It was like pulling teeth without anesthesia for Congress to get the original documents that began the Russian Collusion investigation from the US intelligence apparatus. It took more than a year.
They only managed to shake the documents loose after threatening, not only Contempt of Congress, but an unprecedented threat of impeachment proceedings against the Director of the FBI and the Deputy Attorney General of the United States. That threat was finally taken seriously, and the stonewalling of the Congress by the FBI and DOJ ended abruptly on April 11, 2018.
It is now frighteningly apparent why the information was withheld.
It’s easy to get caught in the legal weeds when analyzing the oversight authority of Congress over the Intelligence Services. But to use a simple analogy, to deny these FBI documents to the Congress is akin to an employee refusing to give a store owner the register receipts from her check-out station. It’s his store, his inventory, his responsibility, but the girl with the keys to his cash drawer won’t show him what is in it. She controls that drawer; it’s hers now, as are its contents.
That is not supposed to happen.
A brief history of the battle between Congress and the secretive intelligence agencies is below as a footnote. Otherwise, assume that the oversight right has been hard-fought and hard-won, and continues daily.
That history aside, the most insidious danger to a Republic is when intelligence services are used, not only to spy upon domestic citizens in contravention to the Fourth Amendment, but against the political opponents of those in power. That potential, when an elected official can consolidate power by the misuse of the massive security infrastructure of the US to maintain a hold on that power for himself or his party, is how a democracy is neutered. It is precisely how despots retain power in every totalitarian country on the planet today.
The danger of an administration weaponzing domestic spy capabilities to target the campaign of a political opponent has put a necessary spotlight on the genesis of the Russian Collusion investigation by the FBI, the Department of Justice, and ultimately the Special Counsel. If the collusion claim is based on legitimate intelligence, that is a serious issue deserving of the utmost zealousness in prosecution. If the claim was only based on political animus, we are faced with an even more serious issue, one deserving the utmost effort to unmask those who abused the system and prosecute them in turn.
It should be unnecessary (given the non-stop coverage of every salacious allegation) to rehash the history leading to the appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate the alleged collusion between then-candidate Donald Trump and Kremlin operatives in the 2016 election. Despite a year of turmoil and many millions of dollars, there is no evidence of such to date (a few tangential individuals have been ‘scooped up’ for crimes predating the election and with no relationship to it, or for misleading statements to the FBI during the investigation). Just last week, the Deputy AG reconfirmed that the president is still not a target of the investigation; a fact that, at this late date, indicates a disturbing lack of progress on the main focus of the inquiry.
The investigation is appearing, more and more, to be the ‘witch hunt’ the bellicose Mr. Trump labels it. But the umbrage of the president aside, there is a more serious issue here. And Congress is constitutionally obligated to find the answers.
What Congress must determine is how the investigation was started in the first place.
If the investigation was not, as vigorously denied by the Obama administration and the DNC, to simply disrupt and sabotage the campaign of a political opponent: why then was it begun? If the National Security apparatus of the United States was unleashed against a candidate, there must be a rational for doing so even more rigorous than that against a private citizen, and the story of that rational is not only constantly changing, it is constantly refuted.
At first, the claim was that there was direct evidence of collusion presented to the secretive FISA Court, which then gave rise to an order to permit surveillance of a Trump campaign member, which then inadvertently ‘scooped up’ others in the campaign. That direct evidence was presented in the FISA Court application by the Obama administration, a very secret document.
It took a year to get that document to Congress, and once the application for the FISA warrant was obtained in February 2018, the ‘direct evidence’ in the request to the FISA Court was disclosed as a salacious and completely uncorroborated “Russian Dossier”. The Dossier, absurdly, alleged that Trump had hired Russian prostitutes to urinate on Barack Obama’s bed, hence giving Russians blackmail power over the candidate. The only corroboration for that Dossier was a series of press reports disclosing what the leaked Dossier said. A document cannot corroborate itself, no matter how diligently it is reprinted in a cooperative press.
More damning, and what was not apparent on that FISA application, was that the Dossier had been ordered by the Clinton campaign from Kremlin-linked intelligence operatives via a shady ex-British spy. The sourcing appeared only in an innocuous footnote to the application, vaguely referencing a ‘political’ source. Ironically, the fact thus effectively hidden from the FISA Court was that the Clinton campaign had obtained the Dossier through… wait for it… collusion with Russian agents. Irony is apparently lost on FBI agents.
This embarrassing disclosure appeared to be at best disingenuous and at worst a politically-motivated fraud upon the FISA Court, so the narrative from the Obama administration FBI then abruptly switched. The Dossier, they insisted, had not begun the investigation at all, as even more secret documents would easily establish, were they only available, which, unfortunately, they were not, because they were too secret. So sorry.
The contents of the extremely secret new document were promptly leaked to the press, and the NY Times dutifully reported that the investigation was really kick-started by a foreign intelligence service warning the FBI of a suspicious conversation between a low-level Trump advisor and an Australian diplomat in London. Therein, the advisor bragged that the Russians “had dirt” on Clinton. The “Five Eyes” intelligence agreement with our allies to exchange counter-intelligence was the source of this shocking report. Although it lacked either the tingly sexual detail or implied blackmail efforts of the failed Dossier, it still indicated some kind of loose connection between Trump and Russia, if only tangentially.
Weak as the connection was, the ultra-secret new memo still sounded better than a Russian Dossier about urination, and the FBI doggedly stuck with it. Until April 11, 2018, that is, when the Congress finally got hold of that document through its threat of impeachment. Then, the house of cards folded at last.
