Guest Editorial: When the U.S. spies unjustly on a political campaign
Unlimited, secretly exercised government power is a threat to freedom.
That’s as true today as it was in 1787 when the U.S. Constitution was written to prevent it. We’re seeing an instructive demonstration of the framers’ design now in the fight over declassifying FBI and Justice Department documents related to the investigation into alleged Russian collusion with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Recently, President Trump ordered the immediate declassification and release of 21 pages of a June 2017 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew a surveillance warrant against Trump campaign aide Carter Page, a United States citizen. Trump also ordered the release of FBI reports of interviews related to earlier applications to surveil Page, as well as FBI reports on interviews with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr.
In addition, Trump ordered the release of unredacted text messages from Ohr and from former FBI officials Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Andrew McCabe and James Comey.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the president had ordered the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department to release the documents at the request of “a number of committees of Congress, and for reasons of transparency.”
But later the president changed his mind and withdrew the order. Trump said he had received calls from “key Allies” requesting that the documents not be released, and that the Justice Department had stated that the disclosure “may have a perceived negative impact on the Russia probe.”
The Russia probe has been ongoing for more than two years, and to date, not a shred of evidence has emerged that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of the election.
The DOJ’s inspector general is investigating whether anyone at the FBI or Justice Department made decisions related to the Russia investigation based on “improper considerations,” including bias.
The American people have the right to know. But the question is, “How are the American people to know?”
The president has the responsibility to execute the laws, and he is the head of the executive branch of the government. The FBI and DOJ answer to him. But if the president is under investigation by those agencies, the usual chain of command is disrupted.
Congress has the responsibility to oversee all executive branch agencies. Its investigative powers are written in plain language in the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to impeach all civil officers of the United States. But if Congress demands information and the executive branch refuses to provide it, the process of oversight is disrupted and delayed.
That leaves the Office of Inspector General, an independent watchdog within the Justice Department, as the only government entity able to investigate and report on a possible abuse of power by federal law enforcement and national security agencies.
Trump has now asked the DOJ’s inspector general to review the unreleased classified material quickly. The president said he still may declassify the documents, and there’s good reason to do so. If government power was misused to spy on an American citizen and a political campaign, Congress should look at reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, at a minimum.
Secrecy rightly protects intelligence sources. It can’t be allowed to protect misconduct and corruption.
Orange County Register, Sept. 26