The Populist Right's Elitist Approach to Surveillance Abuses

If only the Republican Party were as attentive to the violations of the rights of ordinary Americans as it is to the FBI's treatment of Donald Trump

Jim Bourg / Reuters

One persistent critique of Republicans holds that they are hypervigilant about protecting the powerful, yet blind or unresponsive to injustices suffered by most Americans. At times, the critique is unfair; but it does describe the GOP’s posture toward Donald Trump versus most everyone else who deals with the FBI or U.S. intelligence.

President Trump gets the benefit of hyper-vigilance.

In the telling of politicians like Representative Devin Nunes and commentators like Sean Hannity (who marshal more outrage and obfuscation than evidence for their claims), the Trump campaign was subjected to improper government surveillance. They attribute the impropriety to FBI agents who allowed their political views to color their actions; to warrant applications that misled the FISA court; and FISA judges who failed to perceive and prevent those abuses.

If all that were true I would not object to their complaints.

As Julian Sanchez points out at the Washington Post, the dubiousness of Nunes’s statements on this matter don’t necessarily warrant the conclusion that the FBI was beyond reproach in its approach to getting a FISA warrant.

And as Mollie Hemingway said on Fox News, “This is fundamental to our idea of what it is to be American, the federal government cannot deprive you of life, liberty, property; it can't arrest you or spy on you without a really good reason. If the civil rights and civil liberties of Carter Page can be violated, it can be done to anyone. That is why it is very important that we can trust these courts, particularly if the target of the investigation doesn't get the chance to plead his own case, so we rely on the government to provide all the information that is key.”

But if the FBI is staffed by people who target those with political beliefs different than their own, mislead federal judges when applying to spy on Americans, and who are not stymied by the checks and balances already in place, it follows that all sorts of bygone federal surveillance efforts ought to be investigated; that all sorts of Americans have had their rights violated; that all sorts of people ought to be fired from the FBI; and that stronger checks and balances, or other significant reforms, are required in order to prevent future abuses.

Republicans are urging none of those steps. Nunes, who chairs the congressional committee that oversees American intelligence agencies, has not made any effort to better protect regular Americans—only the head of his political party. Either he doesn’t believe his own claims or he is shockingly negligent.

Hannity rarely, if ever, mentions a victim of misconduct by the FBI or the intelligence community unless they hold elected office and have an (R) next to their name.

While posing as populists, this faction of the GOP has dedicated itself mostly to protecting the billionaire who happens to be America’s most powerful person. Masses of Americans on the left and right are left to fend for themselves.

This outlook is so warped that another prominent member of the faction, Tucker Carlson, uttered this astonishing pronouncement on his Fox News show: "For the first time in generations Americans have reason to believe that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies gravely misused the powers we have given them, violating the civil liberties of Americans and taking sides in political contests."

For the first time in generations! Fox News echoed the claim on its Twitter feed:

That would mean that federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies crossed the grave-misuse-of-powers threshold for an arguably flawed FISA warrant application to surveil Trump allies with ties to Russia, but not for the following:

  • Secret, warrantless NSA spying on practically every American, and a Director of National Intelligence who lied about those activities in sworn testimony.
  • The secret CIA torture of prisoners, and a subsequent CIA effort to spy on congressional overseers as they attempted to assemble a report on that torture.
  • Use of the due-process challenged No Fly List to coerce Muslim Americans into becoming informants.
  • Deliberately letting hundreds of weapons flow to violent Mexican drug cartels.
  • Baiting mentally ill American teens into lives of petty crime.
  • The time when the Justice Department and FBI both “formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.”

One needn't go back any farther than 1999 to encompass all of that grave misbehavior, and unfortunately, my list of relevant examples is highly abridged. Each suggests overdue reforms that political elites would pass if they cared more about averting future misbehavior or more clearly perceived threats to liberty—not that Carlson or his ilk can be counted on to champion any of them.

Excepting folks like Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Justin Amash, who are unusually attentive to civil-liberties concerns, neither elected Republicans nor their right-wing populist enablers in the media can be trusted to fight for constraining big government abuses when no associated partisan advantage can be gained.

Going forward, every time the populist right attacks federal law enforcement or the intelligence community while allying with Trump, watch to see if they push reform legislation that would protect the rest of us from the flaws they’re alleging. If not, they’re either speaking in bad faith or being derelict in their duties. Indeed, both could be true, for whether they are speaking in bad faith or not, there is plenty about the federal law-enforcement system that is vulnerable to repeat abuses, and neither party has a stellar record of remedying them.