Something happened to the Republican Party between the Bush years and President Obama’s second term: the GOP electorate learned lessons from George W. Bush’s mistakes, while most elected GOP officials did not. This asymmetry between the conservative base and the establishment GOP has yet to be rectified, especially over the U.S. intelligence bureaucracies and foreign policy.
Previously I outlined how more evidence is needed to support the current view of widespread and unprecedented Russian election interference. I also suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies might grossly overstate the degree to which Russia interfered in the election.
This article picks up where the other left off. First, it will discuss why political leaders should treat the intelligence community with skepticism, and why meaningful reform of intelligence agencies is needed. Second, it will argue that powerful elements within the GOP ruling class are blocking meaningful reform.
Flyover Country Common Sense
After the Iraq War and the Obama years, the American people—conservatives in particular—have grown increasingly wary of the intelligence bureaucracies. Even flyover state Democrats have told their higher-ups that voters are sick-and-tired of the “Russia” story.
The author is no fan of Vladimir Putin, and neither is flyover country. Contrary to the Beltway’s conventional wisdom, however, Russia is not the boogeyman. Russia has a gross domestic product totaling 7 percent of America’s, roughly equivalent to the size of the New York City metro area, and a total defense budget less than what America spends on our $75 billion per year non-military-security-complex, which includes the intelligence bureaus. So Russia is neither a friend to America nor an existential threat. And of course Russia would love to influence American elections, and has certainly tried to do so in the past.
Flyover country is certainly not sympathetic to Russia, but that doesn’t mean flyover country trusts the U.S. intelligence community. Common sense says the intelligence community is not full of bad people, but it is made up of flawed individuals just like the rest of us, who have arguably been granted too much power. Given this, why would elements within the intelligence bureaucracy exaggerate Russian meddling in the U.S. electoral process?
Overstating Russian Election Interference
For starters, what if there were vast abuses by these bureaucracies that might threaten the clean reauthorization of the controversial FISA Section 702? What if the Obama White House abused Section 702 to improperly unmask (spy upon) Americans tied to the Trump campaign, along with members of Congress?
What if the intelligence bureaucracies (namely the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation) under Obama had been illegally spying on Americans, so egregiously that the pro-government FISA court rebuked the Obama administration in an unprecedented legal opinion days before Obama was set to shuffle out the White House door? What if a key member of Trump’s team, Michael Flynn, planned on a big shakeup of the intelligence bureaucracies, including a sizeable reduction in the number of desk jobs at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley?
One thing is for sure: instead of talking about a shakeup at the CIA, or the clear abuses of power by the intelligence bureaucracies and the Obama administration, we are only talking about “Russia.”
Even worse, what if unelected bureaucrats wouldn’t mind ousting a sitting president who would dare to go outside the norms of established American foreign policy, on which a $700 billion per year Pentagon and intelligence budget is at least partially dependent? If Trump isn’t removed, what if his goal to improve relations with Moscow or not go to war in Syria is stymied? Remember how many Trump opponents fell all over themselves to praise Trump when he launched missiles into Syria? (It doesn’t matter what you think about Syria or Russia, this is a political question meant for elected officials to decide, not anonymous bureaucrats).
Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake finds that anonymous intelligence leaks created the conditions under which Trump fired Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on all things Russia-related, and spurred the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, who seems to be currently digging in the president’s financial history. Lake even details how intelligence interference led to the latest bout of anti-Russia sanctions. “U.S. intelligence agencies are not supposed to interfere in our politics,” Lake writes. “But they clearly have.”
The Trouble With the Deep State
“Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you… He’s being really dumb to do this,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“He’s in fights with… the entire intelligence community, perhaps the most important community to have on your side as president, and the most dangerous to cross politically,” said MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough.
“Bad idea (to take the intelligence community on)…The intelligence community has information about him that I’m sure he would like not to be released,” said presidential historian Timothy Naftali on CNN.
There is a reason many have referred to the intelligence bureaucracies as “the Deep State.” These intelligence bureaucracies behave like all bureaucracies do—they seek to entrench their power and influence policy. But they also have a lot more power than do the rest of Washington’s bureaucracies.
The deep state can spy on and blackmail elected officials, and thus immunize itself from reform; it can claim selected expertise and choose what information is disclosed to elected officials, giving it incredible freedom to shape and push a particular narrative. The intelligence bureaucracies can also, for the sake of secrecy, choose not to disclose certain activities, pieces of information, and uses of funds to elected officials. The great risk, then, is that these intelligence bureaucracies become a government unto themselves, wholly unaccountable to elected officials.
