Late Monday night, Donald Trump’s National Security adviser, retired General Michael Flynn, resigned amid controversy over his contact with Russian officials and his subsequent false statements to Mike Pence and other administration officials about those contacts. Never minding that this is the least surprising implosion imaginable, it’s feeding into another, much more dangerous narrative with enormous consequences.
Flynn’s transgressions were discovered and eventually leaked to the press, by sources within the Intelligence Community. As is now abundantly clear, the intelligence community (a federation of 16 separate Federal agencies) is deeply distrustful of and in some cases openly challenging of the President. A Google search for “Trump intelligence community showdown” returns dozens of articles about the tensions between Trump and the IC and the likelihood of some sort of a forthcoming clash.
To most everyone on the left (and even many #NeverTrumpers on the right and in the center) this kind of battle has some obvious upside. If Congress seems unwilling to challenge the President, the press seems unable to rescue the credibility required to hold him accountable, and courts lack the ability to make him observe Constitutional norms, then maybe the CIA, NSA, FBI and others will mitigate his more dangerous impulses. Or, as a slightly more scandalous theory goes, the IC has the ability to exact revenge on a President, thereby holding him in line.
To some, the IC currently stands as a noble resistance fighting to protect Americans from Russian influence. It is therefore justifiable that they ignore the President, or keep information from him, or gather their own intelligence regarding him. This is (like some other things out of the left) an absurdly short-sighted viewpoint. In a Constitutional Republic, federal agencies answer to elected officials, not the other way around.
Incidentally, this is not a view limited to the intelligence world: there are some reports of staffers at the EPA, DOL and DOE actively working to subvert their new bosses. To be fair, this has not been an exclusively one-way defiance of law and standards. The Trump administration has already shown itself willing to simply ignore valid court orders and other laws. But it is a more severe threat when the ones ignoring the law are so naturally outside of the scope of review to begin with.
Make no mistake. The CIA is not your friend. The NSA and the FBI are not your friends. They don’t work for you. They are giant, money-hungry federal bureaucracies whose primary objective (as is the case for all agencies) is to increase their own power and budget while decreasing their oversight and accountability. They are supposed to work for and answer to the President and Congress as elected representatives of the people, but the reality is much scarier. These are massive, barely-controlled organizations with growing budgets and influence and decreasing restrictions on their behavior.
We have already witnessed an explosion in the size, scope, cost and intrusiveness of federal intelligence agencies since 2001, even before we anoint them as arbiters of presidential propriety. They spy on US Citizens with and without warrants. They lie about that to Congress. Heck, they don’t just lie; they spy on their congressional overseers. Let me repeat that…they spy on the only people who can check their authority, those responsible for evaluating, funding and controlling them. They have killed US citizens “by accident.” Until 2007, even the size of their budget was secret (President Obama deserves some credit for slowing their growth). Today, there is limited visibility into their activities. They spy on journalists. And targeted religious groups. And students who criticize the government. They are spying on you as you read this (“Hi guys!”)
There is really no way around the truth: this is a really shitty situation. We have a President who may be compromised by Russia, who almost certainly doesn’t understand global geo-politics, and who has shown a willingness to put his personal interests over that of the office. He is distrustful of the professionals who work for him and seems to have a general disdain for policy and subject matter expertise. He is now openly at conflict with a massively powerful, far-reaching and dangerous intelligence community that may have legitimate concerns about his fitness but also sports a track record of acting imprudently and irresponsibly with its powers. The IC has given us all plenty of reason to be dubious of anything that they produce as evidence to justify their insolence.
Trump is not at all wrong to distrust the intelligence establishment. He is also well within his Constitutional authority to remind them that they work for him, and that they answer to him and to Congress, not the other way around. They do not have any Constitutional authority to ignore him or Congress, to monitor anyone that oversees them, or to decide on their own what is in the interest of the citizen of the United States of America.
As our prior President liked to say, “Elections have consequences.” One of those consequences is that Federal Agencies are supposed to listen to their duly-elected new bosses. Encouraging them to indulge in their natural desire to make their own decisions outside of that chain of authority is a dangerous step down a path that we absolutely do not want to purse. That is something that the IC’s new fans should keep in mind before they decide that the freedom-loving benevolent do-gooders at the CIA are going to save the Republic.
Unfortunately, the phrase "banana republic" let slip too loosely in regards to all sorts of innocuous things over the last 8 years. This situation with IC truly warrants comparisons to the corrupt and broken nature of politics within banana republics, lest it devolve to meet them.
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