The FBI is not your po­lit­i­cal ally

Na­tional se­cu­rity scholar Julian Sanchez says par­ti­sans al­ways mis­read the bureau’s agenda

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @nor­ma­tive Julian Sanchez, a se­nior fel­low at the Cato In­sti­tute, stud­ies is­sues re­lated to tech­nol­ogy, pri­vacy and civil lib­er­ties.

It’s a Wash­ing­ton tra­di­tion as hoary as the White House Easter Egg Roll: Power changes hands, and par­ti­sans sud­denly swap po­si­tions on an ar­ray of is­sues. Erst­while cham­pi­ons of a strong ex­ec­u­tive be­gin wor­ry­ing about tyran­ni­cal over­reach (and vice versa). Laments about ob­struc­tion­ism and grid­lock fade into paeans to our in­ge­nious sys­tem of checks and bal­ances. And, per­haps most re­mark­ably in the Trump era, the right dis­cov­ers the deep per­fidy of the “deep state” while pro­gres­sives pin their hopes on the Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity.

Yes, this is a bit of a car­i­ca­ture. Es­tab­lish­ment Wash­ing­ton’s co­zi­ness with the spook­show has long been a bi­par­ti­san af­fair (see: Fe­in­stein, Dianne). So has civil lib­er­tar­ian op­po­si­tion; the hip­pies at the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union were singing “Kum­baya” with the bow-tie brigade at the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Union to op­pose the Pa­triot Act way back in aught-one. All the same, it’s a weird state of af­fairs.

Among the myr­iad sideshow odd­i­ties of the Trump era: Re­pub­li­cans in Congress, as if sud­denly awak­en­ing to the mas­sive sur­veil­lance ap­pa­ra­tus they spent the past 15 years con­struct­ing, be­lat­edly echo civil lib­er­ties con­cerns they once re­flex­ively ridiculed; they even threaten to cur­tail some Bush-era sur­veil­lance au­thor­i­ties. Mean­while, many on the left grow pos­i­tively giddy over leaked tran­scripts of Amer­i­cans’ Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency-in­ter­cepted con­ver­sa­tions, pro­vided said Amer­i­cans work for the Repub­li­can White House.

The facile, cyn­i­cal read on this would be that the only bedrock prin­ci­ple in pol­i­tics is tribal ad­van­tage — which is prob­a­bly half the story. But seen through a more char­i­ta­ble lens, this re­cent in­ver­sion both obeys a shared un­der­ly­ing logic and re­flects a com­mon un­der­ly­ing con­fu­sion.

The logic is this: Ex­ces­sive au­ton­omy from, and ex­ces­sive dom­i­na­tion by, the po­lit­i­cal branches of gov­ern­ment have long been rec­og­nized by in­tel­li­gence schol­ars as the twin per­ils of spy­craft. Ex­ces­sive au­ton­omy gives rise to what we could dub the J. Edgar Hoover prob­lem, af­ter the leg­endary and in­fa­mous FBI di­rec­tor whose um­bral half-cen­tury ten­ure saw the bureau run as a per­sonal fief­dom, largely in­su­lated from po­lit­i­cal ac­count­abil­ity. The trove of em­bar­rass­ing se­crets — per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal — about prom­i­nent Amer­i­cans stored in Hoover’s files gave his nom­i­nal overseers in Congress and the White House good rea­son to fear cross­ing him.

Con­cerns of this sort have tra­di­tion­ally been more prom­i­nent on the left, in no small part be­cause of the long and ig­no­min­ious his­tory of in­tel­li­gence abuses di­rected at that end of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. More re­cently, the in­tel­li­gence bu­reau­cracy that con­ser­va­tive de­monology now dubs the “deep state” was the sub­ject of Tufts in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions scholar Michael Glen­non’s es­say “Na­tional Se­cu­rity and Dou­ble Gov­ern­ment” (later ex­panded into a book of the same name). Con­tem­po­rary in­vo­ca­tions of the con­cept rou­tinely veer into the realm of con­spir­acy the­ory, but the core idea — that there is an en­trenched na­tional se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment with sig­nif­i­cant power to ad­vance its own aims, even in the face of op­po­si­tion from the po­lit­i­cal branches — is nei­ther novel nor fan­tas­ti­cal.