Republicans often warn us about the growth of the federal bureaucracy, whether it be abuses by the Internal Revenue Service or onerous regulations coming from the Environmental Protection Agency. Most Republicans, however, nary offer a word about the threat the intelligence leviathan potentially poses to liberty. But living with or justifying unchecked power is not conservatism. The founders of our country warned us about power that goes unchecked, and unchecked power leads to abuse—always.
Intelligence Agencies Have an Abusive Record
And the intelligence community has a bad record on abuse of power. In the last eight years alone, former director of national intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress, under oath, about whether Americans’ bulk data was being collected (it was), and about whether Congress was being spied upon during the Iran deal (they were). Fox News reporter James Rosen was spied upon, and so were his parents. The Associated Press was also spied on. It is likely that many more abuses have not come to the light.
The intelligence leviathan’s record in the last 70 years is even worse. We’ve all heard about J. Edgar Hoover’s disgusting spying on civil rights leaders, but the CIA especially has a terrible track record. The agency is overly bureaucratized, and has a list of misdeeds from the weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda claims leading up to Iraq, to the lie that was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident leading up to the Vietnam War, to being put to private (non-government) uses, to its disastrous proxy wars and coups all over the world, to its experimentation on unwitting U.S. citizens during Project MKUltra.
Because of this, even the conservatives who are calling for the de-politicization of the intelligence bureaucracies—as if there is a quick fix—are missing the point. The founders didn’t envision a CIA, let alone a national police force. Just for example, the FBI was only made necessary when the federal government dramatically expanded in size and scope due to Prohibition, which only was made necessary when Americans decided to turn to government, not to the church and civil society, to remedy the country’s ills.
The point is that the intelligence bureaucracy will always be politicized, as long as it is endowed with such immense power. The deep state shouldn’t just be brought to heel under President Trump’s authority, its size and scope should be reduced so that no president can wield its current accumulation of power.
Here’s what to do about it: First, conservatives in Congress should make sure they know everything there is to know about Russian interference in the election, and should get and release more evidence to the American people. Congress should also work to enhance state election cybersecurity without federalizing our election infrastructure, which would make us less safe.
Second, conservatives and the few civil-libertarian minded Democrats in Congress, along with the president, should move forward with staffing cuts at the CIA, and increase oversight of intelligence agencies’ budgets. After addressing the abuses by the FBI and the NSA that the FISA court identified, they should make certain that any surveillance of Americans cannot occur without a warrant. This might seem like common-sense stuff. But, sadly, many elected Republicans will oppose any intelligence reforms whatsoever.
The Out of Touch GOP
In stark contrast with flyover country, too many neoconservative Republicans treat the intelligence community as sacrosanct. At the very least, they are far too deferential to it. This is better than most Democrats, who seem to be more than willing to trash or praise the intelligence community for the sole sake of political expediency and power, but not too much better.
When reforms to the NSA’s collection of Americans’ information were passed several years ago, Sen. Marco Rubio thundered that such reforms risked national security. That’s always the go-to line, isn’t it? More correct, though, is to see the existing intelligence bureaucracy as essential for robust American involvement abroad—to accomplishing neoconservative foreign policy objectives.
Neoconservatives believe it is America’s role to police the world with a highly interventionist foreign policy. Some say they are Wilsonian Republicans, who seek to “make the world safe for democracy.” But neocons have supported plenty of less-than-democratic figures, although they couch their rhetoric in idealistic terms.
More accurately, neoconservatives heavily emphasize the lessons of World War II, but gloss over the lessons of the last seven decades afterward. In so doing, as a complement to robust American interventionism, they support a robust intelligence apparatus. The CIA, for example, is used to influence governments the world over and depose regimes that don’t do what it wants. If American troops are to be used, the CIA is often already active in the arena of battle.
This might explain why, while Democrats unify to fan the flames of Russian conspiracy theories, many elected Republicans seem out of touch with their base: Sen. John McCain allegedly handed the BuzzFeed dossier to former FBI director James Comey, and thinks Russia is a greater threat than ISIS. Rubio, who once claimed he supported Florida’s sugar subsidies for national defense purposes, embarrassed himself while grilling Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson—of course Putin is a bad guy, but it’s not a good idea for America’s chief diplomat, starting before his first day on the job, to name a foreign leader as a “war criminal.”
