Trump can't cry foul on FISA – unless he's suddenly a civil libertarian

Trump can't cry foul on FISA – unless he's suddenly a civil libertarian
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With the release of a sweeping report on the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign, the Department of Justice’s inspector general eviscerated a litany of absurd right-wing conspiracy theories. For one, contrary to the falsehoods relentlessly peddled by the president and his enablers in Congress and the media, there was sufficient evidence to open a counterintelligence probe into Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Given the evidence (and viewed through a slightly different lens), not investigating the Trump campaign would have amounted to criminal dereliction of duty by the FBI.

Moreover, the inspector general’s report concludes that the FBI’s probe into the extensive – and often highly suspicious – links between individuals in Trump’s orbit and murky Russian government cut-outs was not motivated by political bias, nor was anyone “spying” on the Trump campaign.

Perhaps most importantly, the report confirmed that the controversial Steele dossier was not relied upon to open the Bureau’s investigation of Trump’s campaign, demolishing a particularly pernicious fabrication relentlessly parroted in right-wing media echo chambers.


Ditto for the dangerously fact-free notion, disseminated ad nauseam by the likes of former Trump campaign aide George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosTrump supporters show up to DC for election protest Trump pardons draw criticism for benefiting political allies Klobuchar: Trump 'trying to burn this country down on his way out' MORE (whose loose lips triggered the FBI probe), that Western intelligence agencies actively sought to “sabotage” or entrap Trump.

And just like that, five whopping right-wing conspiracy theories (as well as George Papadopoulos’ budding political career) are busted.

However, the Department of Justice did fault a handful of FBI case agents and a low-ranking department lawyer for errors and omissions in an application to surveil Carter Page, whom the Bureau – rightly – suspected of acting as an agent of Russia. Trump and his conspiracy-peddling cheerleaders have relentlessly pointed to the government’s surveillance of Page as proof that the campaign was spied on. But these assertions are utterly baseless.

For one, the initial application to monitor Page (whose suspicious links to Russia include attempted recruitment by Russian intelligence agents) was not submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court until October 2016. But Page had left the Trump campaign several weeks earlier. This raises an all-important question: How could the government “spy” on a political campaign if the subject of the surveillance was no longer associated with that campaign?

Far more importantly, following revelations that Page’s highly suspicious mid-campaign travels to Russia were under federal investigation, the Trump campaign swiftly distanced itself from Page. Trump’s communications director succinctly summed up Page’s (non-)role on the Trump campaign: “Mr. Page is not an advisor and has made no contribution to the campaign.”

Trump’s lead communicator went on to state that Page “has never been a part of our campaign. Period.” Another campaign spokesman said that Page had “no role” and that the campaign was “not aware of any of [Page’s] activities, past or present.” According to the Trump campaign, Page was a nobody; certainly not anyone who would be in communication with high-level campaign staff. In other words, if the government sought to improperly snoop on the Trump campaign, Page would have made for a worthless surveillance target.

Indeed, if Page was not on the Trump campaign when the first surveillance warrant was approved, and he had “no role,” was “not an advisor” and “made no contribution” to the campaign, how on earth can Trump credibly claim that the government was spying on his campaign via a “nobody” like Page?

He can’t. And another dangerously absurd right-wing conspiracy theory is dismantled.

Ultimately, the Justice Department’s inspector general deserves enormous credit for meticulously documenting mistakes in the application to surveil Page. After all, in a liberal democracy where privacy and freedom from government intrusion are constitutionally and culturally sacrosanct, surveillance of a citizen must meet rigorous requirements. But there is zero evidence that Trump is concerned about Page’s (or anyone else’s) civil liberties. In short, it’s all about Trump.

Moreover, the baseless conspiracy theories and falsehoods peddled by the president and his most tribal supporters are dangerous. Repeating them over and over has consequences. Chief among them is an erosion in confidence in American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, where countless men and women work tirelessly to safeguard democracy and the rule of law from malicious influence by foreign powers.  

Perhaps worst of all, the continued propagation of falsehoods and lies for the sole purposes of deflecting and protecting Trump gives Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussia tightens restrictions as virus infections, deaths rise Biden should end the confusion and say America will defend Taiwan New hacking efforts show Russia undeterred by US actions MORE the last laugh.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.