Trump lives in shadow of Watergate

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Wikimedia Commons/Ollie Atkins

Recently, long-time investigative reporter Jefferson Morley authored an eye-opening piece in The New Republic entitled “Democrats Are Trapped in Trump’s ‘Deep State’ War.” He said we are facing a depressing question: “Whose side must be taken in a power struggle between a legion of professional liars and a consummate bullshit artist?”

Even before he became president, Trump was at war with the “Deep State” when the U.S. intelligence community issued a report declaring that it had concluded that he received covert help from a foreign power.

This declaration was a big shock but the intelligence community had a credibility problem. Morley focused on two of Trump’s critics on cable TV, James Clapper and John Brennan:

“In March of 2013, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate, falsely, that the NSA did not collect intelligence on hundreds of millions of Americans. Does that mean Clapper is wrong when he says Trump lives in a ‘no-fact zone reality bubble?’ Not necessarily.

“The CIA, under the directorship of John Brennan, fed false information about the agency’s torture program to the Senate Intelligence Committee investigators and, when the investigators discovered it was false, sought to charge them with a crime… Does that mean Brennan is right to say Trump’s talk of a CIA coup is ‘sociopathic rambling’? Not quite.”

There is a difference between Trump and the spymasters. He lies constantly about everything while Clapper and Brennan “lie selectively” allegedly to protect the country. Morley says this dispute masks a power struggle between Trump and a secret branch of the U.S. government with enormous powers.

Trump wants to seize control of the national security apparatus for his personal benefit. This is very dangerous. From the beginning, he has attacked institutions that try to constrain him such as the press, the courts and Congress. He has brazenly said he wants to be a dictator. Some may think he’s joking but his actions indicate otherwise.

This has happened before. Richard Nixon had similar ambitions. He wanted to have more control over the executive bureaucracy, crucially the intelligence community and the FBI. In 1970, White House aide Tom Charles Huston put together a domestic intelligence plan to coordinate the gathering of information about leftist radicals and the anti-war movement. The plan called for domestic burglary, illegal electronic surveillance and opening the mail of domestic leftists. At one point it also called for the creation of camps in Western states, where anti-war protesters would be detained.

Nixon approved the proposals and they were submitted as a document to the directors of the FBI, CIA, DIA and NSA. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was the only leader who opposed the plan, and he received the support of Attorney General John Mitchell to pressure Nixon to revoke the plan. However, several of the plan’s proposals were implemented.

The public would learn of the Huston plan during the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. Nixon established a“Plumbers Unit” to stop the leaking of classified information, but they mostly engaged in numerous “dirty tricks” to sabotage political opponents. The unit was established a week after the leaking of a secret scholarly Defense Department history of the Vietnam War called The Pentagon Papers. The whistleblower was Daniel Ellsberg. Their first task was a burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. They were looking for material to discredit Ellsberg. Their crime spree ended in 1972 when they were caught burglarizing the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex.

Historian Beverly Gage recently told The New Yorker that “Watergate did really produce a whole series of massive political reforms, many of which had to do with transparency and accountability in the executive branch, and some of those are playing a pretty dramatic role in what we have going on today in the intelligence committees…”

The intelligence committees were only established after Watergate.

The scandal inspired several Congressional investigations into illegal activities and abuse of the intelligence agencies, particularly the FBI and CIA. The abuses included domestic spying on Americans, harassment and disruption of dissident individuals and groups, infiltration and manipulation of media and business, assassination plots targeting foreign leaders, and human experimentation using drugs as part of a “mind control” program. Some of the findings led to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which investigated the murders of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Congress created permanent intelligence oversight committees in both the Senate and House. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was established, which is a tribunal that reviews requests from law enforcement and intelligence agencies seeking permission to undertake wiretap surveillance on any “foreign power or an agent of a foreign power” within the U.S.

The national security elite would pushback. There was the huge Iran-Contra conspiracy in the 1980s which undermined Congress and was organized by CIA officials. After 9/11, we’ve had endless wars and an overdose of militarist bombast. Today we should oppose rising authoritarianism here and abroad. We shouldn’t go to war with Russia but we have to deal with their cyberwarfare and disinformation campaigns in this country and in Europe.

We can’t return to the pre-Trump world. We need a foreign policy that empowers ordinary Americans, not multinational corporations. 

this opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.