The Watergate scandal of 1972-74 was uncovered largely because of outraged Democratic politicians and a bulldog media. They both claimed that they had saved American democracy from the Nixon administration’s attempt to warp the CIA and FBI to cover up an otherwise minor, though illegal, political break-in.
In the Iran-Contra affair of 1985-87, the media and liberal activists uncovered wrongdoing by some rogue members of the Reagan government. They warned of government overreach and of using the “Deep State” to subvert the law for political purposes.
We are now in the midst of a third great modern scandal. Members of the Obama administration’s Department of Justice sought court approval for the surveillance of Carter Page, allegedly for colluding with Russian interests, and extended the surveillance three times.
But none of these government officials told the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that the warrant requests were based on an unverified dossier that had originated as a hit piece funded in part by the Hillary Clinton campaign to smear Donald Trump during the current 2016 campaign.
Nor did these officials reveal that the author of the dossier, Christopher Steele, had already been dropped as a reliable source by the FBI for leaking to the press.
Nor did officials add that a Department of Justice official, Bruce Ohr, had met privately with Steele — or that Mr. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, had been hired to work on the dossier.
Unfortunately, such disclosures may be only the beginning of the FISA-gate scandal.
Members of the Obama administration’s national security team also may have requested the names of American citizens connected with the Trump campaign who had been swept up in other FISA surveillance. Those officials may have then improperly unmasked the names and leaked them to a compliant press — again, for apparent political purposes during a campaign.
As a result of various controversies, the deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, has resigned. Two FBI officials who had been working on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in the so-called Russia collusion probe, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, have been reassigned for having an improper relationship and for displaying overt political biases in text messages to each other.
The new FBI director, Christopher Wray, has also reassigned the FBI’s top lawyer, James Baker, who purportedly leaked the Steele dossier to a sympathetic journalist.
How does FISA-gate compare to Watergate and Iran-Contra?
Once again, an administration is being accused of politicizing government agencies to further agendas, this time apparently to gain an advantage for Hillary Clinton in the run-up to an election.
There is also the same sort of government resistance to releasing documents under the pretext of “national security.”
There is a similar pattern of slandering congressional investigators and whistleblowers as disloyal and even treasonous.
There is the rationale that just as the Watergate break-in was a two-bit affair, Carter Page was a nobody.
But there is one huge (and ironic) difference. In the current FISA-gate scandal, most of the media and liberal civil libertarians are now opposing the disclosure of public documents. They are siding with those in the government who disingenuously sought surveillance to facilitate the efforts of a political campaign.
This time around, the press is not after a hated Nixon administration. Civil libertarians are not demanding accountability from a conservative Reagan team. Instead, the roles are reversed.
Barack Obama was a progressive constitutional lawyer who expressed distrust of the secretive “Deep State.” Yet his administration weaponized the IRS and surveilled Associated Press communications and a Fox News journalist for reporting unfavorable news based on supposed leaks.
Mr. Obama did not fit the past stereotypes of right-wing authoritarians subverting the Department of Justice and its agencies. Perhaps that is why there was little pushback against his administration’s efforts to assist the campaign of his likely replacement, fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Progressives are not supposed to destroy requested emails, “acid wash” hard drives, spread unverified and paid-for opposition research among government agencies, or use the DOJ and FBI to obtain warrants to snoop on the communications of American citizens.
FISA-gate may become a more worrisome scandal than either Watergate or Iran-Contra. Why? Because our defense against government wrongdoing — the press — is defending such actions, not uncovering them. Liberal and progressive voices are excusing, not airing, the excesses of the DOJ and FBI.
Apparently, weaponizing government agencies to stop a detested Donald Trump by any means necessary is not really considered a crime.
• Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, is the author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won” (Basic Books, 2017).