Questions for Wiretap Investigators

ihoovej001p1The ghost of J. Edgar Hoover must be smiling. The Surveillance State he helped found as the long-time Director of the FBI is thriving, its giant shadow falling upon a new President and cabinet.

Hoover derived special power from the secret dossiers he kept on elected officials and other public figures. On occasion FBI operatives threatened to divulge the information gathered from wiretapping, tailing, intercepted mail, informants, and other sources. Some public figures were exposed. Thus Martin Luther King was a notable victim whose extramarital affairs Hoover learned about in the course of close surveillance and used to harm King’s reputation.

Others might not be explicitly warned but feared Hoover nonetheless. Richard Nixon indicated that he had wanted to fire Hoover but did not for fear of reprisals.

Watergate was a bureaucrat’s revenge on Nixon—“deep throat,” an FBI Associate Director named Mark Felt, resenting not being named Director after Hoover’s death in 1972 and angry at the new direction the agency took, fed the Watergate story piece by piece to Washington Post reporters. Felt was a loyal follower of Hoover and wanted to continue his ways, whereas the new director did not, possibly because he recognized that a lot of the spying was illegal.

Nixon’s own malfeasance seems small fish compared to Hoover’s operation. Today’s much larger and technologically sophisticated surveillance machine (including but not limited to the FBI and CIA) is capable of spying on all Americans, as a recent Wikileaks release reminded us. Compared to the present monster, a few men attempting an amateurish break-in of an office in the Watergate complex comes across as pathetic—crazy but of little significance. Yet it led to Nixon’s downfall.

Government spying can be deadly for the spied upon. Ernest Hemingway suspected that his phones were tapped and he was followed by federal agents. When he told his friends, they thought he was paranoid. He grew increasingly upset and underwent electric shock treatments which failed to cure what everybody told him were paranoid delusions. He committed suicide. Much later, his FBI file was obtained through a Freedom of Information application. It showed that Hoover had Hemingway under surveillance for decades; Hemingway really was followed and tapped. At least one biographer concluded that the spying contributed to Hemingway’s mental decline and suicide.

About the surveillance of the Trump team, we have two pieces of information. One, agents clearly spied on former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The intelligence bureaucracy or members thereof tipped their hand by revealing what they heard, leaking to friendly media private conversations Flynn had with Russian and Turkish officials, conversations that could only be known by bugging rooms or listening to phone communications.  Two, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said that intelligence operatives “incidentally” listened to Trump’s associates, presumably when they spoke with foreigners.

We do not know a lot, spying necessarily being a secret trade. But it is enough to raise questions:

-Did the FBI or other agencies wiretap – using this word as shorthand for any type of surveillance – Obama administration members who spoke with Russians or other foreigners? Former Secretary of State John Kerry must have had many such conversations as he tried to negotiate a peace agreement for Syria with Russian and Turkish participation. Did the FBI “incidentally” listen to Kerry’s conversations? Or was “incidental” spying reserved to the incoming Trump team?

-The Clinton Foundation had many foreign donors. Were any of the discussions with these donors caught in surveillance?

-What is the crime General Flynn is supposed to have committed? On the basis of published leaks from intelligence sources, it is not clear to me what his crime is. Spying on Americans is legal only if serious criminal activity is involved. Talking with the Russian ambassador does not fit this bill. Neither are the leaked reports about him “incidental” –these are specific descriptions of what he said, provided to certain members of the press to generate news stories. This is purposeful, not accidental.

-Was it a rogue agent who did this or did high-level bureaucrats decide to get at the Trump people?

-Who in the Obama administration knew about the surveillance of Trump’s associates?

President Harry Truman complained about the FBI. He is quoted as saying: “We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction….” The agency was dabbling in blackmail and all Congressmen and Senators were afraid of Hoover, Truman said.

There was a time when Americans may have thought all that nasty stuff was no more, intelligence agencies were subject to legal controls and behaved themselves. Not so, various revelations show. The technologies would be new to Hoover but the political game familiar. Just to be clear: the president-elect and his team were the victim of secret police methods, to use one of Truman’s terms, employed by agencies under the Obama administration.

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