Trey Gowdy is a Republican congressman from South Carolina, and a clearly earnest guy who, to his credit, is leaving Congress because he has figured out he would rather be a prosecutor or judge than a congressman. He became the hero of Democrats and much of the press last week when he basically shot down the theory that the FBI, enabled by higher ups in the Justice Department and the Obama Administration, spied on the Trump presidential campaign.
No, said Mr. Gowdy, an “informant” — not a spy — was there to follow the Russian connection. This was about Russia, not the Trump campaign.
But this is patent, illogical nonsense. The Russian connection was to, allegedly, the Trump campaign.
The informant infiltrated the Trump presidential campaign, not Russia.
It was never just about the Russians, but the Russians and Trump.
The Trump-Russia connection — not just Russia’s illegal antics — but the connection, is what the narrative of the last two years has been about. It is why we have a special counsel. And this connection is what the leaked Mueller questions to President Trump were largely about.
So, yes, the FBI infiltrated the campaign with an informant, and surveilled members of the campaign, as part of a counterintelligence operation. It also declined to tell the candidate it was doing so. And all that should chill us.
Yet the congressman said “... the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do.”
Not this citizen.
The first, and obvious, question is: Was there good evidence for the Trump-Russia connection? And was the threat this presented so compelling that it justified something as drastic and unprecedented as planting an informant in a political campaign?
If the evidence was the Steele Dossier, a bit of sleazy, partisan hackwork which was apparently not fully or accurately characterized to the FISA judge, no. Of course it is possible that better evidence for Trump campaign-Russia collusion will yet emerge. But it has not emerged so far.
A more fundamental question, is whether the FBI, or any agency of our government, should have the power to monitor any one of us because we are deemed a possible national security threat, or someone consorting with agents of a foreign power.
I don’t think so.
I do not think that infiltrating a domestic political campaign as a matter of counterintelligence is “exactly” what the FBI should be doing.
To the contrary: It is the opposite of what the FBI should be doing.
A domestic law enforcement agency that spies on citizens, based on connections to foreign powers? Does that sound democratic, or constitutional?
Replace the Obama-Comey FBI with the Nixon-Hoover one. After all, Nixon and Hoover both believed that the peace movement posed a threat to our national security. And I have no doubt there were Nixon informants in the 1972 McGovern campaign. But no one would have said that this is exactly what the FBI should be doing.
The irony is that, arguably, with national security letters and FISA warrants, we have created a more systemically intrusive federal government and a more unlimited national security state than in the days of secret abuse by bully boys like Hoover, Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson. (LBJ ordered the FBI to spy on Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Eugene McCarthy in 1968, but at least he didn’t come out and say publicly that he was doing it to make Americans safer.)
By accepting the FISA apparatus, we have created a means for the undoing of our civil liberties. Infiltrating political campaigns is the next big step into the abyss of the national security state.
And I do not believe that anyone can credibly make the case that the security of the nation was enhanced because the federal government infiltrated the Trump presidential campaign.
Take Donald Trump out of it. You may be sure that if had been revealed that the government of George W. Bush had placed an informant in Barack Obama’s campaign — too cozy with too many foreign nationals, including Kenyans — there would have been, and should have been, howls from the left.
Put Trump back in the equation: If the Trump administration were to place FBI informants in the campaign of candidate Biden, or Warren, or Garcetti in 2020, what would be the reaction?
I get it: The old rules, and the old allegiances to civil liberties, do not apply here because Trump is Trump. He is an “existential threat” and worse than any other threat. And the Obama administration was trying to save us from him. OK.
But there needs to be a lobby for civil liberties, as there was in the Nixon era, even when the “good guys” are in charge. For when you give unlimited power to the good guys, they quickly become bad guys. That is the lesson of history and one of the philosophical linchpins of the American system.
If the feds have the right to spy, yes spy, on any citizen on the pretext of national security, then the power of the state has no limits.
There should not be a secret court system — the FISA courts — and secret writs (”national security letters”) for a secret state. That’s not the United States of America.
One would think the reaction to the Trump “informant” would be: If they can do that to him, what can they do to me? Instead it is: Well it was Trump. Understandable.
Americans have voluntarily given up virtually all privacy rights — to Google, to our banks, to Amazon, to the ever-present camera and computer. We are now giving the government carte blanche to spy on political opposition, and any individual thought to be too pro-Russian, or pro-Iranian, or pro-Korean.
Welcome to the USSR.
Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade, and editorial director for Block Newspapers. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.
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