The White House believes any and all means of communication with Russia are good and healthy, even if they are conducted on Russian communications equipment designed to evade American intelligence surveillance, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Sunday.
“It’s both normal, in my opinion, and acceptable,” Kelly said. “Any way you can communicate with people, particularly organizations that are maybe not particularly friendly to us, is a good thing.”
President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly sought to forge a secret backchannel between Trump and Moscow in early December, a proposal which has made the senior White House aide a focus of the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Such concealed communication would be all to the good, Kelly told ABC’s This Week.
Kushner’s proposal was not normal, however, according to the reports which surfaced it. He sought access to Russia’s own diplomatic facilities in the United States to use as the American end of an information pipeline which he reportedly hoped would fall beyond the reach of U.S. intelligence gathering systems.
The proposed reliance on Russian equipment by American officials would have been unprecedented by senior White House staff. Americans using foreign governments’ communications infrastructure have more often been spies in a foreign employ than senior civil servants of the American national interest.
After his broad defense of any efforts to expand communications with Moscow, Kelly acknowledged that using Russia’s own equipment to do so would cast Kushner’s scheme in a different light. Still, he said, the core principle is that none of this is nefarious — and all high-level communications, secret or not, acknowledged or disavowed, are positive.
“I mean using their equipment, you know, that would cause you to be — that communication would be considered to be, you know, kind of somewhat compromised,” Kelly said. “But the point is that any line of communication to a country like Russia is a good thing.”
Veteran national security officials and observers have publicly disagreed with that assessment, particularly keying in on the timing of the proposal prior to Trump’s taking office.
“For employee-security rules, the U.S intelligence community treats visiting a foreign embassy like visiting a foreign country. Many of the most significant examples of U.S. espionage all occurred through foreign embassies,” former NSA attorney Susan Hennessey told The Atlantic.
“If candidate Trump, a private citizen, had a backchannel that would be very serious,” Bill Smullen, a former top State Department staffer under President George W. Bush, told Politico. “He had no business.”
Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden called the proposal “off the map.”
“What manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or an appropriate idea?” Hayden told CNN.
Later Sunday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kelly reiterated that the details of Kushner’s reported push are unusual — but said they are excusable in light of the political divisions Trump’s White House operates under in Washington.
“Well no, but I didn’t have to. In my previous life we wouldn’t do that kind of thing,” Kelly said when host Chuck Todd asked if he had ever used foreign government facilities to communicate with international counterparts. “But politics being what they are, better way to put it not politics but the kind of interaction here in Washington, there’s a lot of ways to communicate with people.”
Hayden is one of several experts critical of Kushner’s reported moves to say that the alarming entreaties to Moscow seem more naive than nefarious. But most agree: It is one of those two.
“The idea of using Russian facilities to skirt Russian surveillance in the U.S. would either be a serious attempt to hide something or the actions of a young amateur,” former FBI agent Clint Watts told The Atlantic. Fellow ex-agent Ali Soufan seconded that analysis, saying Kushner’s reported backchannel effort “indicates a lack of experience, at the least.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), meanwhile, said on the same ABC Sunday morning show that Kushner’s security credentials should be yanked if reports that he omitted his Russian conversations from a key disclosure form prove true.
“There ought to be a review of his security clearance to find out whether he was truthful, whether he was candid,” Schiff said. “If not, then there’s no way he can maintain that kind of clearance.”
The Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that Kushner has become a focal point for investigators because of his clandestine entreaties to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in December. The reports also note that Kushner seems to have concealed his proposal from American officials.
In background check paperwork, Kushner reportedly failed to disclose multiple meetings with Russian government officials and bankers. A lawyer for Kushner has called the omissions “an error.”