Former President Donald Trump loved to lie about the FBI while he was in office. The claim that his 2016 campaign was illegally spied on — either “spygate” or “Obamagate” depending on when the particular lie was told — maintained a top spot in his ever-changing list of grievances, both real and imagined.
It was never really clear exactly what Trump thought happened that was so terrible, but his followers have been more than happy to fill in the many blanks with a series of wild conspiracies. Though he’s out of office, congressional Republicans are still holding fast to the idea that the U.S. security services did something bad against Trump.
On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee held its first public hearing on worldwide threats since 2017. (The Senate continued to hold public threat hearings until 2019, when they were paused after that year’s hearing caused one of Trump’s many outbursts.) And, true to form, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., set the tone with an opening statement that was both brazen and steeped in irony for its rewriting of history.
After claiming that the real reason Trump officials didn’t want open hearings was because they didn’t want to talk about Russia’s role in the 2016 election, Nunes went on to chide the assembled administration officials for not focusing enough on foreign threats over domestic extremism.
“Instead, we expect the Democrats will encourage the further weaponization of the intelligence community against so-called domestic extremists,” he said.
“History shows that major abuses occur when our intelligence capabilities are turned inward to spy on our own citizens — from the FBI spying on Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and ‘60s to its surveillance of Republican Party members in 2016,” Nunes said.
And that’s about where I lost it.
The Trumpist insistence that the United States’ intelligence services are being used against Trump allies is potent because it has a patina of historical truth. The FBI COINTELPRO projects that Nunes referenced really did conduct illegal wiretaps. It infiltrated organizations and approved assassinations. Along with King, the feds targeted members of the antiwar movement, suspected Communists, feminists, civil rights leaders and basically anyone who wasn’t on board with the white male-dominated status quo.
The FBI abuses documented in multiple investigations in the 1970s — which as Nunes noted led to the founding of the House's and Senate's intelligence committees — found similar methods from the CIA and the National Security Agency.
But what Nunes and his fellow conservatives have spent the last four years skirting around is that these tactics were on the whole deployed against the American left. It’s pretty telling that the biggest counterexample — the group on the right that was treated the same as the nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership Conference — was literally the Ku Klux Klan.
The only reason that Trump, Nunes and their ilk have the comfort of lying about being surveilled is because liberals actually bore the brunt of the government’s surveillance programs
But back to Nunes, who wasn’t done. In his questioning of FBI Director Chris Wray, who drew most of the GOP ire on Thursday, Nunes said the bureau’s spying on Republicans was a "hallmark of banana republics." He also asked the witness panel about the use of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant against former Trump campaign associate Carter Page, constantly raised as evidence of "deep state" malfeasance.
But again, Nunes is only able to complain about these matters because of the efforts of liberals in Congress over the years. Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, led the Senate committee that delved into the shady intelligence activities that had been at work against American citizens after Nixon’s resignation. Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y., led the House of Representatives’ counterpart. And FISA was introduced by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and likeminded Republicans and Democrats. It passed the Senate with only one no vote — Sen. William Scott, R-Va.
It’s striking then that there have been no new laws passed to specifically bar the activities that Nunes claims were occurring. There’s been no serious effort from Republicans to overhaul FISA or the FISA Court and limit its ability to approve warrants against Americans. There’s been no reform that they’ve championed on the same scope as any of those that occurred post-Watergate.
The only reason that Trump, Nunes and their ilk have the comfort of lying about being surveilled is because liberals actually bore the brunt of the government’s surveillance programs. It’s part of what made it so strange to see liberals raise up the FBI and Justice Department as protectors of democracy during the Trump administration. And it's why it was so galling to see Nunes invoke those attacks on freedom of speech and thought for his own craven ends.
The truth is there would be no FISA for conservatives to complain about without liberals locking that reform into place. There would be none of the changes that barred the FBI and CIA from monitoring American political activity without liberals demanding action. So, you’re welcome, I guess, congressman.