Barely half of Americans believe our country’s intelligence agencies do a good job safeguarding citizens’ privacy and civil liberties, a 2020 poll commissioned by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found. That is bad news for people like National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who urgently wants Congress to renew the law that allows the government to spy on foreigners and any Americans with whom they come into contact.
Within the next seven months, Congress will either re-authorize the controversial Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) or – as many civil libertarians in America would prefer – do nothing and let it die. FISA warrants became an issue after former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page challenged the FISA warrant on his communications and learned that the FBI lawyer who applied for it lied to the judge. That warrant provided the legal justification for a broad surveillance campaign that collected intelligence on several Trump campaign officials.
As the poll cited above shows, Page is not alone in his skepticism. Given mounting evidence that intelligence officials have put their thumb on the scales in domestic politics, what trust society does have in the state when it comes to snooping is fast waning. Recent testimony to Congress by former acting CIA director Michael Morrell that he orchestrated the letter of 50 former intelligence officials casting shade on the Hunter Biden laptop story just before the 2020 election after talking to longtime Biden aide turned Secretary of State Tony Blinken is just one example.
The findings of Special Counsel John Durham raised significant concern about how the FBI behaved throughout “Russiagate,” yet the murky relationship between the media and intelligence agencies throughout the same period leads one to wonder if the G-man have been singled out for blame while their stealthier counterparts in foreign intelligence at the CIA and other government agencies slunk back into the shadows without discipline or recourse.
Who would hold them to account anyway?
In 1974, then-New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh broke a major story based on U.S. Army intelligence that showed how our foreign spy services were not only engaging in the targeted assassinations of foreigners, but also keeping tabs on tens of thousands of American citizens. Washington’s response then was the Church Commission, which recommended congressional oversight committees for our intelligence agencies.
The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club, so the movie says. Based on the refusal of both Maine’s U.S. Senators to reply to questions from this columnist about whether a new round of reform is needed for America’s intelligence agencies, you’d have to guess the same holds true for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence or SSCI (pronounced “sissy”), on which both Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King sit. (King’s spokesman started to respond by telling me to research King’s past statements – none of which are germane to this question – until he found out I write for The Maine Wire, and then he went silent).
Like its House counterpart, the HPSCI, the SSCI played a major role in driving the Russia-gate story. A former SSCI staffer (to declining Sen. Dianne Feinstein no less) left the committee to peddle Russia-gate hype to the media, and another lied to the FBI about his relationship with a BuzzFeed reporter. Instead of cheerleading an investigation since found to be based on manufactured evidence, shouldn’t these committees be overseeing the very agencies they were created to watchdog?
Since neither Collins nor King seem willing to talk about reforming the intelligence committee, it’s unlikely other members of that committee are particularly concerned either. A former senior CIA official wished me good luck getting anyone in Congress to talk about reforming a sector that an overwhelming percentage of Americans think could be more transparent without endangering national security.
Whether from politicians on Capitol Hill or from the leak-hungry media, so great is the demand for the purportedly sacred wisdom America’s spies possess that few seem willing to rock the boat. Sadly, that only empowers those who strive to operate without oversight of any kind.
In the immediate aftermath of January 6th, Collins authored an op-ed in which she admitted her first thought when the Capitol was breached was that it was the Iranians. In response to the massive ridicule this statement drew, she punted to the SSCI, indicating that she was merely repeating what she’d been “briefed.”
That episode in itself raises the same question the Roman poet Juvenal raised more than two millennia ago: Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? (Who will watch the watchers?) For the sake of our civil liberties, let’s hope someone rises to the occasion.