As Controversy Rages, FBI and Intelligence Community Should Avoid Living Down to 'Deep State' Stereotypes

Posted: Feb 06, 2018 1:05 PM

I'm the sort of conservative who views the US law enforcement and intelligence communities with profound respect and gratitude -- usually deserving of the benefit of the doubt and undeserving of reflexive demonization, but also never above reproach.  It's a strange byproduct of our current political moment that many Republicans, traditionally the "law and order" party, have taken to accusing the FBI and IC of rampant, politicized corruption, whose betrayals amount to a scandal larger than Watergate, or worse.  Perhaps even stranger is the newfound instinct of these institutions' erstwhile skeptical-to-cynical left-wing critics to rally around them as virtually sacrosanct and infallible pillars of American democracy.  It's an odd time.  Some of the most overheated rhetoric about the so-called "deep state's" alleged "abuses of power" and affronts to the constitution strikes me as irresponsible partisanship.  The known facts are complicated and messy; they do not point to a single, sinister conclusion.  They do cry out for more information and additional context.  

'Conservatives' whose zeal for protecting a president at all costs causes them to lob overwrought and under-supported rhetorical grenades at those who protect us, and the august, essential organizations they populate, are tearing at the fabric of American life.  Liberals who breathlessly repeat cherry-picked anti-Trump leaks, then furiously stamp their feet as Republicans "declare war" by going through the formal process of declassifying information that cuts against preferred media narratives, do not distinguish themselves as serious seekers of truth.  The collapse of mutual trust, and faith in our institutions, is a cancer on the republic.  Nobody should be above criticism, but cheaply tossing around sensationalistic accusations in furtherance of partisan ends is deeply harmful.  Amid this climate of poisonous and seeping mistrust, it is also incumbent upon the representatives of our besieged institutions not to live down to the cartoonish stereotypes advanced by their detractors.  Unfortunately, some figures within the FBI and IC appear determined to confirm some of the worst suspicions about them -- and this phenomenon goes far beyond James Comey's nauseatingly self-righteous and hyperbolic Twitter feed.  Three examples, starting with this creepy piece of commentary from a former CIA official on CNN a few days ago:

It's as if this man perused the most deranged online forums of anti-"deep state" fever swamps, then scripted the most inflammatory and conspiracy-fueling sentence that he could muster.  The FBI is "ticked," so they'll exploit their century-plus of experience in understanding how the Beltway "game is going to be played" in order to "win" against an inexperienced (and yes, reckless and demagogic, but also duly elected) president?  That is literally how people who go around muttering about the 'deep state' perceive...the deep state.  I'm sure Mr. Mudd garnered some lazy applause among many of CNN's virulently anti-Trump viewers (who'd have understandably recoiled in horror if an intelligence operative were openly talking about "beating," say, Barack Obama over his administration's run-ins with the IC), but in the process, he sowed more seeds of paranoia.  Next, we have this, appearing today in Axios:

Top intelligence and law enforcement officials warn that the release of a memo alleging FBI surveillance abuse could cause spy agencies to start sharing less with Congress, AP's Deb Riechmann writes. Why it matters: This development would stem the flow of information through government entities and risks weakening Congress' oversight of intelligence agencies.

Reaction to these "warnings" -- perhaps properly understood as veiled threats -- was swift and disgusted from libertarian-leaning conservatives: 

The notion that our intelligence agencies have the prerogative to diminish or cease the legally-required sharing of information with their elected overseers for any reason is dangerous and wrong. Again, it's as if some actors, in their haste to rebuke Trump and his defenders, are fulfilling the growing perception that they fancy themselves unaccountable and answerable to no one. Even for someone like me, who is inclined to share some of the concerns raised by IC sources about how things are playing out right now, this mentality is frightening.  And here's a quote from the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, from the AP story referenced in Axios' item:

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said he too fears lawmakers will start seeking to disclose intelligence information in politically biased memos. Schiff also worries that confidential sources could become more reluctant to provide information to U.S. intelligence agencies for fear that Congress could out them. Moreover, the American public could start wondering whether actions that law enforcement and intelligence agencies take to protect the country will be mischaracterized for political reasons, he said. The contract between intelligence agencies and the House intelligence committee is broken, he warned. “I have to think that it’s going to have a chilling effect on what they’re willing to share with us,” he said.

Here, Schiff appears to concede his own committee's oversight powers as he uses the occasion to blame Republicans for an erosion of good-faith trust. It's also quite a rich bit of pearl-clutching coming from a man heavily suspected of being a prolific leaker himself. And despite Schiff's hand-wringing about confidential sources receding, Marc Thiessen writes in the Washington Post that similar grave warnings employed in the service of trying to suppress the Nunes memo look cynical and deliberately overblown in retrospect. Thiessen's column about these suppression theatrics is example number three:

Washington is debating the significance of the memo released by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), but this much should not be debatable: The effort by the FBI to prevent its release was scandalous. The ostensible reason for suppressing the memo was that it was classified. But now that we have seen the memo, it is hard to see anything that justifies a national security classification, much less the highest level of classification — top secret. No diplomatic secrets were revealed, and no sources or methods were exposed by making it public. If that is the case, then what was the real reason the FBI opposed the memo’s release? 

The bureau’s public statements made clear that their real concern was something other than the release of national security information, when the FBI declared it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” But there is nothing in the law that allows the government to suppress the release of a document simply because it has “material omissions of fact.” The only justification for classifying information is to protect national security. Indeed, government officials are explicitly prohibited from preventing the release of a document under the guise of “classified information” because they believe it is politically biased or may embarrass the government.

Thiessen shrewdly invokes a comparable (but obviously not identical) situation, in which Sen. Dianne Feinstein released a highly partisan and tendentious 2014 report, packed with "material omissions" regarding the CIA's detainee interrogation programs. We covered it at the time, noting that in preparing their biased memo, Democrats did not interview a single official actually involved in the programs they were attacking. So how were those developments handled? "No one in the media decried its release, nor did the Obama administration suppress it. Instead, the Republican minority was allowed to publish a separate report and the CIA released a document of its own rebutting Feinstein’s many falsehoods — and then left it to the public to judge," Thiessen recalls.  So far, the Carter Page/FISA imbroglio has been treated rather differently by the relevant players, as well as by much of the press.  Last night's unanimous vote to permit the publication of the Democratic formal rejoinder to the Nunes memo is a positive step toward "let the public judge" transparency.  Additional steps, such as releasing the redacted FISA warrant application itself, would also be useful and welcome.  Meanwhile, it would be nice if many people in positions of authority would stop actively contributing to the "unreliable narrator" crisis that is hurting the nation. But I won't hold my breath.