administration and Deep State.”
A congressional adviser with knowledge of the matter added that “the Russia hysteria wasn’t only manufactured to undermine Trump’s legitimacy, although that was part of it. It was also used to retroactively cover the Obama administration’s illegal use of American intelligence capabilities against American citizens.”
According to the source, “this goes back to just after the election, when they ran to friendly reporters and planted stories about leaving a trail of evidence on Russia hacking. It also includes dumb tricks like retroactively loosening restrictions around surveillance.”
A second senior congressional source cut to the chase, telling the Free Beacon that the Russia investigation has done more to expose senior Obama administration officials than hurt Trump and his people.
“Congress is determined to follow the facts wherever they may lead us. And, ironically, the most damning revelations of the Russia investigation thus far incriminates the Obama administration,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on record. “Susan Rice’s admission to widespread unmasking against Trump associates may just be the tip of the iceberg. We are going to get to the bottom of this.”