The freshly reelected Republican senator from Nebraska had kind words this week for Joe Biden’s intelligence chiefs. “The American people are blessed to have an [intelligence community] as serious as ours,” Senator Ben Sasse said during Wednesday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. He called the group, which included FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director William Burns, “heroes” and wanted a chance to “say thank you” in front of the American people.
Sasse, who is supposed to act as a fierce skeptic not a fawning cheerleader of the world’s most powerful intelligence apparatus, singled out Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines for praise. “Your opening statement . . . was incredibly strong,” Sasse swooned.
Haines, the top deputy to former CIA Director John Brennan during the Obama Administration, undoubtedly marveled at winning such a groveling endorsement from a sitting Republican senator—or perhaps she internally laughed at winning over yet another reliable GOP dupe. (In fairness, most Republicans on the committee joined in Sasse’s praise for Haines.)
But Senate Republicans should have been outraged rather than starry-eyed over Haines’ opening statement as well as her conduct in office since taking the reins of the intelligence community the day after Joe Biden’s inauguration. Haines is wasting no time accelerating the weaponization of a sprawling organization that is supposed to identify threats to the homeland by foreign actors, not target Americans with the wrong political views.
Another Collusion Conspirator
It’s a practice, however, that Haines perfected as a trusted aide to Barack Obama; her fingerprints are all over the fabricated Trump-Russia collusion storyline and, as part of Brennan’s inner circle, Haines at least knew of—if she did not partially approve—the unleashing of insidious government surveillance tools against Trump and his campaign.
“Domestically, lone actors and small cells with a broad range of ideological motivations pose a greater immediate threat” than ISIS and al-Qaeda, Haines said in her opening statement to the committee. “We see this threat manifest itself in individuals who…commit terrorist acts for ideological goals stemming from other influences, such as racial bias and antigovernment sentiment, which we refer to as Domestic Violent Extremism or DVE. DVE is an increasingly complex threat that is growing in the United States.”
Instead of prioritizing resources to confront the menace posed by America’s foreign adversaries, which is her job, Haines is devoting most of her time to pursuing Americans on the political Right. Her first official missive as Biden’s DNI didn’t raise alarm over China or North Korea or Iran—it warned that Americans represent a “heightened threat” to the homeland this year.
“Newer sociopolitical developments—such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence—will almost certainly spur some DVEs to try to engage in violence this year,” Haines claimed in her March report. “Domestic violent extremists are U.S.-based actors who conduct or threaten activities that are dangerous to human life in violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any state; appearing to be intended to intimate or coerce a civilian population; . . . or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
That terrifying scale of violence, Haines suggested, could come from those involved in the January 6 protests on Capitol Hill; apparently not one for subtlety, Haines even included a sketch of the Capitol building in her report. (In a recent NPR interview, Haines referred to the events of that day as an “assault on our own democracy.”)
But there is a slight—major?—problem with Haines’ alert; she clearly exceeded the boundaries of her authority. Haines’ definition of a DVE, per her report, is “an individual based and operating primarily in the United States without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group or other foreign power.” Haines’ purview, however, is solely vested in gathering intelligence related to bad actors allied with hostile regimes beyond our shores, not Trump-supporting veterans from Virginia.
Fortunately, Biden’s intel chiefs did not find the same fawning audience in House Republicans that they found in their Senate Republican counterparts.
During a separate hearing Thursday morning, Haines, Wray, and NSA Director Paul Nakasone were blasted by GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee for abusing their authority to advance the Democrats’ political agenda. Representative Chris Stewart (R-Utah) asked each official whether he or she was statutorily empowered to spy on Americans with “no foreign nexus”; each answered no.
“It’s very clear the IC has no authority to turn your tools or your resources on American citizens,” Stewart scolded. Holding up a copy of Haines’ report, Stewart asked her if she used intelligence community resources to draft the document in violation of an executive order clearly limiting the IC’s reach to “foreign security threats.”
Haines tap-danced around the question, insisting her office merely received, and did not collect, the domestic-based intelligence. But Stewart was having none of it. “Your analysts helped prepare, you did an analysis on this.” The American people, Stewart warned, “should be deeply troubled” by intelligence agencies turning their sights on Americans.
Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, denounced the group for “characterizing wide swaths of American citizens, particularly Republicans and conservatives, as politically suspect, politically violent, and deserving of government surveillance.” He warned any attempt to abuse their authority will be met with “severe repercussions” by Republican lawmakers and the American people.
But Nunes, once again, will be fighting not just the Democrats, the news media, and the administrative state but members of his own party. As they made clear in their shameful performance this week, Senate Republicans have no plan to protect Americans—many of whom support the GOP—from an unbridled intelligence community hell-bent on exacting revenge for the election of Donald Trump nearly five years ago.
“The politicization of the intelligence community, and its use as a weapon by the Democrats to harass their political opponents, threatens Americans’ security and civil liberties, and plays into the very foreign disinformation campaigns that the Democrats claim threaten our democracy,” Nunes told me through a spokesman on Thursday.
Over the past several years, sadly, it’s become almost impossible to tell who poses the biggest threat to our democracy—foreign adversaries or our own government. Tens of millions of Americans undoubtedly would argue it’s the latter.