Sen. Tom Cotton told The Economist that the Iraq War wasn’t a mistake. After months of anonymous intelligence leaks, Sen. Ben Sasse decided with CNN’s Chris Cuomo that Trump’s firing of Comey threatened Americans’ faith in our institutions. Sen. Jeff Flake took to “Morning Joe” to denounce Trump for not being conservative enough, though the Arizona senator has said little about the intelligence community blatantly influencing U.S. policy.
The first problem with all this is that the voters already tried neoconservatism during the Bush years, and they didn’t like it. As such, they don’t want to double down on the mistakes of the George W. Bush administration. They learned from the Bush years, while many politicians and pundits clearly did not. This is a huge problem for a party establishment stocked with neoconservatives.
What Base Conservatives Believe
It should be telling that when the GOP primaries were over, only two candidates who backed the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria won a state—Rubio in Minnesota, and John Kasich in his home state of Ohio. Conservative voters didn’t vote this way because they are isolationists. The voters are not, nor have they ever been, rabid neoconservatives. The GOP base is full of plain-old conservatives, and there is a difference.
Neoconservatism says we should fight Assad in western Syria at the same time we fight the Islamic State in eastern Syria and Iraq. It says we should fund the “moderate” rebels, and give them weapons, even if the rebels turn out to be not so nice either. Neoconservatism says, in order to fight this two-front war, we should create a no-fly-zone over Syria, even if this means shooting down Russian planes.
Neoconservatism says the Islamic State exists because Obama was political and “weak” when withdrawing troops from Iraq (maybe true), while ignoring the fact that while U.S. troops were in Iraq we were backing up Shiite thug and stooge-of-Iran Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki treated Sunnis so badly that they welcomed ISIS with open arms. Neoconservatives gloss over the strategic mistake that was invading Iraq. When asked about the Iraq War, they say that they would do it again, even while they fret about an emerging “Shiite Crescent.”
Neoconservatism says that Russia is a massive threat, and we need to deficit-spend trillions more on defense over the next 10 years. Neoconservatism says the military is “hollowed out,” when in inflation-adjusted terms we are now spending more on so-called defense than we did at the height of the Cold War.
On the other hand, the conservative GOP base wants to destroy ISIS, but they don’t find another round of nation-building in the Middle East to be in America’s best interests. The base doesn’t like Russia or Assad, but they don’t want to fight a two-front war that could lead to World War III. The base doesn’t think the rebels in Syria are all that moderate.
The conservative base wasn’t calloused to the horrifying images from Aleppo, but knew that our $1 billion annual funding of Syrian rebels had helped to prolong the bloodshed. The base wants to help the people in Syria, but they know there is no guarantee that increased American intervention would make the problem better.
The conservative GOP base wants a strong military, and most of all wants to preserve Pax Americana, but they rightfully judge unwise entanglements abroad to threaten Pax Americana. They look at Libya and Iraq and see a mistake, not arenas where American power was underused. The base likes military spending, and is worried about the Navy, but they know that the Pentagon wastes money just like every other government agency.
Most of all, the base is tired of their sons and daughters being treated like chess pieces. If we send our soldiers to fight somewhere, conservative voters want to know that there is an exit, and that things will be better when we leave. The base shudders when Rubio and Jeb Bush, with no qualms, endorse the female draft on a debate stage.
The good people of Florida vote for Rubio because he is pro-life, not because he once decided drafting women was a good idea, or because he sees the globe as a giant chess board with Vlad Putin on the other side. No wonder Trump won the GOP nomination.
Warnings from the Founders, Lincoln, and Eisenhower
But there is a bigger problem. Allowing intelligence agencies’ unchecked power to persist is antithetical to conservatism. Too many Republicans, because of their neoconservative foreign policy, are completely out of touch with the founders’ vision of limited American government in all aspects.
This vision isn’t from some bygone era, where threats to America were but a few. The founders’ view of limited government was echoed by the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, as the country headed toward Civil War. They were also echoed by Dwight D. Eisenhower who, at the height of the Cold War, warned us of the military and security industrial complex.
Conservatives should push their elected officials to support reforms of the intelligence community. If establishment Republicans block these reforms, conservatives, libertarians, and tea-party groups should work toward unseating the “objectors.” Alexander Hamilton, Lincoln, and Eisenhower all warned of placing a false sense of security over liberty. Let us heed their warning.
“Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”—Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers