Alfonse D'Amato

Russia, Trump and the FBI: Get to the truth and move on

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The endless Russia controversy continues to swirl around President Trump, fanned by his political opponents and the national media, distracting the president and Congress from other pressing national business. It’s time to get to the truth of the matter and for our country to move on.

I’ve said before that I believe Russia did try to influence our 2016 election, based on all available evidence. But did that interference really determine the outcome? I don’t believe so. Donald Trump won because of deep dissatisfaction with the political status quo, and because whatever his shortcomings, his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was deeply flawed, not because of some clandestine collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And all Russia got for its meddling was even more strained relations with the United States.

But there’s an important subtext to this whole matter that does deserve attention in Washington. The more that has been revealed about it, the more our intelligence and investigative agencies have to answer for. Americans can expect the Russian Federal Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service, which replaced the KGB, to take actions undermining our democracy. But when our CIA and our FBI cross lines affecting our Constitutional rights, that’s much more serious.

Most Americans are only vaguely familiar with laws like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows our government to collect information on potential foreign threats, including those posed by international terrorists who endanger the American homeland. We rightly assume that this surveillance law is applied under the strictest of standards, with maximum protections against ensnaring innocent U.S. citizens in its net.

Recently, however, we have unearthed the unsettling information that the FBI may have crossed some clear red lines in its sleuthing efforts relating to the Russia-U.S. election meddling case. The FBI’s surveillance of suspected Russian operatives cast such a wide net that it enabled surveillance of American citizens who should have been protected against the unwarranted compromise of their constitutionally protected rights.

It’s important to note that for years, observers as politically diverse as the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute have expressed like-minded concern about precisely this kind of intelligence overreach. Protecting our fundamental freedoms isn’t a left-right fight, it’s a basic rights issue on which we should all agree.

Yet the unnerving drip-drip-drip of information flowing out of the Russia probe paints a picture of just such overreaches on the FBI’s part. First we learned from communications exchanged by FBI agents directly involved in the case that they harbored a deep dislike for Trump and wanted to see him defeated in 2016. That kind of political bias inside the FBI is bad enough, but it’s dwarfed by the apparent violations of those at the top of the agency.

The recently dismissed deputy director, Andrew McCabe, testified under oath that while he did improperly leak classified Russia probe information to the media, he did so at the direction of the then FBI director himself, James Comey. Comey, on the other hand, swore under oath that he neither leaked this damaging information nor authorized McCabe to do so.

The only logical conclusion here is that either Comey or McCabe perjured himself, and that speaks volumes about the basic integrity of the FBI. The hard fact is that one of these two men lied under oath. Such impropriety at the pinnacle of American law enforcement is potentially more damaging to our democracy than any disinformation the Russians may have thrown at our elections.

And speaking of the Russians, it really is time, as respected former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has suggested, for the Russia investigation to be brought to a conclusion “because the country needs to get back to business.” A big part of that business includes re-establishing a dialogue between the U.S. and Russia on a wide range of issues that could drastically affect world peace.

Russia can be engaged in navigating the Middle East security challenges presented by Syria and Iran. It could also be more constructively involved in the ongoing dispute with the nuclear-armed North Korea. And it might even be drawn into negotiations on the broader issue of nuclear proliferation generally, and the looming resurgence of a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms race, a threat to us all.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.