As a former member of the Gang of 8, the top Senate and House members briefed on our nation’s most sensitive intelligence, I am very familiar with the powerful collection tools and authorities possessed by the U.S. Intelligence Community. As chairman and the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, I had the responsibility for leading the committee’s oversight of the myriad capabilities each of America’s intelligence agencies possesses.
Whether it is in space, cyber, electronic or human intelligence, America’s intelligence professionals certainly generate a “wow factor,” and it was always reassuring knowing the “IC,” as it is often called, was a powerful force arrayed against foreign enemies abroad to protect us at home.
A recent charge from former Obama-Biden era CIA Director John Brennan should give all of us a moment of pause. Brennan stated on MSNBC that the Biden administration is “now moving in laser like fashion to try to uncover as much as they can about what looks very similar to insurgency movements that we’ve seen overseas.” He went on to list potential targets as an “unholy alliance frequently of religious extremists, authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, Nativists, even libertarians.”
Given Brennan’s history, such a charge from him should not be taken lightly. After all, it was Brennan who was forced to admit his agency had spied on the U.S. Senate when it was investigating the CIA. And Brennan also played a central role in pushing the now-discredited Russian collusion conspiracy that animated years of investigation and inaccurate media coverage of the Trump administration.
The issue itself, however, is larger than Brennan – even if he serves as the prime illustration of the concern. The issue on where to draw the line on the massive surveillance powers of the IC and its use domestically requires profound consideration even in the heat of this current political moment.
In the analyses and investigations completed after the 9/11 terrorist attack, one of the key recommendations was to break down the “wall” between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence agencies. The 9/11 attacks included perpetrators based domestically and internationally, and there was legitimate concern the “wall” had potentially prevented the sharing of information that could have helped disrupt the plot.
After considerable debate, the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA), which I helped author, included among its many provisions reform of the relationship between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence.
The “wall” was breached, increasing opportunities for law enforcement and the IC to work together and coordinate activities. Supporters of IRTPA believed strong provisions had been put in place to enable cooperation but prevent our spying capabilities from being weaponized to target Americans. There were doubters on the left and right, and the Obama-Biden era targeting of the Trump campaign proves the doubts indeed had some merit.
As we hear calls from political leaders proclaiming, “the enemy is within,” I urge my fellow citizens to take a step back and ask whether we as Americans want our foreign surveillance apparatus turned against us.
I have witnessed the power and capabilities of the IC, and I will state unequivocally we most certainly do not.
They IC operates by law to protect us from foreign threats, and the rules reflect the fact that foreigners do not enjoy the same constitutional protections as U.S. citizens. We want this awesome capability to protect our nation from threats abroad, not to target our fellow citizens.
The tools necessary to protect us from international threats must remain singularly focused on the real threats that continue to exist beyond our borders. An Intelligence Community that has the lines blurred between foreign intelligence and domestic spying will lose the support of all Americans and becomes a real threat to our freedoms.
We must never let our Intelligence Community be weaponized against our citizens again.