On 28 March 2017, an interview between Evelyn Farkas (former Obama administration Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine) and MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski began circulating alongside rumors Farkas “leaked” confirmation that the former President “spied” on then-candidate Donald Trump.
By the next day, “Evelyn Farkas” was a trending topic on Twitter and the subject of numerous blog posts claiming she had “leaked” or revealed novel information proving that the Obama administration illegally or secretly spied on President Trump prior to his inauguration. Fox News noted in their reporting of the interview that it had taken place nearly four weeks earlier (2 March 2017):
In an appearance on MSNBC earlier this month, Farkas told Mika Brezinski about her role in the efforts to collect intelligence on Trump’s team, and their alleged ties with Russia, in the Obama adminstration’s final days.
“I was urging my former colleagues and, frankly speaking, the people on the Hill… get as much information as you can,” Farkas said, adding that her big fear was “if [Trump staffers] found out how we knew what we knew about their … the Trump staff dealing with Russians — that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we no longer have access to that intelligence.”
At the end of the interview, Farkas said, “we have good intelligence on Russia … that’s why you have the leaking. People are worried.”
According to blogs and social media rumors, Farkas’ 28 March 2017 “BOMBSHELL” pertained to the revelation that President Obama had spied on then-candidate Trump in 2016, even though the interview from which this information was drawn was nearly four weeks old at that point. Video of Farkas’ 2 March 2017 appearance on MSNBC was shared widely, but purported key “admissions” made by Farkas during that segment actually described an Obama administration attempt to preserve intelligence about possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, not a “spying” effort focused on Donald Trump:
I was urging my former colleagues, and, and frankly speaking the people on the Hill … it was more actually aimed at telling the Hill people, get as much information as you can, get as much intelligence as you can before President Obama leaves the administration.
Because I had a fear that somehow that information would disappear with the senior people who left so it would be hidden away in the bureaucracy, um, that the [stutters] Trump folks — if they found out how we knew what we knew about their [the] Trump staff, dealing with Russians — that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we no longer have access to that intelligence.
So I became very worried because not enough was coming out into the open and I knew that there was more. We have very good intelligence on Russia, so then I had talked to some of my former colleagues and I knew that they were also trying to help get information to the Hill.
The date of Farkas’ commentary was significant. In late March 2017, the comments were framed as a completely new and a shocking confirmation of rumors the Obama administration spied on President Trump before he took office. But Farkas was clearly discussing a then-recent New York Times item, an image of which appeared on-screen during the segment:
Farkas’ remarks were apparently decoupled from the weeks-old Times item deliberately, creating the appearance she had made a novel admission in late March 2017. But the New York Times published a then-popular article titled “Obama Administration Rushed to Preserve Intelligence of Russian Election Hacking” on 1 March 2017, and Farkas’ since-viral MSNBC appearance took place the following day, on 2 March 2017.
Noting that “[m]ore than a half-dozen current and former officials described various aspects of the effort to preserve and distribute the intelligence” to the newspaper during its investigation, the Times reported that some of the sources “said they were speaking to draw attention to the material and ensure proper investigation by Congress … [a]ll spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified information.” The nature of the information made “public assessment of the competing Obama and Trump administration claims impossible,” the paper added.
Assertions made by Farkas on 2 March 2017 had been reported at length in the previous day’s Times article, which cited approximately six “current and former” White House officials as sources for the information. (Farkas resigned in September 2015 and was properly described as a former official, but it remained unclear she was one of the roughly half-dozen sources for the article.) What Farkas supposedly “leaked” on MSNBC was confirmation that President Obama himself had arranged for Trump to be spied upon, but what she was actually discussing (i.e., what the Times had reported on) was that anonymous officials had attested to efforts to preserve evidence of possible Russian election interference:
In the Obama administration’s last days, some White House officials scrambled to spread information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump and Russians — across the government. Former American officials say they had two aims: to ensure that such meddling isn’t duplicated in future American or European elections, and to leave a clear trail of intelligence for government investigators.
American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence.
Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates … At the Obama White House, Mr. Trump’s [denials of contact with Russians] stoked fears among some that intelligence could be covered up or destroyed — or its sources exposed — once power changed hands. What followed was a push to preserve the intelligence that underscored the deep anxiety with which the White House and American intelligence agencies had come to view the threat from Moscow.
It also reflected the suspicion among many in the Obama White House that the Trump campaign might have colluded with Russia on election email hacks — a suspicion that American officials say has not been confirmed. Former senior Obama administration officials said that none of the efforts were directed by Mr. Obama … As Inauguration Day approached, Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it, even if people without security clearances could not. Some officials began asking specific questions at intelligence briefings, knowing the answers would be archived and could be easily unearthed by investigators — including the Senate Intelligence Committee, which in early January announced an inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the election.
There was also an effort to pass reports and other sensitive materials to Congress. In one instance, the State Department sent a cache of documents marked “secret” to Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland days before the Jan. 20 inauguration. The documents, detailing Russian efforts to intervene in elections worldwide, were sent in response to a request from Mr. Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and were shared with Republicans on the panel … Officials tightened the already small number of people who could access that information. They knew the information could not be kept from the new president or his top advisers, but wanted to narrow the number of people who might see the information, officials said.
More than a half-dozen current and former officials described various aspects of the effort to preserve and distribute the intelligence, and some said they were speaking to draw attention to the material and ensure proper investigation by Congress. All spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified information, nearly all of which remains secret, making an independent public assessment of the competing Obama and Trump administration claims impossible.Some Obama White House officials had little faith that a Trump administration would make good on such pledges, and the efforts to preserve the intelligence continued until the administration’s final hours. This was partly because intelligence was still being collected and analyzed, but it also reflected the sentiment among many administration officials that they had not recognized the scale of the Russian campaign until it was too late.
The 1 March 2017 Times article held that “warning signs had been building throughout the summer,” and that “American intelligence began picking up conversations in which Russian officials were discussing contacts with Trump associates, and European allies were starting to pass along information about people close to Mr. Trump meeting with Russians in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries.” Farkas reiterated the gist of that article’s recounting of frantic efforts on the part of Washington insiders (current and former) to prevent a loss of intelligence about possible Russian election meddling:
What intensified the alarm at the Obama White House was a campaign of cyberattacks on state electoral systems in September, which led the administration to deliver a public accusation against the Russians in October.
But it wasn’t until after the election, and after more intelligence had come in, that the administration began to grasp the scope of the suspected tampering and concluded that one goal of the campaign was to help tip the election in Mr. Trump’s favor. In early December, Mr. Obama ordered the intelligence community to conduct a full assessment of the Russian campaign.
Nothing said or repeated by Evelyn Farkas on 2 March 2017 was novel or ostensibly more revealing than the New York Times article published just before her interview, and Farkas described the actions of Washington operatives (not President Obama) to preserve extant intelligence about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election (not to spy on Donald Trump).
We have attempted to contact Evelyn Farkas but have not yet received a response.