Some of the most effective intelligence agencies in history have served the most odious dictatorships. The Soviet KGB, the East German Stasi, Cuban state security — many American intelligence pros ruefully concede that these services ran rings around Western counterparts, even if some of the regimes they served eventually collapsed anyway.
This is no accident. One-party states, as that descriptor implies, combine a certain unity of purpose with total insulation from democratic accountability. This gives their secret agents latitude to get the job done, through extortion, infiltration, assassination — whatever it takes.
In a multiparty democracy, by contrast, such methods go against the political grain. The government may resort to them, but its mandate is a bit tentative. The government depends, crucially, on an underlying, voluntary political consensus strong enough to support the inevitable moral trade-offs.
And that brings us to the United States, where the current attacks on the Federal Bureau of Investigation by President Trump and the Republican Party raise the question of whether it’s possible to maintain an effective, and legitimate, intelligence establishment, while the elected leaders who are supposed to control it engage in open-ended, winner-take-all, partisan conflict.
Bipartisan consensus has played a crucial but underappreciated role in the history of U.S. intelligence.
The United States developed no real national intelligence agency in the 19th century, while European states such as France, Russia and Prussia did.
Partly this was due to small-government constitutional norms on this side of the Atlantic; but mistrust between American political factions was another inhibiting factor.
Only when sectional and partisan battles gave way to new international responsibilities, and (relative) domestic harmony, in the 20th century could Republicans and Democrats define shared national interests and accept the need for permanent secret agencies to protect them.
This consensus almost broke down amid the revelations of major abuses by the FBI and CIA during the 1960s and 1970s. Bipartisan reforms — enhanced congressional oversight, coupled with limited judicial review of spying by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) — salvaged it.
Now Trump is consciously attacking the very concept of bipartisan consensus, recasting it not as a manifestation of healthy national unity but as an inherently corrupt bargain that spawns a “deep state.” He and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) might be doing so opportunistically, enacting a parody of congressional oversight in service of selfish short-term political interests. Still, they are tapping a deep vein of American thought — a suspicion of secret government whose roots go all the way back to the founding.
It’s the same vein that Edward Snowden and his supporters on the left tapped in their revelations about the National Security Agency, and Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee tapped when they brought out a damning report on the CIA torture that took place during President George W. Bush’s administration.
What’s more, even paranoids have real enemies. Suppose a Democratic president’s Justice Department really did use Democratic-funded opposition research, unverified and insufficiently disclosed, to get a secret warrant from the FISC to spy on a former Republican campaign adviser. Would that be perfectly okay?
In short, the American national consensus about intelligence, and many other things, was already in deep trouble long before Trump came on the scene. If there were still a robust political center, Trump never would have been elected in the first place.
Acting on instinct as much as anything else, the president is now exploiting the instability and confusion to neutralize threats to his power, the most salient of which, in the short term, is the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III. Full co-optation of the intelligence community could be his grand prize later on.
It is futile to count on the FBI itself — a “pillar of society,” as a New York Times headline strangely called it — to check Trump, even though many people who should know better seem to be doing just that.
When Phil Mudd, a former top official of both the CIA and FBI, warns on television that the FBI is “ticked” at Trump and preparing to “win” against the elected president, it only feeds Trump’s “deep state” narrative.
“Those who would counter the illiberalism of Trump with the illiberalism of unfettered bureaucrats would do well to contemplate the precedent their victory would set,” Tufts University constitutional scholar Michael J. Glennon warns in a 2017 Harper’s article.
We are witnessing a democratic nightmare: partisan competition over secret and semi-secret intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. And as Glennon notes, it would be unwise to bet against Trump; he has favors to dispense and punishments to dish out.
Alone among all the others blundering about in the ruins of America’s shattered political consensus, he knows exactly what he wants.