The Volokh Conspiracy

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Vicious Cycle

How Press Bias Fed FISA Abuse in the Trump-Russia Panic


I've finished the second in what I hope will be a series of posts exploring the risk of partisan abuse of U.S. intelligence authorities. (For the other, see this opinion piece, coauthored with Michael Ellis.) Section 702 renewal is on the agenda for Congress in 2023, and building support for renewal means taking seriously complaints on the right that intelligence agencies were affected by partisan bias in their treatment of Donald Trump's candidacy, presidency, and staff. This means asking whether past practices created at least an appearance or a risk of partisan abuse—and thus whether any intelligence reforms should address those risks.

In my latest look at the issue, in Lawfare, I note that "respectable" opinion is finally acknowledging that press stories about a Trump-Russia connection may have been slanted by mainstream media, and I examine the role that media bias played in the early stages of the FBI's investigation of Trump world. A few excerpts below:

The Trump-Russia media saga began with a bit of journalistic malpractice. As the GOP convention was preparing to nominate Trump, Gerth tells us, the Washington Post ran one of the early attacks on Trump for kowtowing to Russian interests: a July 18 opinion column from Josh Rogin headlined, "Trump campaign guts GOP's anti-Russian stance on Ukraine." It was wrong. In Gerth's understated words:

The story would turn out to be an overreach. Subsequent investigations found that the original draft of the platform was actually strengthened by adding language on tightening sanctions on Russia for Ukraine-related actions, if warranted, and calling for "additional assistance" for Ukraine. What was rejected was a proposal to supply arms to Ukraine, something the Obama administration hadn't done.

A critical part of the FBI's case against Page was the claim that his many contacts with Russians were part of what its affidavit called "a well-developed conspiracy of cooperation" between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. That's a remarkable claim, and it naturally gives rise to the question of exactly what the parties did to advance this "well-developed conspiracy." The FBI's answer was the GOP platform change—it was presented as a clear step by Trump's associates to move GOP policy closer to protecting Putin's interests.

As evidence of this crucial element, the affidavit relied on what it called an "article in an identified news organization" (that is, Rogin's op-ed) and "assesse[d] that, following Page's meetings in Russia, Page helped influence [the Republican Party] and [the Trump] campaign to alter their platforms to be more sympathetic to the Russian cause." That "assessment" had no basis in fact or any independent investigation; it relied entirely on the inaccurate opinion pieces in the Post, the Times, and the Atlantic.

I go on to suggest FISA reforms to address the problems surfaced by an FBI performance in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation that was disappointing at best—and a partisan abuse of FISA at worst. You can read the whole thing here: