The “Grand Bargain” at Risk: What’s at Stake When the President Alleges Politics in Intelligence
Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes write in Lawfare:
The U.S. intelligence community is on the verge of a crisis of confidence and legitimacy it has not experienced since the 1970s. Back then, the crisis was one of the community’s own behavior. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s the intelligence community used its secret powers of surveillance and other forms of government coercion—often but not always at the behest of its political superiors—to spy on and engage in operations against Americans for political ends. At that time, politicians really did use executive branch intelligence tools to seek to monitor and harm political enemies, and exposure of that reality nearly destroyed the intelligence community. The problem was Hoover’s illegal wiretaps, bugs, and break-ins, and his attempts to annihilate Martin Luther King and others; it was NSA’s and CIA’s domestic espionage and propaganda operations; it was Richard Nixon’s many dirty tricks.
The community survived because it entered a “grand bargain” with Congress and the American people in the 1970s. And it is that very grand bargain that today’s crisis now threatens.
Today’s crisis is sparked by allegations, both by President Trump and by some House Republicans, of political misuse of the intelligence community by the Obama administration. Whether the allegations are entirely false or turn out to have elements of truth, they put the intelligence community in the cross-hairs, since some of the institutions that are supposed to be key legitimators are now functioning as delegitimators. After all, entirely appropriate investigations of counterintelligence can easily look like inappropriate political meddling, and if the President the House Intelligence Committee chairman are not merely not defending the intelligence community but are actively raising questions about its integrity, the bargain itself risks unraveling.
The central elements of the grand bargain were these: the president and his intelligence bureaucracy were allowed to maintain robust surveillance and espionage capacities, including domestically. But in exchange, Congress subjected them significant legal restrictions on how they collected, analyzed, and disseminated intelligence information; a bevy of lawyers throughout the intelligence community and, over time, in the Justice Department monitored and enforced those restrictions; domestic surveillance required a court order, including a court order from a new court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, for foreign intelligence investigations; and two new committees, the Senate and House Intelligence committees, were to be kept “fully and currently informed” of all significant intelligence activities, and would have robust oversight authorities. The idea was that the use of these powers would be documented and watched by institutions that could be trusted to keep secrets but would act as credible surrogates for public oversight mechanisms.
These reforms proved vital. Intelligence collection, including in the homeland, is essential to our security. But it is also among the most dangerous of government powers because it is so consequential, so secret, and so easy and tempting to abuse. Its legitimacy is inherently fraught. So it is crucial not merely that the entire process be above board politically but that it be seen to be above board. If enough people believe that the intelligence community is a political instrument of those in power to be used against opponents, it actually doesn’t matter if it’s untrue. So the key function of the grand bargain was not merely keeping the intelligence community actually within the law but also validating it to a public conditioned by Watergate and COINTELPRO to believe the worst that the intelligence community was functioning within the law.
This system did not always work perfectly, and it has every so often required strengthening. Sometimes, as in Iran-Contra, it was because of real abuse. Sometimes, it was because of perceived abuses. Sometimes, it was the result of changed technology. Sometimes, it was the result of changed threat perception.
But on the whole, the system of overlapping internal and external checks, combined with massive changes in intelligence community culture, worked well. It gave the intelligence community legitimate operating space in the midst of a political culture obsessed with movies about intelligence community plots and rogue operations. Even as Hollywood made Minority Report and Enemy of the State, the intelligence community could carry on its business. That was a huge accomplishment.
Another achievement of the grand bargain was the actual elimination of the great evil of governmental use of its vast intelligence apparatus for politically-motivated surveillance. And while it did not eliminate the perception in the mass culture that this was going on, it did give the community a powerful response to suggestions of politically motivated misconduct. The response went like this: here are the rules; here are the bodies we report to on our operations; we did not violate the rules; and our many oversight bodies, who in the round are credible actors, were kept fully informed.
This basic system survived even the Snowden revelations. Many people found Snowden’s disclosures of vast intelligence collection shocking. But though Snowden disclosed many technical legal problems with this surveillance, as well as some controversial legal judgments signed off on by the executive oversight apparatus, it also showed that the the problem of politically motivated surveillance simply didn’t exist. None of the thousands of pages of NSA revelations pointed to anything like the venal activities of the 1970s and before.
Yet events of the last year have put the domestic political use of surveillance tools front and center once again. And ironically, today it’s the President of the United States and the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who are alleging precisely that which the Snowden revelations did not show. . .
Continue reading. And do read the whole thing. Trump is really doing serious damage to our government, and seriously weakening it. And the whole world sees it, including those who are hostile to our country.