The GOP's national security cynicism
If you had any doubt that Republicans would try to distance themselves from President Trump's governing nihilism as they head into a daunting midterm election cycle, their efforts this week to declassify and publish a politically manufactured memo that alleges the FBI improperly surveilled a member of President Trump's campaign during the 2016 election should convince you otherwise.
It is hard to find historical parallels for this episode, and I've looked. There was the time when the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, led by Benjamin Wade, tried to force Abraham Lincoln's generals to divulge their plan for dealing with Robert E. Lee's Army, and resorted to a press leak in order to put pressure on the president. Or when that committee misleadingly used information to try to force Lincoln to replace Gen. George Meade after Gettysburg.
Then there was the battle for control of information after the Church Committee hearings (which investigated alleged abuses by the CIA, NSA, FBI, and IRS in the 1970s), when the CIA urged the White House not to divulge that the agency had been involved in a spate of assassination attempts throughout its young history. Instead of covering up the information, the White House chose a "political confrontation" over a legal one, as then-Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld said. The CIA's powers were weakened as a result.
But in these examples, at least, we see different parts of the government using classified information in order to preserve institutions, even to stabilize them, and to influence policy within an existing system of government. That is not what's happening with Republicans and the Nunes memo.
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are part of a system they have now decided to pulverize because it's in the president's political interest to do so, and because their fortunes are tied to his. It is Trump's unique genius that he can govern like this, so effectively chaining Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian collusion and potential obstruction of justice to the political fortunes of a committee in Congress. The fruits of an alternative universe of facts and judgments are being willed into existence — a "Big Lie" that is propelled forward with a hashtag (#ReleaseTheMemo). It's all theater. Republicans created the memo based on intelligence facts that only some of them had seen. Their allies created the hashtag. Their media is providing momentum. And the conclusion is already known, at least in that universe: The FBI misled the FISA court by failing to disclose that Democrats paid for the explosive Steele dossier.
Here are the real-world consequences: The FBI cannot trust the president, who already mistrusts the FBI. The Justice Department is losing its ability to protect the FBI from political interference. National security secrets might be exposed. The FISA process might be upended or it might grind to a halt as the political system processes the fallout from the memo. The Mueller investigation loses a potentially valuable source of intelligence, assuming that Carter Page's wiretap musings were helpful. The FBI's core mission is compromised. Congress' ability to provide wise oversight is basically gone. Institutions — flawed ones — that nonetheless worked reasonably well and were the product of political compromises — are on their way to being destroyed.
I don't think President Trump has a problem with that. I don't think 35 percent of Americans have a problem with that. He ran to break the system; he's on the verge of cracking up a part of it that generally works for the benefit of the security of the country he swore to protect.
There is a whole body of activists on the left who also want to dismantle the FBI, to vitiate FISA, to denude the clothes of secrecy that have been used to justify national security misdeeds in the past. They want an end to terrorism prosecutions with pretexts, to FBI stings that persuade sad people to radicalize, to still-opaque government surveillance power. They leaked classified information and failed to accomplish their goals.
Such activists on the left are trying to stop the wheel. Trump and his GOP compatriots, on the other hand, seem intent on breaking it.