Russia Investigation Must Also Probe Surveillance Leaks
Representative Devin Nunes' decision to recuse himself from leading the congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election is as surprising as it is welcome. His erratic behavior, much of which appeared intended to protect President Donald Trump and his top aides from scrutiny, had compromised the integrity of the probe before it even got off the ground.
That said, the investigation should continue to look into an issue that many of Nunes's critics have derided as diversion from the Russia story: revealing the names of U.S. persons caught up incidentally in federal surveillance of foreign targets. The primary victim here was Michael Flynn, who resigned as Trump's national security adviser after it was leaked to the press that he had discussions with the Russian ambassador.
This is not to say the two aspects of the investigation are equal. If, as the U.S. intelligence community believes, the Russian government hacked into emails of the Democratic National Committee and did other things to undermine the integrity of the presidential race in Trump's favor, that was a shocking breach of international norms and a blatant attempt to undermine American democracy. If any Americans were complicit, they should be subject to prosecution.
Looking into these Russian actions is the main job of the House investigation. But this doesn't mean the surveillance issue should be ignored. As Bloomberg View's Eli Lake has reported, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice "unmasked" the identities of some Trump aides picked up by government surveillance. (Ordinarily, the names of Americans picked up incidentally are redacted in from transcripts of the calls.) It has also been reported that the in the waning days of the Obama administration, summaries of these conversations were shared widely not just throughout the government but with foreign allies.
None of this is likely criminal, and it may even have been smart: If there were Americans coordinating with Russian efforts to undermine the U.S. election, officials would be delinquent if they failed to find out who they were. But it is not normal procedure, and if the intent was political rather than to ensure national security, it's a scandal.
Just as the Russian meddling in the presidential campaign can undermine faith in U.S. democracy, the careless or malicious treatment of sensitive information can weaken the public's trust in U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. It took a long time for the FBI to restore its reputation after the abuses of surveillance committed under J. Edgar Hoover.
And this is a perilous moment for those agencies: Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which provides the authority for these sorts of eavesdropping operations, is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Now some conservative Republicans are joining ranks with libertarians and civil-liberties advocates in Congress who want to pare back some powers under the act. If they succeed, that would truly endanger national security.
--Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman
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