The FBI has always involved itself in political matters. It monitored Communists, Panthers, Yippies, gays, civil rights leaders and their organizations, anti-war protesters, student groups, the Catholic Church and other religious groups, gun owners, cults and communes, trade unions, other intelligence agencies, congressmen, presidents: any individual or group it deemed subversive, or might be subversive in the future.
In every case, we knew about these activities at the time, or shortly thereafter. We also knew these operations had little to do with enforcement of our nation’s laws, or investigation of crimes. We took for granted that the FBI would use its powers to monitor people or groups who suspiciously drew attention to themselves, or who J. Edgar Hoover didn’t like.
So what makes the FBI’s activities in 2016, in particular its use of the Steele dossier to surveill members of Trump’s campaign, a matter for so much discussion four years later? Have we changed our minds about what the FBI should and should not be doing? Did we at last become fed up with the way it constantly contradicts its own public image? I think there’s more to it than a change of heart.
First, the 2016 election was a close-fought contest, and we are headed into another one. No matter who wins the 2020 election, we don’t want another fiasco that takes most of the next four-year term to investigate. If the FBI even appears to put its finger on the electoral scales, that’s bad. Yet when Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz submitted his report on the FBI’s activities in 2016, an FBI spokesperson said the report vindicated the FBI’s behavior! All is good over at the Hoover building.
Second, the FBI violated an important precedent by involving itself so blatantly in party politics right during the summer convention season. It usually takes a break during that time. The FBI would not want to mess with Chicago’s Richard Daley in 1968, for example, even though trouble was clearly brewing before the Democratic National Convention that year. If the Democrats wanted to self-destruct, that was their business. This hands-off practice generally served everyone well. We saw what happened when Comey’s FBI decided they would be, let’s say, a little more proactive in 2016.
The third reason disquiets people’s minds the most. The 2016 campaign marked the first instance where the bureau unwittingly collaborated with a foreign enemy to interfere in domestic politics. It feels unreal even to type those words, but there they are on the screen. You cannot get around them. The FBI was so eager to find dirt on Trump, it let itself be duped by Putin and his numerous clever minions, as we now like to think of them.
To understand how the FBI could make mistakes like these, you have to look at the enthusiastic, credulous, even naive personalities behind them. How, for example, does our national security establishment get blessed with people like Oliver North and James Comey? When you deal with the Iranians, do you think they want to help you out? North thought it pretty nifty that the Iranians were helping him get arms to our favorite guerrilla army in Nicaragua.
When you deal with the Russians, do you think they won’t take you to the cleaners whenever they can? Comey and company thought it pretty nifty that a gentleman named Steele had compiled a trove of useful information, supplied by well-placed sources in Russian intelligence no less. Steele had found just the kind of information the FBI needed to dig further into Trump’s shady background.
Who paid Steele for his hard work? As you can imagine, the money trail is a bit long for an operation like this one. Democrats donate to the Democratic National Committee, which pays fees to its Seattle law firm, Perkins Coie. Perkins Coie hires the appropriately named Fusion GPS to do opposition research on Trump, and Fusion GPS pays Christopher Steele.
The FBI even used Steele’s information to apply for warrants to spy on Trump’s people. Unfortunately for Comey’s boys and girls, Putin’s masterminds filled Steele’s notebook with disinformation, which in intelligence circles is a trade term for lies. The FBI, also in the intelligence business, bit hard on a hook baited with tender, almost believable morsels. They ran the line out all the way to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, where they obtained a warrant to spy on Carter Page, and God knows how many other unfortunates. Even after they began to suspect Russian disinformation in Steele’s memos, in 2017, they still acted as if they had done nothing wrong.
Thus the KGB, or whatever agency Putin put on the job, created their Washington fiasco on the cheap. In their dealings with Steele, they achieved a far more effective piece of campaign interference than they could ever achieve through Facebook ads of doubtful provenance, and even more doubtful influence. They also did more than embarrass the FBI. They made Americans see that their own national security apparatus would fall for a simple trick that compromises the outcome of a presidential election.
Oliver North had a couple of computer monitors and a telephone down in a basement somewhere. He called it his command center. James Comey, on the other hand, placed his entire bureau at the disposal of Russian intelligence, because the FBI was too lazy, partisan, eager, or incompetent to verify the enticing, suspicious details in Steele’s so-called dossier. We will never learn how much Fusion GPS paid Steele for his infamous research. We probably do not want to know. For one, it would add to Hillary’s pain. For another, Trump would crow. Third, it would remind us that Putin bought his signal victory with the Democrats’ money.