As more information comes to light of the extent of the surveillance of the Trump presidential campaign by the Obama FBI and CIA, the progressive media defense of the government's conduct becomes increasingly monotone and totally devoid of skepticism. Of course our brave protectors had to surveil the opposition presidential campaign! Trump and his people were talking to the Russians!
Over at CNN, they have now hired ex-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to utter the talking points of the day. Recall that back in March 2017, appearing on Meet the Press, Clapper strenuously denied that there was any "wiretap" on the Trump campaign. Clapper's new line, delivered on ABC's The View on May 22, is that actually the government wasn't really surveilling the campaign, but only "the Russians," and Trump should be happy about that:
"With the informant business, well, the point here is the Russians," Clapper said. "Not spying on the campaign but what are the Russians doing? And in a sense, unfortunately, what they were trying to do is protect our political system and protect the campaign."
Over at the New York Times, the new official line is that, so long as the word "Russia" can be mentioned, any and all surveillance of opposition campaigns is perfectly OK. Consider the lead editorial of May 21, "Trump v. the Department of Justice." Excerpt:
First the facts: There was a sophisticated, multiyear conspiracy by Russian government officials and agents, working under direct orders from President Vladimir Putin, to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in support of Donald Trump. The American law enforcement and intelligence communities warned the Trump campaign and asked it to report anything suspicious. The campaign didn’t do this. To the contrary, at least seven Trump campaign officials met with Russians or people linked to Russia, and several seemed eager to accept their help. As the F.B.I. became aware of these contacts, it began to investigate.
Now, you might wonder how those wily Russians could have had a "multi-year conspiracy" to get Trump elected President when he only announced his candidacy in June 2015 -- 17 months before the election -- and only clinched the nomination in May 2016, 6 months before the election. But remember, the Russians are a lot wilier than you are!
And while support for covert government surveillance of the Trump campaign is universal on the progressive side, some support is also found even among conservative voices. For example, David French, writing in National Review on May 22, said this:
The Russia investigation would exist without the [Steele] dossier. . . . [And] to the extent that the dossier matters — or the extent that the Carter Page FISA warrant matters — the proponents of the FISA-gate theory have not proven their case. Republican-appointed judges approved the warrant application and subsequent renewals. A Trump appointee signed off on the application to extend surveillance of Page. As for the merits of the application and its renewals, the public has only seen the smallest, most selective quotations from those documents. No one can make a reasonable assessment of their legality on the basis of publicly available information.
Sorry, but I'm going to emphatically disagree. Use of the government's secret surveillance capabilities to surveil the opposition politicians is a major, major problem. It's a major problem because -- as I have pointed out multiple times -- the incentives operating on government actors to misuse their powers to disadvantage the political opposition are just too powerful for almost any humans to resist. Of course the results of the Trump campaign surveillance were misused. It's just not possible for it to be any other way.
There was a time when we seemed to understand this proposition. I'm particularly thinking of the impeachment of President Nixon. Maybe most everybody knows that the first of the Articles of Impeachment against Nixon related to his participation in the coverup of the Watergate burglary. But do you recall the second article? That one charged him with improper use of the secret surveillance powers of the government against private citizens -- private citizens who just happened to be his political opponents. Here are some excerpts from the Articles:
He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavoured to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purpose[s] not authorized by law. . . .
He misused the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service, and other executive personnel, in violation or disregard of the constitutional rights of citizens, by directing or authorizing such agencies or personnel to conduct or continue electronic surveillance or other investigations. . . .
In the case of Nixon, as far as I know, the government bureaucrats did not like him, and, unlike Obama, he did not get very far with his attempt to misuse the IRS and the FBI. But I would still say that I support this as a basis for impeachment. It's a very big deal for the incumbent politicians to misuse their awesome surveillance powers to go after the political opposition. And today, those surveillance powers have multiplied by an order of magnitude.
Or consider the case of another Republican credibly accused of misusing his government powers against political adversaries -- Joe Arpaio, ex-Sheriff of Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona. Working with the Maricopa County Attorney, Arpaio was able to get multiple indictments of his political opponents, including the Maricopa County Supervisor. In this case I don't know the details of the facts, and maybe there was something to these indictments. I'm just saying that use of government powers like this against political opponents is a big deal, and should only be undertaken in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Then, of course, Arpaio found himself prosecuted (and convicted) by his own political adversaries. The Phoenix-area voters were smart to get rid of Arpaio. But the Arpaio matter took place in public view, and the voters were able to exercise their judgment. My point with Nixon and Arpaio is that Republicans have been properly criticized, and indeed vilified, for misuse of state powers against political opponents. Republicans of good faith did not stand up for Nixon or Arpaio. Now with the tables turned, it is very sad to see Democrats circling the wagons to protect far worse abuses.
Back to the Obama administration surveillance of the Trump campaign. This one was in complete secret. A few months ago we learned about the FISA warrant, first obtained in August 2016. That's not very long before the election. A few days ago, we learned about one or more paid "informants." Those go back to some time in the "spring." And how about the national security letters? You haven't heard much about those yet. They are the most pernicious of all, by far. No court involved. The FBI or some other bureaucracy just serves them up, and instructs the recipient not to tell anyone, or it's a crime. How do I know about them? The revelation of their use is buried deep in that May 16 "Crossfire Hurricane" New York Times article:
The F.B.I. obtained phone records and other documents using national security letters — a secret type of subpoena — officials said.
With 100% certainty this reference was slipped in here on purpose, deep in the article, in a way to make it seem like it's no big deal. Wrong. National security letters can be used to get all of your bank transactions from your bank, or all of your emails from your ISP. What were they used for here? When were they issued? Who was targeted? What documents were collected? How were they used? What if anything was the supposed basis? So far, we know nothing. There's plenty more to come out.
Just keep in mind, the Article of Impeachment against Nixon was based on far, far less.