On Thursday, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Richard Burr reiterated comments by the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes that there is no evidence that former President Obama had the intelligence community wiretap Trump Tower. Speaker Ryan’s comments — along with common sense — should end any doubt that President Trump was either misinformed, winging it or deliberately lying when he alleged on March 4 a Watergate-like surveillance of his campaign headquarters by the Obama administration.
If this were practically any other presidency, the White House would now be trying to drop the rash allegation — the President might even claim to have misspoken — and find a way to move on. Even in the Nixon years, the White House ultimately admitted some outright lies by declaring old Watergate denials as “inoperative.” But these are not normal times. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer tried to convince the world that words don’t mean what we think they do: The President, he claimed, “used the word wiretap in quotes to mean broadly surveillance and other activities.” A week earlier, and even more recklessly, in response to a question about the “Deep State,” he tried to sow doubt that the public would ever get to the bottom of the domestic dimension of the Obama administration’s investigation of Russian intervention in the 2016 election.
Spin for the sake of presidential reputation is a normal part of political life. But there is spin and then there is spreading poison. Spicer’s encouragement of public delusions of the existence of a super-secret, unelected “Deep State” supposedly intent upon sabotaging the new President was poisonous. If such a state-within-a-state exists, then even Ryan, Burr and Nunes, elected Republican members of Congress with very high-level security clearances, wouldn’t know if Obama had authorized wiretapping on Fifth Avenue. And that’s a scary thought, especially in a post-Snowden moment when the President himself tweets “This is McCarthyism” and implicitly points a finger at the country’s intelligence community.
But the “Deep State” concept is nonsense, a product of Soviet Cold War propaganda, domestic leftist and right-wing conspiracy thinking and the unintended consequence of the long-time official practice of “plausible deniability” that sought plausibly to disconnect POTUS from any responsibility for US covert action.
This is not to say that unauthorized skullduggery hasn’t ever happened in the almost 80 years since the United States professionalized the collecting of intelligence. If anything, however, one could argue that the US intelligence community has, historically, been too accommodating to presidential whim. Rarely has the intelligence community said “no” to its prime consumer, the President of the United States.
In the mid-1970s, after a series of leaks about assassination attempts abroad and spying on Americans at home, the Senate formed what became known as the Church Committee to take a hard look at the intelligence community. The Church Committee exhaustively investigated domestic spying and concluded that presidents, Democratic as well as Republican, and some frequently, had misused the intelligence community for domestic political intelligence. We haven’t had a similar survey in four decades, but thanks in large part to Watergate and the Church Committee itself, Congress took steps to make a “Deep State” even less likely.
Both Houses set up permanent oversight committees, forced presidents to sign their names to authorizations of covert action and passed a law mandating warrants from a new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court for all national security electronic surveillance, closing a loophole which had been used by some Presidents to acquire all kinds of information. (After 9/11 the latter protection was removed but Congress and George W. Bush restored it in his second term.)
It’s worth noting that the vast majority of intelligence abuses unearthed by the Watergate and Church investigations and by investigations after 9/11 were not the product of an unelected state; they were the product of secret activities ordered by elected officials, namely our Presidents.
Even Richard Nixon, our most conspiracy-minded President before Donald Trump, understood this distinction very well. After the Senate Watergate investigation turned up evidence in May 1973 that Nixon had ordered wiretaps on 17 members of the National Security Staff and the press between 1969 and 1971 without seeking a court order, Nixon wanted “all the wiretaps of previous administrations revealed.”
“I wanted everything out on the Democrats,” he wrote, convinced that the secret records of previous domestic wiretaps would put him in the better light. On June 1, Nixon told National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger to “let your [liberal] assholes know” that the White House would soon be publishing the list of wiretaps by Democratic presidents.
Less than a week later, he reminded White House Chief of Staff Alexander M. Haig, Jr., that he wanted the names from the FBI of all the individuals tapped between 1961 and 1964, “Give us the names — that’s all we need.” And on June 21, he discussed with White House Counsel J. Fred Buzhardt, Jr., the list provided by the FBI of all wiretaps after 1960.
In his memoirs, Nixon didn’t suggest any doubt that in 1973 he possessed a full record of wiretaps ordered by his predecessors. Such is the power of the presidency. If he wanted to know such things, all he had to do was ask. The intelligence community works for him. In other words, he is the mythic “Deep State.”
So, Donald Trump, when he heard the media speculation of Obama wiretaps, could have simply asked for a list, as Nixon once did. Trump could also have asked for all of the FISA warrants — something that did not exist in Nixon’s time — requested by the Bureau. This would tell him right away if the Obama Justice Department had ever overreached.
Perhaps Trump has already done this. After all, for over a week, some Congressional heavy hitters, like Senator John McCain and Roy Blunt, have been advising the President through the media to investigate the matter himself.
And maybe Trump hasn’t been happy with what he learned. If so, he is reliving the Nixon experience. Nixon tried his best to spin what the secret documents told him to his advantage, to no avail.
“The height of the wiretaps was when Robert Kennedy was Attorney General in 1963,” Nixon said at a press conference in August 1973, “I don’t criticize it, however. He had over 250 in 1963, and of course, the average in the Eisenhower Administration and the Nixon Administration is about 110. But if he had had 10 more and, as a result of wiretaps, had been able to discover the Oswald plan, it would have been worth it.”
In his memoirs, Nixon would later grumble that he met resistance when he tried to declassify the names of those tapped, showing how some of his predecessors had also used these tools to gain political advantage: “[M]y staff resisted me…most of my advisers argued that if I revealed the activities of previous administrations, it would look as if I were trying to divert attention from myself by smearing others.” As the Church Committee report on domestic surveillance suggests, half of the documented cases of journalists wiretapped or bugged by the US government without a Court warrant between 1960 and 1970 were done at the request of Richard Nixon (three in mid-to-late 1969), so perhaps the 1973 decision also reflected a determination that declassifying more about wiretaps by Democratic presidents might not have helped Nixon anyway.
The longer President Trump drags out the suspense of what lay behind his early March tweets, the likelier it becomes that nothing substantive lay behind them. And, worse for the President’s credibility, it becomes even likelier that he or his team has asked for a list of wiretaps and already knows that Obama’s understandable and expected counterintelligence investigation of Russian active measures during the election did not include wiretapping the GOP nominee’s campaign headquarters in Trump Tower.
Given President Trump’s obvious allergy to apologizing, it is too much to expect this President to retract his tweeted allegations, no matter what Congress and the FBI release publicly. But let’s hope his White House stops taking refuge in the “Deep State” nonsense.
However effective it might seem in the short run with Mr. Trump’s political base, blaming a mythical conspiracy for this mess would yield lasting damage not simply to public trust but to this country’s international reputation. What kind of superpower are we if our President is seen to be chasing phantoms or inviting fears that POTUS cannot control what our spies do?