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June 30, 2023 Law and National Security

ABA experts discuss investigations of intelligence agencies

Several U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have faced a flurry of special counsel investigations, congressional hearings and damaging reports recently, many  linked to the administration of former President Donald J. Trump.

Panelists discussed ways to restore trust in law enforcement and intelligence agencies during the ABA webinar “Lost Trust: Politics and Intelligence.”

Panelists discussed ways to restore trust in law enforcement and intelligence agencies during the ABA webinar “Lost Trust: Politics and Intelligence.”

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“It’s not surprising that Republicans feel that there’s an institutional bias, and that there’s been a real loss of trust,” said Stewart Baker, former general counsel of the National Security Agency and former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security. He cited errors in the FBI investigation of former Trump adviser Carter Page, who was suspected of working on behalf of Russia to influence the 2016 campaign but never faced charges, as an example.

Those errors resulted in several FBI reforms and a guilty plea by former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith, who was charged with altering an email in a surveillance warrant application. He received a one-year sentence of probation and was ordered to perform 400 hours of community service in January 2021.

Baker and other panelists discussed remedies to restore trust in federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies in a June 23 webinar called “Lost Trust: Politics and Intelligence,” sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security, moderated by Harvey Rishikof, former legal counsel to the deputy director of the FBI and former policy adviser to the director of national counterintelligence.

Panelist Mary McCord, former acting assistant attorney general for national security at the U.S. Department of Justice, acknowledged mistakes were made in the Carter Page case. However, she said most intelligence professionals are motivated by a deep concern to protect the sources and methods necessary to safeguard U.S. national security, not political partisanship.

People who work in the intelligence arena face layers of compliance systems, technical standards and oversight, said Alex Joel, former civil liberties protection officer at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “People like me are coming in and looking over their shoulders … to make sure that they are following these detailed rules,” he said. “And yes, they’re getting them wrong sometimes, as we’ve seen recently, but there are systems to capture (those instances) when they get it wrong.”

For example, the FBI created an internal audit function in response to the Page case, Joel said. “I think there are a number of measures you can take within the executive branch to further beef up and strengthen oversight institutions.”

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