The House Intelligence Committee, of which I am a member, continues to hold hearings on domestic violent extremism. Essentially, my Democratic colleagues in the House, as well as the administration, are turning the massive powers of the Intelligence Community (IC) inward, toward the American people. To say that this is problematic would be a wild understatement.
These hearings raise many important questions: Why is the Intel Committee looking at domestic terrorism with no foreign nexus? Do we think the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) should be spying on U.S. citizens? What about the National Security Agency? Or the CIA?
I believe the answer to these questions is a resounding no. And I believe the American people – Democrat, Republican or Independent – feel the same way.
Recent activity, such as these concerning hearings, suggests that there’s a concerted effort to increase the role of the IC in domestic law enforcement matters. This is shocking. It was not long ago that these same tools were used to target and label leaders of the Civil Rights movement as “terrorist threats.”
The law is very clear: The IC cannot operate against U.S. citizens. In all cases, the IC must demonstrate a foreign nexus to justify such activity. In fact, Congress created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to ensure this protection for the American people.
The IC’s mission and the word “intelligence” are also clearly defined within the National Security Act: Foreign intelligence and counterintelligence. Notice a lack of the word “domestic” in this definition.
This does not mean that I, or any other Republican on this committee, do not see a need for both adequate resources and a coordinated federal response to address threats associated with domestic violent extremism. That need absolutely exists.
Look no further than Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise and Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup’s recent call for the FBI to review its conclusion about the 2017 congressional baseball shooting, which left several GOP members severely wounded. Scalise and more than a dozen other House Republicans wrote a letter to the FBI that reads, “We all agree that violent extremism of any kind must be rooted out and addressed by our law enforcement agencies. But we cannot presume to understand the scope of this issue if our law enforcement agencies do not investigate all instances of extremism, regardless of motivating ideology, with equal vigor.”
My colleagues are absolutely right. Domestic violent extremism is a serious issue that demands investigation. They’re also correct in contacting the FBI about this issue. This is a law enforcement activity, so law enforcement is responsible for the investigation. To the extent that it is an intelligence activity, it certainly doesn’t have to do with foreign intelligence.
Still, despite these clear guardrails, the Biden administration changed the NCTC’s guidelines. While they will not “collect” intel on U.S. citizens, they will “receive” intel. This is an obvious play on words with absolutely no distinction at all. This rule, coupled with Democrats’ focus on “domestic terrorism,” will lead to the monitoring of Americans who have committed no crime.
I believe that whether someone liked an allegedly offensive Facebook post, attended a political rally or watched a certain news program may become the driving force of who is monitored.
Unfortunately, this is not my imagination. Everyone reading this knows that the Obama administration weaponized intelligence agencies against President Trump’s campaign in 2016. Former CIA Director John Brennan said that our government needs to be investigating an “unholy alliance” of those who disagree with him politically, including “libertarians.”
This is the fundamental reason why we can’t turn the IC on American citizens – it is fatal to our freedoms.
In the 1960’s, the government was surveilling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was surveilling anti-war protesters. The “domestic terrorism” hearings that we’ve been holding are a massive misstep back in the direction of those dark days.
This is not a slippery slope; it is the edge of a cliff. If my Democratic colleagues don’t reconsider this course of action, it will break the bipartisan consensus supporting the all-important mission of the IC, destroy public trust and ultimately increase the opportunity for foreign adversaries to divide us. America’s national security is too important to fall victim to partisanship.
Chris Stewart represents Utah’s 2nd district in the House of Representatives. He is a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.