Because now the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee has read the original intelligence documents that gave rise the Russian Collusion investigation: those even-more-secret documents that purportedly included the vaunted Five Eyes report. The Five Eyes report that wasn't there at all.
And as Chairman David Nunez flatly stated yesterday in a Sunday interview, “After our investigators reviewed this, there was no Five Eyes investigative product, as has been reported. There was no product. And I think that is a major problem”.
That is indeed a major problem. It's a problem of constitutional crisis proportions.
No Russian Dossier or blackmail. No Five Eyes spy report about a bragging campaign aide. If not, where, then, did the FBI information to start the surveillance arise?
Additional details which appeared in the past few weeks now gain context. Long-time Clinton associates David Blumenthal and Cory “Mr. Fixer” Shearer, shady contacts who were not given an official campaign titles due to unsavory backgrounds, were in direct contact with the DOJ and FBI as the investigation began. They were directly peddling their own versions of the discredited Russian Dossier to agents. They continued this contact until the FISA Court was on board, until ex-FBI Director Comey illegally leaked the information to the press, until the Special Counsel was in place.
And unless there is even a more-secret than the previously most-secret document to be unearthed by the Nunez committee upon new threats of impeaching the heads of the FBI and DOJ… that is where we are left. That’s all we have: Clinton operatives massaging the massive intelligence behemoth of the United States government to target and destroy a political opponent, with the tacit or overt approval of the sitting president and his administration, the Director of the FBI, his top lieutenants, and the sitting Attorney General of the United States.
Unless something arises that explains this debacle, that is indeed all we have left. That is the stuff of despots. That is the stuff of banana republics.
And it should disturb all of us, regardless of our political affiliation. I am a Libertarian; you probably are not. But you are an American citizen with a stake in the integrity of our system. The next time, it might be an administration you despise, using the full might of the federal government to sabotage the campaign or presidency of your own candidate.
If this does not bother you, you need to step back for a moment and think again.
Footnote: The Intelligence Services vs Congress: not new, but worse.
In the Vietnam era in the early 1970’s, Congress became alarmed at the secretive activities of the Intelligence Services under the sole direction of the Executive Branch and began exercising its oversight powers under the “necessary and proper” clause of Article I of the Constitution. The oversight effort impinged upon the exclusive control of the intelligence services by the Executive, and in fact, the ability of Congress to exercise direct oversight of the Intelligence Services is arguable, relying on the idea that Congress can do what is 'necessary and proper' to exercise its legitimate constitutional authority, which includes funding those services.
The efforts of Congress to oversee the direct activities of these services grew and waned over various times in history, increasing dramatically with the Vietnam debates and the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan years. It then subsided as a major issue until 9-11 and the emergent need to track overseas terrorist activities. In that context, oversight it became far more critical with the expansion of international and domestic spy programs under the Patriot Act, for the natural instinct to use such massive power beyond the goals intended by that Act would necessarily tempt the Executive branch, and Congress responded with vigorous oversight to counter-balance that instinct.
The Libertarian and civil rights concerns over the Patriot Act, which permits massive spying efforts purportedly limited to overseas activities of non-citizens, were legion. It was inevitable, civil libertarians warned, that US citizens would be directly surveilled or ‘scooped up’ in overseas surveillance. This is effectively a search without probable cause or judicial warrant and guts the Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure secured to every US citizen.
The reassurance provided by those supporting the Patriot Act was directed, almost exclusively, to pointing out that surveillance of US citizens domestically would still require warrants, and any individuals inadvertently recorded in international spying would have identities ‘masked’. Only in extreme situations, where the identity of a US citizen was critical to assessing the value of the intelligence gathered, would the names be 'unmasked' or direct surveillance permitted.
That didn’t work so well. By 2013, the Bush administration was filing10,000 NSA requests for personal information on US Citizens annually. When Obama took office, those requests sky-rocketed to 25,000 per year. Both administrations insisted that the spying requests were rooted in national security concerns, but Libertarians and civil rights groups were still significantly alarmed. And even they were naïve.
During the entirety of the Obama administration, and most alarmingly during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the system of control and oversight fell completely apart. The firewalls between international terrorism investigations and domestic activities crashed and burned, and the requests by Congress for information were summarily dismissed. The inmates were running the asylum, and nobody could stop them. The FBI stonewalled Congressional demands for information and documents, weirdly insisting that their own superiors, with intelligence clearance, could not see the information collected by the FBI on their behalf.
The Obama administration not only scooped up thousands of US citizens in their overseas intelligence surveillance, but they then unmasked American citizens at an admitted rate of over 2 per day: 654 in 2015 alone. When the Trump administration took office, it found that the number had grossly “under-reported”. The Obama administration was actually unmasking the identities of over 2,000 citizens annually.
Worse, the unmasking requests were being filed by administration personnel with zero interest or duties in assessing intelligence. The UN Ambassador, Samantha Powers, had nothing to do with NSA subjects, but she alone asked for at least one US citizen to be unmasked daily. Even more alarming, she later claimed before a Congressional Committee that she hadn’t signed those requests: they were made under her name by an unknown individual.
There is no possibility that over two thousand Americans a year are scooped up or surveilled under the Patriot Act in terrorism investigations and must then be unmasked and further spied upon in order for that international intelligence to be understood. Only an idiot would accept such an absurdity.