As Scott Shackford reports, the White House has cleared the release of a classified memo by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that purports to show that FBI agents and others at the Department of Justice (DOJ) acted out of political motives in surveilling Carter Page, a campaign adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump. Nunes' Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has called out Nunes in no uncertain terms:
"The selective release and politicization of classified information sets a terrible precedent and will do long-term damage to the Intelligence Community and our law enforcement agencies."
But to the extent that Schiff is trying to suggest the FBI and DOJ aren't constantly acting out of political motives and basic incompetence that hurt their credibility, he's completely out to lunch. Both of these units of government have remarkably and well-deserved bad reputations stretching back decades.
And this is where the obsessive fixation of details in Washington completely blocks out the big picture. Remember how Republicans figured that by endlessly sifting sand for details about "Benghazi," they would finally end Hillary Clinton's career in the public eye? They were too far up their own asses to ever ask the obvious question: What the hell were we doing in Libya to begin with? Especially given Barack Obama's manifest lack on interest in getting even a rubber-stamp authorization from Congress? Even after the United States helped plunge Libya into a total clusterfuck, that larger-picture view was left to the crazy-eyed libertarians.
Similarly with "the memo," which deals with a relatively obscure and meaningless Trump hanger-on and, as Shackford notes in his article, fails to advance either side of the debate over whether the president was playing footsie with the Russians. The important issue here isn't the damage that Nunes' document (and eventually, Schiff's minority report that will be published after it is vetted for security reasons) does or doesn't do to the reputation of the FBI and federal law enforcement. It's that the reputation of these groups is already awful.
Schiff is claiming that Nunes is acting only out of political interest, a charge that mirrors what Nunes is saying about the FBI and the Department of Justice. They are both almost surely correct. But those of us who actually care about proper governance would do well to think back to, I don't know, a few months before the 2016 election, when then-director of the FBI James Comey, appointed by Barack Obama, laid out a devastating case against Candidate Clinton…before saying he wouldn't recommend bringing charges against her.
Recall the rhetorical cherry that Comey put on the top of that shit sundae:
To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.
So regular Americans could get strung up, but not Hillary Clinton. This is not ancient history or a story about a black-bag job that J. Edgar Hoover ran. It's not even history. But we're not supposed to bring up the deservedly low opinions of the FBI and a Justice Department that have for decades done everything possible to make Americans suspect their employees aren't really trustworthy. The FBI in particular has a long history of abusing its power and the results of that show up in polls mostly showing a massive lack of confidence in it. To the right is a poll from 2016, which tracks with other measures of a broad-based decline in major U.S. institutions. Just one-third of Americans have strong confidence in the FBI, the same awful result that the CIA fetches. The federal government writ large does even worse, as does Congress.
A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll from late December found
Sixty-three percent of polled voters believe that the FBI has been resisting providing information to Congress on the Clinton and Trump investigations. This is a remarkable finding for an agency whose new head said a few days ago that the agency was in fine shape. No, it isn't.
Consider this gloss on Tim Weiner's damning 2012 of the FBI, Enemies:
Most presidents since Woodrow Wilson have been less intimidated by the F.B.I. than seduced by it. Under the rubric of protecting the nation, they secretly authorized the F.B.I. to open mail, infiltrate political parties, tap phones, perform "black bag" break-ins of homes and institutions, and draw up vast lists of Americans eligible for "custodial detention" during a crisis….
Botched confrontations with cults and right-wing radicals left a trail of blood from Whidbey Island to Ruby Ridge to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. The bureau was penetrated again and again by double agents from Russia, China, Cuba, even Al Qaeda. (The Chinese spy Katrina Leung, truly a double agent, seduced both the special agent in charge of her case and "a leading F.B.I. counterintelligence expert on China.") F.B.I. turncoats like Robert Hanssen and Earl Pitts went undetected for years, costing "hundreds of millions of dollars" and the lives of a "dozen or more foreign agents who worked for the bureau and the C.I.A."
The best terror informant the bureau actually had was dropped for fear that he might be a double agent, while as late as 2002, only eight agents could speak Arabic. The F.B.I. remained a "pyramid of paper," mysteriously unable to create a decent computer system; by 2000, "the average American teenager had more computer power than most F.B.I. agents," according to Weiner, and agents "could not perform a Google search or send e-mails outside their offices."
This is the essential context for any discussion of "the memo" and investigations by the government into actors such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And the hits just keep coming. Investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, who broke the story of the DOJ's heinous "Fast and Furious" gun-walking operation, reports on new text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two FBI officials whose political animus against Donald Trump has hurt the credibility of the Russia investigation.
Page: Have a meeting with turgal about getting iphone in a day or so
Strzok: Oh hot damn. . . We get around our security/monitoring issues?
Page: No, he's proposing that we just stop following them. Apparently the requirement to capture texts came from [Office of Management and Budget], but we're the only org (I'm told) who is following that rule. His point is, if no one else is doing it why should we. . . I'm told – thought I have seen – that there is an IG report that says everyone is failing. But one has changed anything, so why not just join in the failure.
It's a shockingly cavalier attitude from an attorney and high level FBI official.
There are more text messages between Strzok and Page from a critical time period, as we now know, that the FBI claimed had been lost in a technical glitch. After that became public, the Inspector General said he was able to recover them. (Interesting that the FBI couldn't.)
Are Americans stupid for feeling like its government is not worthy of respect and confidence? No, of course not. The people in government, especially a string of mostly inept-at-best and power-mad-at worst FBI directors and attorneys general have brought us to a place where we don't trust them anymore. Especially in an age of forced transparency, squabbles between highly partisan members of Congress is a diversion from bigger and harder truths. Just like in the early to mid-1970s, when the Pentagon Papers, LBJ's constant lies about Vietnam, Nixon's illegal actions here and abroad, and revelations of COINTELPRO and massive abuses by the FBI, CIA, and NSA came to light, we need a new Church Commission and Rockefeller Commission if we're ever going to be able to believe in our government again.
There are extremely serious problems with low-trust societies, and it seems pretty clear that the United States is sliding toward less and less faith in both public and private institutions. That's bad news, because it usually ends with people calling for more intervention into every aspect of our lives by the very government we know is either crooked, incompetent, or both. If we keep talking about "the memo" and the larger Russia investigation only in partisan terms, the only thing we'll have to show for ourselves is even less trust and confidence.
Related: "Why Libertarians Should Want MORE Trust in Government"