David A. Graham: Barr misled the public—and it worked
Spying is a word that’s been shaped by pop culture, invoking John le Carré novels and James Bond movies. It also carries with it the echoes of the mid-1970s Church and Pike Committee investigations into abuses by the intelligence community (IC)—investigations that Barr says shaped his views of intelligence operations. Barr’s use of the word spying to describe a counterintelligence investigation can only have a negative effect on public perception. This is dangerous in a number of ways.
In fact, all of the information published in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report indicates that there was a lawful, proper predicate for the work done by the FBI and others in investigating whether the Russian government was attempting to cultivate relationships or curry favor with members of the Trump campaign and organization in order to sway American politics in 2016. There’s been no credible indication that the investigation was improperly motivated or driven to achieve partisan aims in the United States.
Barr’s own references in his CBS interview to the lessons of intelligence reform in the 1970s are apt ones. During the hearings held by the Church and Pike Committees, bipartisan groups of elected officials brought the U.S. IC to account for a host of misdeeds committed since the end of World War II. Congress concluded that the FBI, CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and military intelligence had collected too much information, used it improperly, and targeted people and groups for reasons having more to do with “subversive activity”—combatting social unrest—than with foreign intelligence threats. The committees concluded that these abuses had been made possible, in part, by a loose and permissive framework of authorities enabling surveillance and tepid congressional and executive-branch oversight.
The Church Committee issued a multivolume report recommending a comprehensive series of reforms that would keep the IC accountable to the American public and force it to live up to its best ideals. Following those recommendations, stringent oversight mechanisms were put in place across all three branches of government: The permanent House and Senate intelligence-oversight committees were created, legislative frameworks such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were passed, and Executive Order 12333 defined the scope of IC agencies’ authorities and required attorney-general-approved guidelines to minimize the risk of intrusion on the rights of U.S. persons.
Read: The rarely used congressional power that could force William Barr’s hand
The framework of reforms launched by the Church and Pike Committee investigations hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been continuously strengthened since then, with the establishment of independent boards and commissions such as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, the appointment of inspectors general at multiple levels and within every component of the IC, the widespread appointment of privacy and civil-liberties officers, and other moves toward increased transparency.