Former CBS investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson asked a chilling question on Wednesday: Have U.S. intel agencies become “politically weaponized”?
It sounds like an absurd question. It’s the type of speculation respectable journalists (and editors) normally would not raise at a cocktail party, let alone attach their byline to in an op-ed.
But Attkisson, whose own computer in 2013 was “hacked by ‘an unauthorized, external, unknown party,” quickly establishes that these are not normal times.
Writing in The Hill, Attkisson notes that at least six Trump associates have been surveilled by U.S. intelligence agencies. But the political surveillance predates Donald Trump, she points out:
“Intel agencies secretly monitored conversations of members of Congress while the Obama administration negotiated the Iran nuclear deal.
In 2014, the CIA got caught spying on Senate Intelligence Committee staffers, though CIA Director John Brennan had explicitly denied that.
There were also wiretaps on then-Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) in 2011 under Obama. The same happened under President George W. Bush to former Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Calif.).”
Still, it’s not just politicians who’ve been bugged on suspicious grounds. The government has been caught spying on journalists at the Associated Press, Fox News, and—if Attkisson is correct about the source of her own computer hack—CBS.
We don’t know who in the government ordered the surveillance of these journalists, but Attkisson points to a 2010 email from the intelligence firm Stratfor that states the spying was ordered by none other than Brennan, who at the time was Director of Homeland Security. The email, exposed by Wikileaks, contains the following claim:
[John] Brennan [then an Obama Homeland Security adviser] is behind the witch hunts of investigative journalists learning information from inside the beltway sources.
Note -- There is specific tasker from the WH to go after anyone printing materials negative to the Obama agenda (oh my.) Even the FBI is shocked. The Wonder Boys must be in meltdown mode...
U.S. intelligence agencies spying on politicians and journalists for political purposes is a frightening thought, but there is no clear and compelling evidence that it is occurring. However, Attkisson points out several facts that are beyond dispute, and these facts suggest U.S. intelligence agencies might not be receiving proper oversight:
The intelligence community secretly expanded its authority in 2011 so it can monitor innocent U.S. citizens like you and me for doing nothing more than mentioning a target’s name a single time.
In January 2016, a top secret inspector general report found the NSA violated the very laws designed to prevent abuse.
In 2016, Obama officials searched through intelligence on U.S. citizens a record 30,000 times, up from 9,500 in 2013.
Two weeks before the election, at a secret hearing before the FISA court overseeing government surveillance, NSA officials confessed they’d violated privacy safeguards “with much greater frequency” than they’d admitted. The judge accused them of “institutional lack of candor” and said, “this is a very serious Fourth Amendment issue.”
All of this is troubling. But what is perhaps most troubling is the apparent inability of U.S. intelligence agencies to get their stories straight on surveillance matters.
In a March 4 tweet, President Donald Trump claimed he had been wiretapped in Trump Tower prior to his election victory, setting off a firestorm of mockery and accussuations.
Following the seemingly bizarre tweet, former Department of National Intelligence Director James Clapper and former CIA Director Michael Hayden emphatically denied that Trump or his campaign had been surveilled by U.S. intelligence.
Watch this exchange Clapper had with NBC political analyst Chuck Todd on Meet the Press one day after Trump’s tweet:
We now know that what Clapper told Chuck Todd on March 5 was not true.
U.S. investigators wiretapped former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort “before and after the election,” CNN reported on Sept. 19.
This, of course, does not mean that the wiretap was illegal or even inappropriate. But that was not what Clapper was asked.
Chuck Todd: If the FBI, for instance, had a FISA court order of some sort for surveillance, would that be info you would know or not?
James Clapper: Yes
Todd: You would be told this—?
Clapper: I would know that.
Todd: … if there was a FISA court order…
Todd: …on something like this?
Clapper: Something like this, absolutely.
If this isn’t clear enough, Todd then follows up with a question that makes Clapper’s denial of an authorized wiretap absolute.
Todd: And at this point you can’t confirm or deny whether that exists?
Clapper: I can deny it.
Todd: There is no FISA court order.
Clapper: Not to my knowledge.
Reporters who had accused Trump of lying are now trying to say there is no evidence that Trump’s predecessor personally ordered the surveillance, as Trump had implied in his March 4 tweet. But does anyone believe that U.S. presidents in the 21st century personally order wiretaps? (For the record, they don't and legally cannot.)
Whatever the case, such dissembling distracts from the key point: The director of the Department of National Intelligence gave an absolute denial of a court-authorized wiretap of the Trump Campaign on national television, and that denial turned out to be false.
Have U.S. intelligence agencies been “weaponized,” as Attkisson claims? I certainly hope not. But the clear denial from Clapper—who once “lied” to Congress during an intelligence hearing, according to the New York Times—is deeply concerning.
Either Clapper was lying once again—which I doubt—or intel directors have less control over and knowledge of America’s vast intelligence apparatus than we are led to believe.
I sincerely hope it’s the former. The idea of James Clapper fudging is easier to accept than the idea of spooks running rogue intel operations absent meaningful oversight.
Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has appeared in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Washington Times.