19 February, Monday


Will the FISA memo turn into Obama's Watergate?

Specialist view

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Forty-six years ago, a group of hamfisted burglars bungled the task of bugging the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate building in Washington D.C. Two years later, Richard Nixon resigned as president a result of the failed cover-up that ensued. Although Barack Obama is no longer president, the abuses that occurred within the FBI and Justice Department under his watch already have the potential to eclipse the Watergate scandal in their historic significance and damage done to American government.
 
A Beltway adage has it that "it's always the cover-up that'll get you, not the original transgression." Often, this proves to be true, especially in the case of Nixon, but even more recently, given the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton, which were over perjury and obstruction of justice, not actual abuse of power with a 22-year-old intern.
 
However, with the recent declassification of the Nunes and Grassley memos from the House and Senate, in this case the putative crimes are far more serious than a failed attempt to bug the private office of a political party. These crimes have the potential to shake American confidence in otherwise prestigious institutions like the FBI, and the sanctity of our constitutional rights as citizens, especially those afforded by the Fourth Amendment, specifically protection "against unreasonable searches and seizures" or warrants being issued without "probable cause."
 
Despite the months it has taken for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate the matters before them and declassify their initial findings, we are still just at the beginning of knowing how broad and deep a scandal we face. Nevertheless, the facts already laid out by the memos are shocking enough by themselves and, specifically, in the consequences they may have for all Americans.
 
We already know that during the 2016 presidential election, the FBI and Justice Department acquired a secret warrant to spy on U.S. citizen Carter Page, a volunteer adviser to the Trump campaign. The warrant application was based on an "opposition research" file paid for by the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton through her lawyer. This fact, that the file was paid for by the candidate and party running against Donald Trump, was not disclosed by the FBI or Justice Department to the secret FISA court judge to whom that warrant application was made.
 
It was also never disclosed that the author of the file was a former British intelligence officer with close ties to Moscow, who had been deemed by the FBI to be "unreliable" and who was known - at the highest levels of the Justice Department - to be "desperate" to ensure that Trump never became president. In other words, the FBI and Justice Department knowingly hid exculpatory evidence from the surveillance court in order to be able to start spying on a member of the Trump team.
 
Add to this what we now know about the contents of the file compiled by Christopher Steele, that its salacious accusations came from Russian officials and, in part, as Trey Gowdy has intimated, from none other than Sidney Blumenthal, the closest of Clinton's confidantes, and the full scenario appears undeniable. One candidate for president managed to leverage elements of the federal law enforcement and intelligence communities to illegally spy on the campaign running against her.
 
If we add to this the countless anti-Trump text messages that have been released between key members of the FBI team investigating both the Clinton "servergate" case and the accusations of "Russia collusion" by Trump associates, and it is easy to understand why half a dozen senior FBI agents and Justice Department officials have been "relieved" or reassigned in recent weeks.
 
There is a special reason why America never created a domestic spying agency, even after Sept. 11, 2001, when the calls for such a body were loudest. There is something in the genesis of our republic that rejects the idea of permanent "political police" surveilling our fellow countrymen. That is why, ironically, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was originally created in 1978 in response to the abuses of the Nixon years.
 
Spying on Americans was to be sporadic and done on a case by case basis, with each target's approval having to be justified in front of a special FISA judge. When political motivations lie behind such approval and that fact is hidden from the authority which grants it, all Americans are endangered. Working for a mainstream political candidate must never be the metric for whether the state can spy on you, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat. That way lies tyranny.
 
The fact that the political left seems so comfortable with this scenario, or wishes to minimize and deride these initial findings, is the strangest part of the story so far. For decades, from Watergate through to the Pentagon Papers, and right up to Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, it is the left that has perennially demanded full disclosure and made resistance to the abuses of government power a central plank of its message.
 
Are crimes only crimes if a right-wing administration commits them? With perjury and obstruction of justice having already been demonstrated under the Obama administration, all that is left now is to see whether the Justice Department still wears a blindfold.

The Hill

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