IT HAS been 70 years since the US Congress has heard testimony akin to Sally Yates’s about the Kremlin’s influence on America. The former acting US attorney general testified this week.
You’d have to go back to March, 1947, when J Edgar Hoover charged that Moscow was burrowing into the pillars of the US government, and that the president, Harry Truman, was failing to take the threat seriously.
In secret, the FBI was pursuing cases of the utmost gravity: Spies had penetrated the US state department and the project to build the atomic bomb. In public, Hoover pledged “unrelenting prosecution” of subversives and asked Congress for “public disclosure of the forces that threaten America”.
Judging from Yates’s testimony, the US justice department and the FBI determined, in January, that Moscow had a potential agent of influence inside the Oval Office: the national security adviser, retired lieutenant general, Michael T Flynn.
They had decided that Flynn’s conduct — his repeated lying, his deepening secrecy, his shady finances — were a threat to America. “The national security adviser, essentially, could be blackmailed by the Russians,” Yates testified.
It is hard to convey the level of alarm this would raise in the mind of the chief law enforcement officer of the United States — which Yates was, briefly, before the US President, Donald Trump, fired her at the end of January — or the fear it would instil at the FBI. Suppose your boss hired someone whom you suspected might be a made member of the mob.
Worse, if it could be worse, in the days before and after Trump’s inauguration, Flynn was lying to his superiors about the nature of his dialogues with Moscow’s ambassador, and they either didn’t know or didn’t care about the nefariousness of his denials.
US vice-president, Mike Pence, among others, publicly repeated the lie — Flynn’s insistence that he had not discussed the stiff sanctions Washington slapped on Moscow for its malicious meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The US justice department and the FBI had rock-solid evidence to the contrary.
The Russian embassy in Washington is bugged by US intelligence, and it has been since Hoover’s heyday. Flynn was on tape. Moreover, the Russians, therefore, knew he was lying up and down the chain of command. That’s kompromat — Russian for compromising information — and that’s how hostile intelligence services twist arms.
At Yates’s hearing, US senator, Amy Klobuchar, asked bluntly: “If a high-ranking national security official is caught on tape with a foreign official, saying one thing in private and then caught in public saying another thing to the vice-president, is that material for blackmail?”
“Certainly,” Yates said.
Yates had an increasingly urgent series of talks with the Trump White House counsel, Don McGahn, starting on January 26. During their second in-person meeting, he asked her: “Why does it matter to [Department of Justice] if one White House official lies to another?”
I suspect that question may haunt the Trump White House: National security, intelligence, and the power of government secrecy are all based on trust.
First, Yates explained to him, it mattered that Flynn “lied to the vice-president and others,” because, as a consequence, “the American public had been misled”. Then, she continued, “every time this lie was repeated and the misrepresentations were getting more and more specific… it increased the compromise and, to state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”
To make matters worse, she told McGahn, “General Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI” three days earlier, presumably on the subjects of his secret diplomacy and his undisclosed payments from RT, the Russian propaganda outlet subsidised by the Kremlin.
How’d he do? McGahn asked. Yates declined to say. This could not have comforted the White House counsel. “I was intending to let him know that Michael Flynn had a problem on a lot of levels,” Yates testified. As she told the senators, lying to the FBI is punishable by up to five years in prison.
What continues to astonish is that Flynn served in apparent high repute at the White House for more than two weeks after all this. It took the Washington Post’s reporting on Flynn’s dialogues with the Russian diplomat — and his bold lies about them — to force him out in February.
The only aspect more appalling is what the president of the United States had to say that week: “General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it ‘the fake media’, in many cases. And I think it is really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.”
The Yates hearing was a foretaste of what promises to be a summer of inquiry in Washington. The foundations of the US’s free republic were attacked last year. Moscow tried to destabilise American democracy. It achieved that aim. Did Americans aid and abet it? Did their commander-in-chief condone it?