From spying on Martin Luther King Jr. to surveilling Americans citizens under the PATRIOT Act, the FBI has been abusing its powers since its inception in 1908. Politicians routinely turn a blind eye to such misdeeds. So, the sudden interest from congressional Republicans in releasing a memo that supposedly highlights surveillance abuses by the FBI under former President Barack Obama amounts to nothing more than politically convenient hypocrisy.
The House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines Monday to release the memo, and now the final decision is left to President Trump. Putting the four-page document out in public would be a win for civil libertarians, but the Republican push is nothing more than political theatre, and more important, is unlikely to have any serious impact on spying laws in this country.
Many of the same Republicans who are calling for the release of the memo voted to expand the intelligence agency’s surveillance powers earlier this month. All 13 Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee agreed to reauthorize FISA Section 702 –– one of the most controversial surveillance tools the feds use –– which allows the intelligence community to collect data on Americans who are in contact with foreigners. All but eight of 51 total Republican Senators voted to reauthorize Section 702.
FISA isn’t the only evidence showing that members of the Intelligence Committee want to expand surveillance powers. For example, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., (no relation to me) one of the most outspoken supporters of publicizing this document, has long been a proponent of more surveillance. King has called for vast spying on Muslims, attacked Sen. Rand Paul for opposing reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act, and routinely pushed for more surveillance by local police agencies to combat terrorism.
The empty talk doesn’t stop with actively voting for more surveillance, however. Bad budgeting processes by Congress have also given the executive branch broad authority to snoop. The massive spending bill that passed earlier this month included a provision which granted the executive branch billions of dollars to spend at its discretion on new surveillance programs. Again, that was a vote that congressional Republicans by and large had no problem with.
The only reason Republicans on the committee, such as King, are currently showing interest in releasing this memo is because it would damage Obama’s legacy. While frustrating, this type of insincerity shouldn’t be surprising. With the exception of a few principled, cross-partisan civil libertarians, like Paul and Sen. Ron Wyden, or Reps. Jared Polis and Mark Meadows, the surveillance debate in this country never gets beyond partisan pettiness.
Releasing the memo may educate the public about surveillance abuses, just like leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden did in 2013. However, even in the wake of the Snowden revelations, Congress has not made any substantial progress on curbing the government’s blatant violations of Fourth Amendment rights.
Even as partisans begin to sound concerned about abuses by the FBI, their constituents should take the pearl-clutching with a grain of salt. Regardless of the contents of the four-page document, one thing is for sure: Lawmakers are only concerned with abuse of power when they stand to gain politically from virtue signaling.
Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Va.
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