The Intelligence Community is vastly more powerful than most Americans think
As former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, I remember the intense debate on the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) and how up in arms the media got about U.S. intelligence agencies being used to “spy on Americans” when the program was illegally disclosed to the press by disgruntled NSA employee Edward Snowden in the mid-2000s.
Things changed drastically during the Obama administration when it weaponized U.S. intelligence to spy on and undermine the Trump campaign. And there is now evidence the Biden administration is preparing to use the power of our intelligence agencies to spy on so-called domestic insurgents, many of whom are just ordinary conservatives who disagree with President Biden‘s policies.
And there are no protests from the mainstream media.
When I was on the Intelligence Committee, we worked hard to keep the TSP from being revealed because it was being used to keep America safe from terrorists who were taking advantage of our constitutional protections to hide their plotting against the United States.
Critics of the program warned in countless editorials, and in the tone of how the media covered it, that TSP was ripe for abuse. Despite oversight to prevent reverse targeting of Americans and the misuse of any overcollection, the media repeatedly decried the program and changes to FISA as “attempts to spy on Americans.”
Turns out the critics were both right and wrong.
While there is no evidence the Bush administration ever deliberately used our foreign surveillance laws for domestic purposes, there is plenty of evidence the Obama administration weaponized our surveillance capabilities to spy on the Trump campaign.
The same media that spilled volumes of ink over TSP and FISA suddenly went silent when it became apparent the target was Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, many remain silent today amid open talk of the Biden administration using America’s vast surveillance capabilities against those they deem as “domestic enemies.”
While there are many in the Intelligence Community who risk their lives each day for the safety and security of the American people, there are also those willing to cut some corners to please political bosses in the executive branch. We see this in the politicization of the recent intelligence report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and in the decision by the Pentagon to order a “stand down” to root out alleged extremists.
The documents issued by the Pentagon are so broadly defined, it risks anyone who does not hold the viewpoint of the governing party being targeted as an “extremist.” Though the focus is on so-called “right wing extremists” now, those mentioned include Antifa, evangelicals, environmentalists and “anti-feminists.” It runs the risk of chilling free speech and free association – something people on the left supposedly cared about deeply until they decided to switch to canceling those with whom they disagree.
I have disagreed and debated with journalist Glenn Greenwald for as long as anyone can remember, but to his credit, his warnings on the potential for political leaders to abuse our intelligence capabilities has remained consistent regardless of who is in office. Though we do not always agree on exactly where the line should be drawn on surveillance, we both have seen sufficient evidence that the Intelligence Community is being directed into a place where it should not be.
We both recently wrote pieces warning of the dangers of using the Intelligence Community for domestic surveillance. The serious concerns we both see are framed by the hyper media use of martial language to describe certain groups – “insurrectionists,” “domestic terrorists,” “domestic enemies” – and even extreme calls by some commentators to use America’s powerful drone arsenal against our own citizens.
We should all be concerned about the use of the Intelligence Community against domestic targets whether it be for political or security purposes. Our intelligence community has the vital job of protecting the United States and it cannot do that if its focus is inward.
The Intelligence Community is vastly more powerful than most Americans think. It is an essential tool that helps keep our nation safe but also requires strict constraints to be placed on its powerful tools. The temptation of using it for inappropriate domestic political purposes is just too seductive.
Regardless of who is in office, the left and right would be wise to team up to hold the reins on its use domestically before this horse escapes the barn.
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Author: Pete Hoekstra
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