The danger of injecting politics into our American intelligence agencies

The danger of injecting politics into our American intelligence agencies
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Late last week, when asked to comment on the “Nunes memo,” I responded simply, “That’s it? That’s your best shot at FBI and DOJ corruption? Quit wasting my time.” Which, as near as I can tell, is pretty much the consensus among career intelligence and law enforcement professionals who have been asked the same question. And, based on the facts of the case, that’s about it. But, like so much in today’s post-truth world, there are more than facts at work here.

The memo, in case you’ve been in a Super Bowl-induced coma or a news blackout, was approved by a group of House Republicans to charge the FBI and the Department of Justice with malpractice and politicization in getting a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The memo was met with enthusiasm by a president anxious to undercut the Russia probe as a “hoax” and the special counsel’s investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Folks like me, on the other hand, objected to the memo based on questions of classification and process, and on errors of fact. Our classification concerns were most easily dealt with. There was minimal risk to sources and methods in what was actually released, although publicly confirming that there was a FISA warrant based on probable cause that Carter Page, an American citizen against whom no charges have been brought, was an agent of a foreign power seems a genuine invasion of privacy.

The memo also set the stage for a round two, when others will want to show that the warrant wasn’t single-threaded to the dossier, prepared by a former British case officer Christopher Steele as part of opposition research on Trump during the 2016 campaign, thereby potentially putting more sensitive information at risk.

More serious was the injection of partisanship — indeed, hyper-partisanship — into a FISA process that heretofore has been a matter between career intelligence and law enforcement professionals and the federal courts. Anyone who has worked this knows how delicately it is handled, with multiple layers of oversight and review. How many future FISA applications will now be prepared with one eye on potential partisan gamesmanship?

Finally, there were questions of accuracy, with multiple accusations that one side cherry-picked data to support a preordained conclusion. The memo was misleadingly silent with regards to any other evidence presented to the FISA judge beyond the Steele dossier, and there are now press reports that the judge was aware of the political motivation behind those bankrolling Steele, directly contradicting the memo.

The Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have claimed that they were simply exercising appropriate oversight but, had that been the case, extended hearings and tough questioning of all who had a hand in the Page warrant would seem a better path. There may even have been a chance to mute separation-of-powers questions and talk to the FISA judge who approved the warrant. They also could have shared their information and concerns with their less partisan Senate Intelligence Committee colleagues, whıch they have refused to do.

Unfortunately, one senses that what was pursued here was less clarity and truth than ambiguity and doubt. Some Republicans have done as much with previous charges dealing with the unmasking of U.S. names in intelligence reports (more routine than alarming), Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way The dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat MORE’s role in a Russia uranium deal (she didn’t have one, and no uranium will ever leave the United States), and charges of a secret society inside the FBI (it was a joke) — all themes pushed hard by alt-right outlets and Fox News.

The White House has welcomed and amplified these clouds and, in this case, embraced a newfound interest in transparency (not yet extending to income-tax returns) to clear the Nunes memo for release. True transparency, though, would have called for at least dueling memos with documented counterpoints, as the Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have demanded.

Full credit goes to FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinWashington still needs more transparency House Judiciary to probe DOJ's seizure of data from lawmakers, journalists The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week MORE for pushing back against the House Intelligence Committee Republicans and the White House. Fighting the release of the memo, the FBI warned about “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy” and, afterwards, Wray reminded his workforce that “talk is cheap” and they still needed to “tackle hard.”

That latter statement was in the face of a presidential tweet, “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicised the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.” After signing off on releasing the memo, he said, “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves.”

It is a little surprising that other voices in the executive branch have not been heard in support of Wray, even through “informed sources” or “people familiar with the thinking of.” After all, there is no reason to think they or their people will be immune from arbitrary presidential shaming in the future, especially in the intelligence community, of which FBI is a member.

Information from the CIA, National Security Agency, and other intelligence agencies is routinely included in FISA applications — and this particular one was part of a counterintelligence investigation which comes under the broad responsibilities of the director of National Intelligence.

There has been reporting that National Intelligence Director Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAn independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE did push back privately in the West Wing against the memo and, as a former member of both the House and the Senate, he must have been appalled at this example of “oversight.” But whatever objections he had were not heeded by either branch of government.

The president, casting aside concerns from within his own government about real damage to dedicated people and important institutions and processes, opted for what he believed best served his personal legal and political needs of the moment. And that should concern and give voice to us all.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency, and a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His forthcoming book, “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies,” is due out later this year.