Newly released records show that a senior Pentagon official engaged in regular conversations with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the columnist who put his mark on the Trump-Russia affair by disclosing top secret intercepted telephone calls by retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
Mr. Ignatius’ column about Flynn’s calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition became the impetus for FBI agent Peter Strzok to interview Flynn at the White House, which resulted in the retired officer pleading guilty to making false statements.
The Jan. 12, 2017, column is seen as a flash point in the two-year media firestorm of Trump-Russian conspiracy stories that was extinguished when special counsel Robert Mueller reported in March 2019 that he found no election collusion.
The conservative watchdog Judicial Watch, through the Freedom of Information Act, uncovered the communications between Mr. Ignatius and James H. Baker, who directs the Pentagon Office of Net Assessment (ONA).
Mr. Baker noted in one email that he has had a “long history” of talking with Mr. Ignatius, who writes an influential twice-weekly column on foreign affairs.
The Washington Times asked Mr. Baker to respond when the document was filed. He declined through a spokesman, citing pending litigation.
There has been no independent confirmation that Mr. Baker leaked knowledge of the two Flynn-Kislyak phone calls.
ONA has become a nexus for Trump-Russia intrigue beyond the Baker-Ignatius relationship. Stories about the White House National Security Council and an important FBI spy both have links to the Office of Net Assessment, a secretive agency whose mission is to identify global threats.
Mr. Baker’s office has contracted for more than $1 million in studies with Stefan Halper, the longtime Washington national security figure who suddenly emerged as an FBI informant sent to plumb the minds of Trump supporters.
Mr. Halper surreptitiously recorded his conversations with campaign volunteers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page in London and Virginia. The talks failed to produce any incriminating Russia conspiracy evidence.
In another Trump-Russia link, a Baker analyst, Adam Lovinger, left ONA at Flynn’s request to work at the National Security Council as a detailee. Mr. Lovinger is a Flynn associate and Trump supporter who criticized in-house how Mr. Baker ran ONA and questioned Mr. Halper’s research techniques.
Mr. Lovinger was pulled back to the Pentagon, was suspended without pay and lost his appeal with an administrative law judge. His attorney, with the help of Judicial Watch, later discovered a Navy intelligence report that cleared Mr. Lovinger of any security breaches.
His whistleblower reprisal complaint with the Defense Department inspector general is pending a decision.
Judicial Watch sued the Pentagon under FOIA to obtain more than 100 pages of emails that showed a source-reporter relationship between Mr. Baker and Mr. Ignatius.
The Pentagon also provided several emails between Mr. Baker and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work. All of those emails’ contents were censored. The Pentagon invoked exemption No. 5 in the FOIA process, which allows withholding material linked to ongoing litigation.
The fact that the Pentagon released the emails suggests that Mr. Ignatius was a topic of Work-Baker conversations because the Defense Department was compelled to comply with Judicial Watch’s exact FOIA request for any Baker-Ignatius-related communications.
Spanning 2015-2019, the Ignatius-Baker emails show that they discussed a variety of national security issues. Mr. Baker refers to the columnist as “sir.” Mr. Ignatius addresses him as “Jim.” If his phone call didn’t get through, Mr. Baker termed it “no joy.”
In February 2016, Mr. Baker discussed Mr. Ignatius with Zachery Mears, deputy chief of staff to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and chief of staff to Mr. Work.
“As a reminder only,” Mr. Baker told Mr. Mears, “I have a long history with David and talk with him regularly.”
Mr. Ignatius wrote an election-season March 2016 column, “How America’s political decay has fueled Trump’s rise.”
Mr. Baker responds: “A nice piece and useful diagnosis. Now — onto trying to solve whatever part of it I can!” Later that spring, Mr. Ignatius sent in an email that he has a “bunch of things” to talk over.
In an August 5, 2015, email, Mr. Baker congratulated Mr. Ignatius: “David — another good column on Syria this morning, although you will be unsurprised I do not share your sense of ever flickers of optimism … A good article by our colleague Karen De Young on the NSC also. Hope all remains well with you. With respect, Jim.”
The next month, Mr. Ignatius sent an email asking if the two can “chat” the next day.
Asked by Mr. Baker for a topic, the columnist listed Russia, the value of the Euro and Saudi Arabia.
Subsequently, Mr. Baker emailed: “A great column, sir. Thoughtful, timely, thematic. Thanks for the view.”
That December, Mr. Baker wrote: “Sir, a nice column laying the drivers of our present strategy wrt ISIS … it’s advantages and its risks. Have a blessed holiday.”
“Thanks Jim,” Mr. Ignatius answered. “You around this week for a phone chat?”
He also wrote: “Jim: Had a fascinating breakfast this am with Work and [ Gen. Paul J.] Selva. If you have a few mins this afternoon I’d be grateful for a call.”
Syria came up again in October 2016, as Mr. Ignatius wrote: “I’m trying to figure out what to recommend for Syria — stand down, stand in, stand still. I’m reachable Monday.”
“I am good for dinner on Wednesday 6 Dec. Would you be my guest at the Metropolitan Club at 17th and H ? I promise a tasty dinner and a quiet place to talk,” Mr. Ignatius wrote.
In October 2018, Mr. Baker reminded the columnist of his rules: “David, please, as always, our discussions are completely off the record. If any of my observations strike you as worthy of mixing or folding into your own thinking, that is as usual fine. Great to talk with you. Have a good night.”
Mr. Ignatius asked Mr. Baker in July 2018: “I will be trying to make sense of the days events intellectually, and I could use some wisdom. Any chance we could talk at noon or so?”
Mr. Lovinger had complained to Flynn that Mr. Baker’s office was failing in its job to write classified net assessments and outline new military strategies. He complained that ONA had become a money-pot for analysts such as Mr. Halper to write academic-style research papers.
Around that time, Mr. Baker initiated an investigation for alleged security violations.
How did Mr. Ignatius’ Jan. 12, 2017, column, based on a tip from the Obama administration, change Trump world?
It disclosed that Flynn had spoken to Mr. Kislyak by phone and suggested the topic was how to respond to Obama-imposed sanctions. Mr. Ignatius wondered if this would have violated the 1799 Logan Act. The column reflected the exact conversation about Flynn being conducted inside the Obama Justice Department.
The FBI Trump-Russia investigation, led by the since-fired Mr. Strzok, had the transcript. They devised a plan to visit Flynn on Jan. 24 and see if he would lie about the call. Flynn denied the subject came up. He was fired and eventually pleaded guilty to providing a false statement to Mr. Strzok.
Ms. Powell is asking U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to dismiss the case. She unearthed documents that show Flynn pleaded guilty under threat from the Mueller team that it would prosecute his son. She said the FBI entrapped and “framed” her client.
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