Fake News, Partisan News, and the Wiretapping Story

I don’t know why I’m surprised anymore, given how many crazy things Donald Trump has said and done. But I was surprised when I read about Trump’s claims that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump’s communications at Trump Tower prior to the election. Even if we imagine that there’s anything to these accusations, the manner in which Trump made them—in the same early-morning stream-of-consciousness Tweeting in which he discussed rumors about The Apprentice television show—is astonishing.

In tracking down details about the wiretapping story, we can also learn some lessons about fake news, partisan spin, and the difficulty of learning the relevant facts of such a story.

Begin with Trump’s claims. In a pair of March 4 Tweets, Trump wrote, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” and “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Needless to say, those are serious accusations—ones that Trump made flippantly with no supporting evidence. What are we to make of them?

Let’s begin with an obviously bogus line of inquiry into the matter.

The Anatomy of a Fake News Claim

I follow nearly three-thousand people on Twitter. Obviously I don’t carefully vet all those people, so sometimes when I look through my general feed I find some crazy material.

For example, I ran across a link to this story: “BREAKING: New Report Indicates Clintons Were IN ON THE WIRETAPPING.” The text with the main image is even more self-assured: “Wiretap Scandal: New Report—The Clintons Were In on It.” The sensational language automatically makes the story suspect, but that didn’t stop some people from thoughtlessly sharing the link.

Obviously the site hosting the story, Truth Feed, is a click-bait farm, filled with ads featuring such things as scantily clad women and teasers such as “No Bra? No Problem for These Sexy Ladies.” The author of the piece, an Amy Moreno, “is a Published Author, Pug Lover & Game of Thrones Nerd.”

It’s frankly shocking to me that anyone could be idiotic enough to take such garbage seriously. But some people do take it seriously—and others who see the claims register them as “possibly true” even though they’re arbitrary.

So where did our tenacious reporter Moreno get her information? She links to two other ad-driven sites, Red State Watcher and DC Whispers. DC Whispers in turn cites Gateway Pundit—a site with a proven track record of publishing spurious claims (such as a set I reviewed).

The story at Gateway Pundit, by Joe Hoft, makes a less dramatic claim than what Moreno makes. Hoft does not claim to have evidence that the Clintons were “in on” the wiretapping. Rather, his headline suggests, “First FISA Request on Trump Tower Came After Clinton and AG Lynch Met Privately on Tarmac.” That’s not evidence; it’s coincidence.

But Hoft’s details don’t even support the claims of his headline. The text of his article instead claims that “the meeting between Bill Clinton and Attorney General Lynch occurred at about the same time” as the alleged FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) requests. All we know is that Loretta Lynch met with Bill Clinton on June 27 and that the (purported) initial FISA requests were made sometime in June.

How does Joe Hoft know that “the Obama administration” filed a request “to monitor communications involving Donald Trump and several advisers?” Joe Hoft cites an article by his brother Jim Hoft, who in turn cites an article by Conservative Treehouse written by someone called “Sundance.” Sundance in turn cites a Breitbart story, which in turn cites claims by Mark Levin and an article by Heat Street.

Observe the game of “telephone” that Moreno played to generate her (uh) trumped-up headline. (I’m intentionally not including all of the links in the chain because I do not wish draw more attention to these sites than necessary; interested readers can follow the links starting with the one to Moreno’s “story.”)

Heatstreet is on its face a credible news source; the story in question is by Louise Mensch from November 7, 2016. At this point, we can leave the fake news behind and get to the real news.

The Factual Basis of the Wiretap Story and Partisan Spin

Mensch bases her story on the claims of “two separate sources with links to the counter-intelligence community.” Who are these people, what are their “links” to counter-intelligence, and how credible are they? It’s impossible to know based on Mensch’s account.

Here are Mensch’s central claims:

[T]he FBI’s counter-intelligence arm, sources say, re-drew an earlier FISA court request around possible financial and banking offenses related to the server. The first request, which, sources say, named Trump, was denied back in June, but the second was drawn more narrowly and was granted in October after evidence was presented of a server, possibly related to the Trump campaign, and its alleged links to two banks; SVB Bank and Russia’s Alfa Bank. . . .

[I]t is thought in the intelligence community that the warrant covers any ‘US person’ connected to this investigation, and thus covers Donald Trump and at least three further men who have either formed part of his campaign or acted as his media surrogates.

For the bit starting with “after evidence,” Mensch cites an article by Slate.

So Trump’s claims apparently stem from an article at Breitbart and trace back to unnamed sources behind Mensch’s story—which certainly does not establish (even assuming the account of the FISA warrants is true) that Obama had any knowledge of it or control over it.

Yet behind the bogus claims of Trump and of various fake-news sites is a real and important story. Did the FBI, in fact, surveil Trump or his associates prior to the election? If so, did the FBI do so based on real concerns of wrongdoing? (If so, what did the FBI discover?) Was any aspect of the FBI’s activities driven by partisan politics?

The claim at hand is that the federal government spied on a candidate for president. That is shocking and disturbing if true—whether the spying was justified or whether it was not justified. And if the underlying claim is not true, then the fact that it was made is shocking and disturbing. (See a follow-up by Heat Street and an article from the New York Times for more details. See also an article by Andrew C. McCarthy for additional context.)

Now we come to the spin. A recent article by Reuters essentially claims that Trump’s claims about the wiretapping are false. But the article carefully avoids a substantive discussion about whether any important aspects of Trump’s claims are true. Specifically, was there any sort of surveillance of Trump or any of his associates prior to the election? The article quotes various officials to the effect that Trump is wrong, but it’s unclear whether they’re saying that there was no surveillance or that there was surveillance but of a different nature than what Trump described. James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence under Obama, does seem to deny the existence of any warrant, but it’s not clear (to me) whether he’s denying any and all surveillance of Trump and his associates. (It’s also not clear to me whether we can take Clapper at his word.)

Reuters claims flatly, “The White House offered no evidence on Sunday to back up Trump’s accusation and did not say it was true.” But the relevant evidence for aspects of Trump’s claims comes from Heat Street and other publications. It’s not very solid evidence, but it is evidence. Some parties told Mensch that the warrant was issued, but perhaps those parties were mistaken (or dishonest).

We already know that the FBI listened in on communications between Michael Flynn and Russian officials. The New York Times reports:

During the transition, the F.B.I.—which uses FISA warrants to eavesdrop on the communications of foreign leaders inside the United States—overheard conversations between the Russian ambassador to the United States and Michael T. Flynn, whom Mr. Trump had named national security adviser.

The obvious question, then, is whether the FBI surveilled other of Trump’s associations or Trump himself in the course of eavesdropping on Russians. In that case, the FISA warrants may have been issued only with respect to Russians but could have effectively covered various Trump communications with those Russians.

I have no idea whether the FBI surveilled Trump or his associates (other than Flynn) prior to the election or had good reason to do so. The tenuous nature of the reporting to date does not justify an outright rejection of the claims about surveillance, but neither does it support important aspects of Trump’s claims, especially that Obama personally ordered the surveillance.

Once we discard the fake news, Trump’s unsubstantiated claims, and the partisan spin, we are left with a set of important questions to which the American public deserves serious answers.

Image: Public Domain Review