National Security

The Resistance Cheers Tactics Trump Will Likely Use Against Them

Making NSA wiretaps public is a police-state technique that knows no party loyalty.

Be careful what you wish for.

Photographer: Olivier Doulier/Pool/Getty Images

Monday will be a moment of truth for the assortment of President Donald Trump's critics who like to call themselves "the resistance." FBI director James Comey and National Security Agency head Admiral Michael Rogers are scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Russia's influence of the 2016 election. Let's hope we get some much-needed answers on what the government knows about Trump's associates and their ties to the Russian government.

Since the summer, Democrats and their allies in the press have pushed the theory that the Russian state has undue influence over Trump and that his campaign may have colluded with Moscow to hack the election. It's a grave charge. If true, the president should be impeached.

Trump won the election, but the allegations about the Russia connection have hobbled his young presidency. General Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, is gone. Jeff Sessions, his attorney general, has had to recuse himself from all Trump-related investigations. There are now multiple probes in Congress.

On top of this, Trump's Russia policy, for now, hardly looks like a quo to any Russian quid. Cabinet members say the U.S. has no plans for lifting sanctions imposed on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. The Justice Department just brought charges for the first time against Russian operatives for hacking Yahoo email accounts. Trump next month will meet China's head of state; no such meeting has been scheduled yet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russians now publicly worry that the political environment in Washington has scuttled Trump's efforts to reset the relationship with the Kremlin.

Not bad for the Democrats, considering there is no evidence yet to support the central allegation against Trump: that he is either compromised by or collaborated with Russia. But it would be a mistake to conclude that all of this is good for the republic, or for that matter those resisting the Trump presidency.

There are two reasons for this. First there is the problem of overreach. If Comey and Rogers on Monday confirm what President Barack Obama's last director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told NBC News earlier this month -- that there is no evidence of collusion between Trump's associates and Russia -- then the resistance loses credibility to go after Trump's abuses of power down the road.

But the bigger problem is the risk of "normalization," to use the language of Trump's opposition. Leaking the names of individuals currently being investigated by the FBI and the intelligence community is not unprecedented, but it's always dangerous. It's unfair to the targets of the probe, whose reputations are tarnished before the government brings a case in court against them, if it ever does. Also, counter-intelligence investigations can change dramatically as new information comes in; the target today may not be the target when it's wrapped up.

"If the goal is to protect our republic from an individual with authoritarian tendencies," said Tim Naftali, a former director of the Nixon Library who now teaches history and public policy at New York University, "there is a danger that overreaching in leaking incomplete and possibly misleading classified information from ongoing investigations of the 2016 campaign will do as much harm to public trust in our institutions as Trump's habitual overreaching in spreading misinformation about our system of government."

The risk of normalization is particularly acute when it comes to selectively disclosing details of conversations monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, such as the leaks that forced Flynn to resign last month. Such leaks violate the public's trust in government eavesdroppers to not abuse their power to advance a political agenda.

This is why there are strict laws prohibiting the public disclosure of wiretap information. It's why the intelligence community is supposed to take great pains not to distribute the names of American citizens who are caught up in surveillance of foreign targets widely within the government. It's why the House Intelligence Committee is now investigating how many times the identities of U.S. citizens were unmasked in intelligence reports in the last six months of the Obama administration.

Tim Edgar, who served in Obama's first term as the director of privacy and civil liberties at the White House, told me that it's a mistake to conflate leaks of government-monitored communications with leaks designed to expose government wrongdoing or corruption. "J. Edgar Hoover was a prolific leaker, the Nixon White House leaked information, including information about its opponents from surveillance," he said. "You may care somewhat if the government has intercepted your call, but you care more if they are using that information against you in some way."

Edgar, who is now a professor in law and public policy at Brown University, is worried that the anti-Trump forces are not seeing the danger. "My message to the resistance is that you have to be careful," he said. "These laws exist to protect all of us and our constitutional rights, and there is a difference between leaking the contents of surveillance transcripts and whistle blowing involving questionable government policy."

In this sense, the resistance is fashioning a rod for its back. Democrats rightly howled when it was leaked that the FBI had wanted to investigate the Clinton Foundation but was stymied by the Justice Department in the run-up to the election. Trump will now have access to all kinds of damaging information on Democratic politicians. What is to stop him from selectively leaking monitored communications against the resistance?

Ideally, the rest of Washington would stop him. We don't do that kind of thing in America. This is what police states do. But these norms are only effective if they are observed with consistency. Unfortunately, the resistance is so eager to pre-empt Trump's presidency that they have just licensed the very tactics they fear Trump himself will use against them. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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