Guest Opinion Published February 28, 2017, Siskiyou Daily News
The members of the House Intelligence Committee have dealt what I believe could be a fatal blow to the very existence of our system of government as we know it. I can only wonder if they, in their cloistered world, have any idea of what they have done. Let me explain.
The correct name of the Committee is the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). It has been in existence since the 70’s. It is charged with oversight of the United States intelligence community, and has jurisdiction over some nineteen executive branch departments and agencies that are involved in intelligence gathering, including the CIA, FBI, NSA, and Department of Justice. In other words, its mission is to protect our citizens’ privacy and their lives from being subjected to the ever expanding, overreaching, sometimes rogue activities of the government intelligence agencies. In a nutshell, they are there to protect us from … the government. The recent “dueling memo” activities of the Committee have demonstrated to the entire nation that its members have lost track of their mission, to wit, to protect the US citizens, and have replaced it with a mission to protect their party, and therefore, themselves.
The current Committee is made up of 13 republicans and 9 democrats. Generally the political party makeup of the Committee will reflect the party makeup of the Congress.
The hot topic item that the Committee has been investigating has to do with whether or not FBI and Justice Department officials acted legally and ethically when they presented to the FISA court an application for warrants to enable them to conduct searches, wiretapping, and other invasive surveillance of certain members of Donald Trump’s campaign committee. The FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court is a highly secret court, apparently accountable to no one, authorized to issue search warrants to agencies such as the FBI and Justice Department to conduct surveillance of people suspected of espionage. Some people think the FISA courts do nothing more than rubber stamp. The standard to be applied in obtaining a FISA warrant is uncertain (at least to me) but certainly is a lower standard than the constitutionally-mandated probable cause standard that we all learned about in high school civics. Notwithstanding the lower standard, it is still required that the agency requesting the warrant provide sufficient evidence to the FISA judge to enable the judge to make a determination as to whether the information submitted in support of the warrant is based on credible information and facts.
The specific issue that the Committee faced was to determine whether the FBI and Justice Department withheld information from the FISA judge that the judge should have been given to fairly evaluate the warrant application. Specifically, whether the warrant was based on the now-infamous “Steele Dossier,” which had been procured by the Clinton campaign to discredit Donald Trump, and whether the FISA judge was informed of the background information as to how the Steele Dossier was procured.
How the Committee responded to this task is frightening. The Committee issued a memo to the effect that the FBI and Justice Department acted improperly in the manner they applied for and obtained the FISA warrant. The memo was joined in by the Republican members of the Committee, none of the Democrats. The Democrats on the Committee issued a “rebuttal” memo, recently released, making the opposite determination. (Its release was held up for a period of time by the White House because it purportedly contained classified information detrimental to national security, a fact that is distressing in itself, but doesn’t negate the point I want to make here.)
Here is why this is important, and dangerous: The Committee members were essentially acting as fact-finders. They all presumably were privy to the same information and their task was to determine if the warrant application process was proper. Even though the outcome had substantial partisan implications, they should have approached their task like a judge or jury does: make the determination based on the facts, not on whether the outcome is favorable or unfavorable to their party. The partisanship of the dueling memos demonstrates that the Committee members clearly didn’t perform their task ethically or impartially.
Why is this so dangerous? Because I believe that the majority of the American public already believes that everyone in government is corrupt. This recent activity of the House Intelligence Committee has been much in the spotlight. Every informed American surely has been tracking it. Each member of the Committee was tasked to get at the truth. Each member of the Committee, miraculously, found the “truth” to be whatever benefited his or her own party, and therefore, his or her own self. This wasn’t a congressional debate on a policy issue which understandably is usually partisan. If the American citizens didn’t believe their government officials to be corrupt before, they probably do now. What will happen if the majority of Americans believe their government officials are corrupt? That is hard to predict, but it probably isn’t good.