Posted by Curt on 21 February, 2020 at 11:23 am. 9 comments already!


Like most of what ails us today, the seeds of the current crisis in republican governance — the severance of Washington’s omnipotent law enforcement and intelligence apparatus from democratic accountability — were sown in the 1960s and ’70s. That was when we began to erase the salient distinction between law and politics. Under the guise of “national security,” we insulated governmental actions and policies from the reckoning of our citizens, whose safety and self-determination hang in the balance.

Fast forward to 2020. The FBI, in its bungling partisanship, very likely swung the 2016 presidential election away from its preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. The sprawling “community” of intelligence agencies (led by the FBI and CIA) covertly used dubious foreign sources to justify monitoring an American political campaign and, later, a U.S. presidential administration. To do so, it invoked daunting foreign-counterintelligence surveillance powers, based on a fever dream that its bête noire, Donald Trump, was an agent of the Kremlin. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court recently chastised the FBI for feeding it false and unverified information — the secret court apparently calculating that this extraordinary public expression of wrath will divert attention from its own shoddy performance in approving highly intrusive spy warrants based on sensational, blatantly uncorroborated rumor and innuendo.

As usual, Washington is reacting with high-decibel inertia. In an era of hyperpartisanship, Democrats defend the politicization of the law enforcement and intelligence that resulted in the Trump-Russia investigation. Republicans, meanwhile, wail about being victimized — even as the victim-in-chief ham-handedly dabbles in his own mini-version of the abuse: the Ukraine kerfuffle, in which the president sought, however futilely, to leverage the investigative and foreign affairs powers of the executive branch for domestic political advantage.

Few are willing to confront the crisis. Even acknowledging it seems politically impossible. Not only are Democrats invested in defending the Russia investigation and its excesses, but their post-Watergate surveillance reforms forged the modern law enforcement and intelligence apparatus, which tends to be politically like-minded, at least in the supervisory ranks. For their part, Republicans pay lip service to limited government and political accountability while continuing to see national security and law-and-order hawkishness as key to political success. Any questioning of the status quo, as opposed to criticism of the individual abuses that the status quo reliably produces, is framed as a green light to foreign sabotage and domestic lawlessness.

Yet there are indications we’ve reached an inflection point: The public is growing weary and not a little bit angry. The politicization of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering threatens everyone, regardless of political persuasion. And officials seem always to escape accountability.

Consider the center-right, the part of the political spectrum where the FBI and aggressive spy powers have traditionally found their staunchest defenders, myself very much among them. We see several Trump operatives (Carter Page, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort) subjected to groundless surveillance or prosecuted with unseemly zeal for process crimes (usually, misleading investigators), or for offenses unrelated to the fictional Trump-Kremlin conspiracy. In stark contrast, government officials who misled investigators, judges, and lawmakers evade prosecution. The latest example: the Justice Department’s mid-February announcement that the FBI’s former deputy director, Andrew McCabe, will not be indicted despite serially misleading agents who were probing a media leak that he orchestrated.

Here is the problem: The immense powers wielded by our law enforcement and intelligence apparatus are essential to protecting the United States. The agencies that wield them, as currently constructed, are not.

The intelligence community’s performance is often subpar. While officials have played an admirable part in preventing a reprise of the 9/11 atrocities, they have also promoted misconceptions that they and their intrusive information-collection techniques are fit tools for the tasks at hand. For example, the notion that international terrorism is primarily a law enforcement matter led for years to a focus on post-attack prosecutions rather than the prevention of attacks from happening. Indeed, the specter of jihadist strikes ebbed only after domestic law enforcement was subordinated to military operations against overseas terrorist sanctuaries. And let’s not forget the bulk collection of communications and metadata involving tens of millions of innocent Americans, supposedly necessary for intelligence agencies to target a relative handful of bad actors — which amounted to the risible suggestion that heaping ever more hay in the stack somehow makes the needles easier to find.

Yes, we need aggressive intelligence collection, mission-focused rather than warehoused without much discrimination, to protect the nation from very real foreign threats. But this is a political responsibility, and government officials who carry it out must be accountable. When officials are permitted to shroud their work in complete secrecy, making themselves unaccountable, an outraged public will eventually react to abuses of power by demanding that the powers themselves be pared back or repealed. Our nation would be imperiled from without by foreign aggressors, even as we remained threatened from within by a politicized bureaucracy.

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