Ex­ces­sive sub­or­di­na­tion to the po­lit­i­cal branches, how­ever, is no less dan­ger­ous. Call that the Richard Nixon prob­lem, re­call­ing how a Se­nate in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded that the pres­i­dent had “au­tho­rized a pro­gram of wire­taps which pro­duced for the White House purely po­lit­i­cal or per­sonal in­for­ma­tion un­re­lated to na­tional se­cu­rity.” It is en­tirely too easy to imag­ine a po­lit­i­cal loy­al­ist at the head of the FBI, di­rect­ing the bureau to se­lec­tively in­ves­ti­gate Fox News’s vil­lain of the day while turn­ing a blind eye to po­ten­tial mis­con­duct by those close to the White House. This seems to be ex­actly what for­mer di­rec­tor James Comey feared.

Be­cause both poles rep­re­sent gen­uine dan­gers, de­ter­min­ing which is the more ur­gent risk ul­ti­mately comes down to a judg­ment call about which looms closer un­der present cir­cum­stances. So it’s prob­a­bly in­evitable that your level of alarm de­pends on your as­sess­ment of the cur­rent pres­i­dent and his propen­sity to abuse power. The er­ror par­ti­sans tend to make is to pre­tend that only the threat about which they’re cur­rently most con­cerned is real.

That’s linked to an­other fun­da­men­tal mis­take by both sides: the ten­dency to use cur­rent par­ti­san at­ti­tudes as the lens through which law en­force­ment phe­nom­ena can be un­der­stood. When Comey rec­om­mended that no charges be filed against Hil­lary Clin­ton for mis­han­dling clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion, Re­pub­li­cans blasted him for car­ry­ing wa­ter for Democrats. When Comey later in­formed mem­bers of Congress that the FBI was (briefly and with­out le­gal con­se­quence, as it tran­spired) res­ur­rect­ing the Clin­ton in­ves­ti­ga­tion, lib­er­als ac­cused him of de­lib­er­ately seek­ing to throw the elec­tion to Don­ald Trump. Both ac­counts are mis­taken. What­ever you think of Comey’s judg­ment, the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and the peo­ple who staff it fol­low the in­sti­tu­tional logic and in­ter­ests of their agen­cies. That may mean that their ac­tions over­lap with the agenda of ei­ther party at any given time, but that agenda is rarely the driv­ing force.

The fail­ure or re­fusal to un­der­stand this pre­vents par­ti­sans from com­pre­hend­ing what’s go­ing on when in­tel­li­gence and pol­i­tics pre­car­i­ously in­ter­sect. It also leads them to cheer or damn de­vel­op­ments more wisely re­garded with cau­tious am­biva­lence.

Con­sider a story bro­ken by Reuters re­cently. Con­trary to White House de­nials, it said, Trump cam­paign of­fi­cials had nu­mer­ous undis­closed con­tacts with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment, both be­fore and af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion. Michael Flynn, the for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, and Rus­sian Am­bas­sador Sergey Kislyak “dis­cussed es­tab­lish­ing a back chan­nel for com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Trump and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin that could by­pass the U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity bu­reau­cracy, which both sides con­sid­ered hos­tile to im­proved re­la­tions.”

