America's spies anonymously took down Michael Flynn. That is deeply worrying.
The United States is much better off without Michael Flynn serving as national security adviser. But no one should be cheering the way he was brought down.
The whole episode is evidence of the precipitous and ongoing collapse of America's democratic institutions — not a sign of their resiliency. Flynn's ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn't the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function.
Unelected intelligence analysts work for the president, not the other way around. Far too many Trump critics appear not to care that these intelligence agents leaked highly sensitive information to the press — mostly because Trump critics are pleased with the result. "Finally," they say, "someone took a stand to expose collusion between the Russians and a senior aide to the president!" It is indeed important that someone took such a stand. But it matters greatly who that someone is and how they take their stand. Members of the unelected, unaccountable intelligence community are not the right someone, especially when they target a senior aide to the president by leaking anonymously to newspapers the content of classified phone intercepts, where the unverified, unsubstantiated information can inflict politically fatal damage almost instantaneously.
The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2017
President Trump was roundly mocked among liberals for that tweet. But he is, in many ways, correct. These leaks are an enormous problem. And in a less polarized context, they would be recognized immediately for what they clearly are: an effort to manipulate public opinion for the sake of achieving a desired political outcome. It's weaponized spin.
This doesn't mean the outcome was wrong. I have no interest in defending Flynn, who appears to be an atrocious manager prone to favoring absurd conspiracy theories over more traditional forms of intelligence. He is just about the last person who should be giving the president advice about foreign policy. And for all I know, Flynn did exactly what the anonymous intelligence community leakers allege — promised the Russian ambassador during the transition that the incoming Trump administration would back off on sanctions proposed by the outgoing Obama administration.
But no matter what Flynn did, it is simply not the role of the deep state to target a man working in one of the political branches of the government by dishing to reporters about information it has gathered clandestinely. It is the role of elected members of Congress to conduct public investigations of alleged wrongdoing by public officials.
What if Congress won't act? What if both the Senate and the House of Representatives are held by the same party as the president and members of both chambers are reluctant to cross a newly elected head of the executive branch who enjoys overwhelming approval of his party's voters? In such a situation — our situation — shouldn't we hope the deep state will rise up to act responsibly to take down a member of the administration who may have broken the law?
The answer is an unequivocal no.
In a liberal democracy, how things happen is often as important as what happens. Procedures matter. So do rules and public accountability. The chaotic, dysfunctional Trump White House is placing the entire system under enormous strain. That's bad. But the answer isn't to counter it with equally irregular acts of sabotage — or with a disinformation campaign waged by nameless civil servants toiling away in the surveillance state.
As Eli Lake of Bloomberg News put it in an important article following Flynn's resignation,
Normally intercepts of U.S. officials and citizens are some of the most tightly held government secrets. This is for good reason. Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do. [Bloomberg]
Those cheering the deep state torpedoing of Flynn are saying, in effect, that a police state is perfectly fine so long as it helps to bring down Trump.
It is the role of Congress to investigate the president and those who work for him. If Congress resists doing its duty, out of a mixture of self-interest and cowardice, the American people have no choice but to try and hold the government's feet to the fire, demanding action with phone calls, protests, and, ultimately, votes. That is a democratic response to the failure of democracy.
Sitting back and letting shadowy, unaccountable agents of espionage do the job for us simply isn't an acceptable alternative.
Down that path lies the end of democracy in America.