Some of the biggest stories begin small. A short article in June 1972 reported that five men carrying advanced listening devices were arrested for burglarizing the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. One wonders if Monday’s, 14-minute interview of Patrick Eddington, senior fellow of the CATO Institute, by Caleb Brown, host of the CATO Daily Podcast, will amount to the pulling of a thread that will also unravel a whole jacket.
Like the original Washington Post story about the Watergate break-in, there is already in this short podcast a lot of telling detail. Eddington discusses the results of a CATO Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FBI filed in 2020.
Eddington sought documents indicating how many times the Bureau had violated its internal guidelines, known as the Domestic Operations and Investigations Guide. Eddington asked for documents revealing how many times the FBI spied on a political group, a candidate, a church, “or any kind of domestic, civil society organization or person involved in the public policy process.” After the FBI stonewalled, CATO took the Bureau to court and won the right to see the documents. The FBI began to produce responsive documents early this year, with more information coming.
Eddington reports the 1,100 pages of documents he has received thus far show a “massive number of violations” that “shocked enough people that we now have an official Congressional investigation underway.” Chairman Jaime Raskin, (D-MD), and Ranking Member Nancy Mace (R-SC) of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee, were prompted by these reports to ask the Government Accountability Office to investigate the FBI, the first investigation of its kind since the Church Committee.
At the center of this investigation is a new procedure created by the FBI in 2008 called “assessments.” These are de facto investigations that can be initiated by an agent without any criminal predicate. In an assessment, the FBI can run human confidential sources, search commercial databases like LexisNexis, as well as explore the classified databases of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the warrantless surveillance authority that is not supposed to target Americans.
What could go wrong?
Obviously, some blanks need to be filled in this raw, aggregate data. Which groups were targeted? Were any prosecuted? Which authorities were invoked? Were the identities of Americans caught up in Section 702 surveillance unmasked?
One thing we do know: No one at the FBI lost their job as a result of these violations. Eddington promises there “will be more to come” and that future revelations “will set people’s hair on fire.”
Our take is that the system of assessments allows FBI agents to treat their personal and political biases as hunches. You don’t like Black Lives Matter, the NRA or the mosque down the street? Open an investigation. Members of Congress in both parties need to support GAO’s efforts and follow up with a strong, bipartisan investigation to gather specifics and report them to the public.