The American people are being forced to confront a fundamental political question that was first asked centuries ago by the Roman satirist Juvenal: Who shall guard the guardians? What to do when the tools meant to protect the people are used to harm them? The memo released today by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is the first step in answering that question.
The memo’s central indictment is that top Obama administration officials knowingly and willfully used unverified information paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign, some of which came from Russian intelligence, in a secret court document to justify a counter-intelligence investigation of the Donald Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election. This corrupt process was later the basis for a campaign to sabotage the incoming Trump administration and to fuel a witch hunt against the president.
According to the memo, high ranking FBI officials repeatedly sought, received and renewed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants to engage in surveillance of members of the Trump campaign during the election. These officials, including then-Director James Comey and recently removed Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, justified the warrant requests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), in part, with information generated by Christopher Steele, who was working on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the firm Fusion GPS. Steele’s main contact at the Justice Department was Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, whose wife was also employed by Fusion GPS as a Russia expert working on anti-Trump opposition research.
Mr. Ohr was well aware of Steele’s anti-Trump purpose and the unreliability of the evidence, but the court was told none of this. And, according to the memo, McCabe testified to the committee that without the Steele dossier no FISA “surveillance warrant would have been sought.”
Other critical background information was revealed in text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and his mistress FBI Attorney Lisa Page, who discussed with McCabe the now infamous “insurance policy” against President Trump. The texts reveal a disturbing climate of anti-Trump bias among the investigators themselves that might never have been known since, as the Roman Juvenal also said, “the common crime keeps its silence.” But that was before texting.
The Nunes FISA memo gives insight into a systematic abuse of power that started at the highest levels of the Obama administration. The memo does not endanger national security but rather exposes a national security threat, since the only proven Russian collusion that resulted in government action is that between the named FBI officials, the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS, and Russian intelligence.
The argument that the memo exposes classified information is specious, since nothing in the memo is classified. No sources and methods are exposed that are not already publicly known. And all these types of arguments distract from the central point of the abuse of power. This is hardly the only recent misuse of the FISA process.
The memo has troubling implications for Robert Mueller’s inquiry. We now see that a network of conspirators abused government power seeking to undermine the electoral process and, failing that, to sabotage a president in a process that is still ongoing. The Mueller probe to the extent it was based on such an effort is fruit of the poison tree and should be suspended immediately.
A decent respect for the larger issues involved should prompt members of all parties to call for cooperation and openness. There is no legitimate reason to keep a lid on any information that relates to these matters.
Are there “material omissions of fact” as the FBI alleges? Then fill in the blanks.
Is the memo incomplete? Complete it.
Can the memo not be understood without seeing the classified background material? Declassify it.
Arguments about protecting sources and methods are irrelevant when we are talking about a potential crisis of this degree. There is no secret the FBI or any part of government holds that is more important than the stability and legitimacy of our democratic system.
There is a basic bargain that most Americans believe is fundamental to how intelligence operates — you can have this extraordinary power, but only to use against the bad guys. And we trust you to stick to that bargain, especially with the vast array of investigative tools available and the potential for the destruction of anything approaching the fact of privacy, let alone the right to it.
Washington officials and politicians do not have the final say on what we can see. They all work for us, and we have a right to know everything they have done purportedly in our name. Ultimately the answer to “who shall guard the guardians?” must be the people themselves.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, was director of the Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence, taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant in the office of the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.