Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the reappearance of Obama officials in the contemporary debates over surveillance and health care. Here is the column.
In the midst of the raging controversies over secret surveillance and new healthcare plans, there were some curious and unsettling sightings in the coverage. Individuals once thought to have passed from political existence reappeared to hold forth on the very subjects of their demise.
In ancient times such figures were called druagr or, in Old Norse, revenant. The two most recent revenants were James Clapper and Jonathan Gruber. They are ample proof that no one really dies in Washington; their scandals just fade away.
Clapper on Surveillance Programs
James Clapper is being widely quoted as proof that President Donald Trump was lying in saying that there was surveillance of Trump Tower carried out by President Barack Obama. Clapper went public to say categorically that no such surveillance operations occurred. That ended the issue for many in the media. After all, as the former Director of National Intelligence, Clapper would know right?
Of course, all of the members of Congress and media widely quoting Clapper as the final word on the issue are ignoring that, in the Obama administration, some felt that Clapper should have been indicted for perjury in denying the existence of the most massive surveillance program in the history of the country. Not one FISA warrant intercept (like the one alleged by Trump), mind you, but a whole program that literally put every citizen under potential surveillance.
When then-National Intelligence Director James Clapper appeared before the Senate, he was asked directly, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper responded, “No, sir. … Not wittingly.”
Note this was not a situation like the controversy over Attorney General Jeff Sessions who went beyond a question asked him about how he would respond to any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. Sessions voluntarily stated that he had no interaction with Russians in responding but failed to mention two brief meetings with the Russian ambassador.
Sessions insisted that he was thinking of campaign discussions not any meeting with any Russian at any time. In comparison, Clapper denied a direct question about the existence of a program that he was fully aware of and the question itself was all too clear.
Clapper later admitted that he did not want to answer the question and said that his testimony was “the least untruthful” statement he could make. Yet, of course, that would still make it an untrue statement — which most people call a lie and lawyers call perjury.
What was particularly disturbing was the portrayal of Clapper — and the Obama administration generally — as denying that the administration would ever surveil political opponents in such a matter. This is the same administration that hid the massive secret surveillance program and put journalists under surveillance. Clapper himself played the most controversial role in misleading Congress on the existence of the program.
Unless media is looking for “the least untruthful” answer, Clapper would hardly seem a compelling witness on the existence of surveillance operations. This is not to say that the media was wrong in asking Clapper about the alleged surveillance given his earlier position. However, he has emerged apparently shed of his highly controversial history.
Gruber on Healthcare
With the move to repeal and replace ObamaCare, various media outlets turned to MIT professor Jonathan Gruber who is widely referred to as “an architect of Obamacare.” Gruber promptly denounced the replacement of the law and warned that it could result in 30 million people losing health insurance coverage. He previously juxtaposed “a strong and coherent health care agenda” of President Obama as opposed to Trump’s “garbage salad of right-wing talking points.”
Gruber’s resurrection as “an architect” of ObamaCare is impressive even by Washington metrics. It was not long ago that no one in the Obama administration appeared to know Gruber’s name. While a key person in the drafting of ObamaCare (who received $400,000 to work on Obamacare and made over $2 million from the Department of Health and Human Services), Gruber became persona non grata after he spoke frankly about what was something of a bait-and-switch used to pass Obamacare.
Gruber told an audience at the University of Rhode Island in 2012 that they were able to pass Obamacare because of “the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.”
In another view from at an October 2013 event at Washington University in St. Louis, Gruber said “that passed, because the American people are too stupid to understand the difference.” Likewise, in 2009, Gruber denied that they were really trying to reduce costs as opposed to increase coverage — saying that Obamacare might not produce lower cost health care for many citizens. This statement was made five months before the passage of the Act but not publicly known until long after passage.
Following these and other remarks, Democratic leaders suddenly began saying “Gruber who?” Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi expressed a complete lack of knowledge of who Gruber is, was, or will be. The Obama administration denied that he was really all that important after all.
So, with the move to repeal and replace, who surfaces to evaluate the proposals? The man who said that he and others secured passage of ObamaCare in part on the basis of the “stupidity” of the American citizen. Suddenly he is an architect again and a reliable source.
What is fascinating is that there are ample reasons to question both the surveillance allegations and the proposals for a new healthcare system. Yet, there is no interest in the rather checkered history of either of these key players from the prior administration.
There are, of course, Republican revenants who seemed to rise Phoenix-like from their political ashes like Gov. Chris Christie or Gov. Rick Perry. Yet, the use of revenants like Clapper and Gruber reflects the limited attention span of modern media coverage.
It is too much to expect that the credibility of a former official would be relevant for a revenant, particularly when they fit a narrative of a story. It is Washington’s version of soap opera characters: major figures can suddenly return to life with a simple change in storyline like being found on a desert island or defrosted in some cryogenic lab.
The Obama administration itself had controversies of the veracity of statements on surveillance and health care. That does not make the statements of Trump or his administration any more true. As the “New York Times’” new ad campaign states, “Truth is hard to find.” But it is all the more difficult when you are looking in all the wrong places.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.
The Hill Newspaper, March 8, 2017