That ac­count is as­cribed to “four cur­rent U.S. of­fi­cials,” so it seems rea­son­able to in­fer that it was de­rived from in­tel­li­gence in­ter­cepts of Kislyak and Flynn’s con­ver­sa­tions. It’s not hard to imag­ine why in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials might view the dis­clo­sure of such in­for­ma­tion as both le­git­i­mately in the pub­lic in­ter­est and, in the wake of Comey’s dis­missal, even nec­es­sary. One need not spec­u­late about “Obama holdovers” (a phrase of­ten de­ployed by con­spir­a­to­ri­ally minded com­men­ta­tors on the right as a syn­onym for “ca­reer in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als”) ded­i­cated to un­der­min­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to ex­plain such a leak. We had, af­ter all, an in­com­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser — later re­vealed to have been act­ing as an un­reg­is­tered paid agent of Tur­key, as well as to have ac­cepted undis­closed pay­ments from Rus­sian state me­dia — col­lab­o­rat­ing with the am­bas­sador of a coun­try that had just med­dled in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to avoid scru­tiny from Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. With the ad­min­is­tra­tion tak­ing dras­tic steps that ap­peared cal­cu­lated to tamp down an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the “madeup” ques­tion of col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump cam­paign and Rus­sia, in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials with no par­tic­u­lar par­ti­san ax to grind might view go­ing to the press (a felony, in­ci­den­tally) as the only way to prevent facts with sig­nif­i­cant na­tional se­cu­rity im­pli­ca­tions from van­ish­ing down the mem­ory hole.

Yet in ad­di­tion to Nixon’s “purely po­lit­i­cal” wire­taps, his­tory pro­vides nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of in­tel­li­gence abuses with ori­gins in some in­quiry with a plau­si­bly le­git­i­mate na­tional se­cu­rity pur­pose. (The FBI’s no­to­ri­ous COINTELPRO op­er­a­tion, for in­stance, ini­tially tar­geted rad­i­cal groups ad­vo­cat­ing armed vi­o­lence be­fore meta­mor­phos­ing into a cam­paign of ha­rass­ment against peace­ful left-lean­ing ac­tivists.) And it’s prob­a­bly im­pos­si­ble to know how any pub­lic-spir­ited mo­tives for the lat­est Flynn dis­clo­sure might be col­ored by widely re­ported re­sent­ment within the FBI to­ward the dis­missal of a well-loved di­rec­tor, in a peremp­tory man­ner that many viewed as an in­sult. This leak ought, then, to give even the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fiercest crit­ics pause.

If we take it at face value (leav­ing aside whether that’s proper), the Flynn in­ter­cept re­veals a pres­i­dent-elect ap­par­ently wor­ried that his for­eign pol­icy would be un­der­mined by his own gov­ern­ment’s in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. It would be eas­ier to dis­miss that fear as yet an­other fit of Trumpian para­noia if it didn’t seem like we were learn­ing about that con­ver­sa­tion from wire­taps.

Pro­gres­sives who’ve re­cently learned to stop wor­ry­ing and love the sur­veil­lance state should think hard about the prece­dent such leaks set — and the im­plicit mes­sage they send to po­lit­i­cal ac­tors — even if any par­tic­u­lar in­stance can be jus­ti­fied as serv­ing the pub­lic in­ter­est. The leaks may not be, as con­ser­va­tive me­dia would have it, the only real scan­dal, but no­body should be too en­thu­si­as­tic about the prospect of liv­ing in a coun­try where of­fi­cials who an­tag­o­nize spy agen­cies find their tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions quoted in news head­lines.

Trump fans, mean­while, should not make the mis­take of think­ing that the only rea­son to worry about the deep state is that it re­mains Barack Obama’s deep state. The most ef­fec­tive bul­wark against abuse of the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s power is not the bod­ies charged with over­see­ing the spy agen­cies — all ul­ti­mately de­pend on can­dor and dis­clo­sure from the agen­cies them­selves — but the frag­ile cul­ture of re­straint that fit­fully emerged in the af­ter­math of the scan­dals of the 1960s and ’70s. What­ever re­mains of that cul­ture 16 years into the war on ter­ror­ism, hol­low­ing out the in­tel­li­gence bu­reau­cracy to make room for ap­pointees se­lected for their per­sonal loy­alty to Trump would prob­a­bly fin­ish it off.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.