U.S.

The Carnivores of Civil Liberties

A bank of microphones sit before a press conference on Capitol Hill in 2017. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Where once they were critics of the reactionary administrative state, the Democrats are now on its side.

After a landslide loss in the 1972 presidential election, the Democratic party was resuscitated the following year by the Watergate scandal. The destruction of the Nixon presidency powered the Democrats to make huge political gains in the 1974 elections.

Watergate also birthed (or perhaps rebirthed) modern investigative journalism. A young generation of maverick reporters supposedly alone had challenged the establishment in order to uncover the whole truth about abuses of power by the Nixon administration.

Liberalism rode high during the Watergate era. It had demanded that civil liberties be protected from the illegal or unconstitutional overreach of the Nixon-era FBI, CIA, and other agencies. Liberals alleged that out-of-control officials had spied on U.S. citizens for political purposes and then tried to mask their wrongdoing under the cover of “national security” or institutional “professionalism.”

All those legacies are now eroding. The Democratic party, the investigative media, and liberalism itself are now weirdly on the side of the reactionary administrative state. They have either downplayed or excused Watergate-like abuses of power by the former Barack Obama administration.

Liberal journalists apparently have few concerns that the FBI apparently used at least one secret informant to gather information about the 2016 Trump campaign. Nor are they much bothered that members of the Obama national-security team unmasked the names of U.S. citizens who had been improperly surveilled. Many of those names then were illegally leaked to the press.

Democrats seem indifferent to the fact that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign paid a foreign agent, Christopher Steele, to compile dirt on Republican candidate Donald Trump — largely by trafficking in unverified rumors from Russian interests. Obama administration officials leaked details from that dossier.

Civil libertarians appear unconcerned that the Department of Justice sought to deceive the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, getting it to grant warrants to allow the surveillance of U.S. citizens based on the suspect and politically motivated Steele dossier.

Few are upset that former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper have lied under oath to Congress on matters pertaining to surveillance. Rather than being investigated by the media, both are now making frequent media appearances.

The FBI cannot remain credible when its former director, James Comey, leaks confidential memos about meetings with the president to the media — with the expressed intent of leveraging the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who turned out to be a longtime friend of Comey’s.

Why have the former guardians of civil liberties flipped in the near half-century since Watergate?

One, both the media and the liberal establishment believed that the outsider Trump represented an existential danger to themselves and the nation at large — similar to the way operatives in the Nixon administration had felt about far-left presidential challenger George McGovern in 1972.

But this time around, liberals were not out of power as they were in 1972. Instead, they were the establishment. They held the reins of federal power under the Obama administration. And they chose to exercise it in a fashion similar to how Nixon’s team had in 1972.

Second, pollsters and the media were convinced that Hillary Clinton would be elected. As a result, members of the FBI, CIA, and other federal bureaucracies apparently assumed that any extralegal efforts to stop the common menace Trump would be appreciated rather than punished by a soon-to-be President Clinton.

Three, those in the Obama administration, the Clinton campaign, and the media formed an echo chamber. All convinced themselves that any means necessary to achieve the noble ends of precluding a Trump presidency were justified.

The danger of such groupthink continues; even now they are unaware of the impending bomb that is about to go off.

Public opinion has radically changed. A majority of Americans believe the Muller investigation is politically motivated, according to a CBS News poll.

There is a reckoning on the horizon.

The inspector general’s report on the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email scandal is soon due. It will likely detail violations of ethics and laws among Obama administration officials and may include criminal referrals.

Already, a few liberals and former Clinton supporters are warning the Left that it is on the wrong side of history and about to reverse the entire post-Watergate liberal tradition.

There is a reckoning on the horizon. It has nothing to do with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Instead, the traditional, self-appointed watchdogs of government overreach have turned into the carnivores of civil liberties.

 

© 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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