Since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency of the United States in 2016, the political culture of the nation has been shattered by an unending series of disturbing cleavages. Trump has polarized the entire nation and forced the media into two camps: one condemning everything he does and the other excusing him or celebrating his most outrageous initiatives.
At the same time, both of the dominant parties — Democratic and Republican — are split down the middle. Only the hope of electoral success holds them loosely together. The majority of Republicans dislike and distrust Trump, but they have generally proved servile to his power and bravado. The Democrats have managed a dodgy truce between the progressive and establishment wings that battled openly in 2016, which pitted Hillary Clinton’s establishment against Bernie Sanders’ progressive troops. But as they prepare for battle in next year’s Democratic Party primaries, the rift is likely to become more apparent and the collateral damage increasingly visible.
But the most critical battle the media generally avoid analyzing is taking place elsewhere. It pits one camp — establishment politicians (mainly Democrats) and liberal media — against another that includes President Trump and most Democratic progressives. The first camp has placed all its faith in the intelligence community. The second camp fears and opposes what Trump calls the “deep state.”
The mainstream media have mostly aligned with the intelligence community, to the point of seeing their operatives, schooled in duplicity, as the valiant defenders of true American values. Reporting on the crisis of morale that Trump’s rhetoric and actions have provoked within the intelligence agencies, Yahoo’s national security and investigations reporter, Jenna McLaughlin, describes the confused atmosphere and predictably sympathizes with the spies. To make her case, she quotes a former senior intelligence official: “People in the intel community really do believe in the rule of law [and] will stand up if they see something egregious.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In the world of espionage, ordinary skullduggery, similar to what everyone does every day, but worth making public because the person guilty of it no longer has a valid claim to being protected by secrecy
The pretext for this examination of the psychological crisis within the intelligence community is, of course, the Ukraine-Joe Biden affair brought to light by a “whistleblower,” who, it turns out, is an active employee of the CIA. The kind of pressure Trump apparently exerted on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may be somewhat exceptional in its directness. The measures taken to keep it secret may also be the result of Trump’s conviction that he is the nation’s CEO rather than its president. But politics has always been about using whatever power and leverage one has to achieve any goal one has fixed for oneself, including that of being reelected.
The quote above contains two assertions we are expected to take as fact. The first claims that intel professionals “really do believe in the rule of law.” Not everyone noticed that this well-loved and often cited phrase is fraught with ambiguity. In practice, it isn’t always clear whether it refers to ruling in strict compliance with existing law or using the law to consolidate rule or domination. But at base, most people understand it as meaning something like “playing by the rulebook.”
In the case of the CIA, the rulebook has never been the US Constitution or even case law, but rather secretive practices that as often as not may be in direct violation of the law and the spirit of the law. By following that rulebook, can one be described as adhering to the rule of law? Given that operatives will be judged on their ability to follow instructions rather than examine the law, perhaps we should be talking about a law of rules rather than the rule of law.
The second assertion claims that the operative “will stand up if they see something egregious.” Again this is ambiguous. If “egregious” means exceptional in its violation of accepted rules, are the rules those of the CIA or those of the law? Even in an ordinary for-profit enterprise unconcerned with shoring up political power, salaried staff learn that their survival and eventual promotion depends on getting the job done within the rules established by the firm, rather than assessing its conformity with the law or ethics. Egregious is in the eye of the beholder.
When, after World War II, modern intelligence agencies were created as key players in the combat known as the Cold War, their personnel prided themselves on discovering information that would be useful for the president and the administration in making policy. Whether they did this by legitimate or devious means made no difference. All administrations appreciated and, to a great extent, depended on their service.
With Trump, everything changed. Now, “intelligence officials consistently complain about Trump’s refusal to even read reports generated by the intelligence community.”
At one stage, the Yahoo article points out the bright side of things, at least as it is perceived by officers involved in covert operations overseas. “Trump’s White House has actually removed some bureaucratic hurdles and reporting requirements for mounting operations both in cyberspace and with drones.” In other words, the Trump administration has liberated intelligence operatives from the constraints of some existing rules and laws. They should be rejoicing rather than plotting impeachment.
A deeper controversy surrounds the status of whistleblowers. As Matt Taibbi and some other commentators have pointed out, the CIA analyst who blew the whistle should not be termed a whistleblower. Taibbi reminds his readers of the history of recent whistleblowers, what their actions meant and the unenviable fate that awaited them.
This is in contradiction with the predictable assessment of a former intelligence officer and member of the National Security Council cited by Yahoo News, who suggested “that a CIA analyst, in some ways, makes for the perfect whistleblower.” The officer explains that an analyst is “someone familiar with a ‘set of constraints’ that, once ‘violated,’ inspires that person to speak out.” Clearly the “constraints” referred top are rules and not laws.
As Taibbi points out, the fact that the whistleblower is a CIA analyst may be suspect for another reason. It points to a possible, if not probable concerted effort from within the intelligence community to get even with a president who doesn’t play by their rules. Taibbi cites an interview with Robert Baer, a former CIA official, who said, “You know, my guess, it’s a palace coup against Trump.”
Perhaps the most significant historical shift revealed by the increasingly hyperreal adventure of the Trump presidency has been the rallying of Democrats behind the liars, cheaters, thieves and assassins (according to the secretary of state and former CIA chief, Mike Pompeo) known as the CIA. And the so-called serious media have almost unanimously joined that rally.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.