Was there ever a time when Americans had unquestioning faith in federal law-enforcement agencies? Maybe in the days before Vietnam and Watergate, most citizens did believe that those in charge of the nation’s fate could be trusted. Before World War II, the FBI’s formidable public-relations machine actually produced a popular radio and television program lauding its efforts “in peace and war.” After the war, when the CIA became the country’s first full-time foreign-intelligence agency, few Americans understood much about what it was doing, and what little they did know was colored by the government’s propaganda efforts.
But ever since the upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to make cynicism about government our new national pastime, the notion that the intelligence community is above politics has been as outdated as the adulation once accorded to J. Edgar Hoover. It’s in that context that we should understand the recent debate about whether it’s appropriate to scrutinize the CIA and FBI’s role in the origins of the Russia probe. Though Democrats are now treating criticism of federal law enforcement as beyond the pale, their newfound faith is every bit as partisan as Republicans’ newfound skepticism. A sober look at the history of the past few decades reveals that, to paraphrase Clausewitz, in Washington, intelligence has always been a matter of politics by other means.
Attorney General William Barr’s decision to launch an investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation has caused some predicable anger among Democrats and other Trump-administration critics. This discomfort stems from what they regard as an attempt to flip the narrative from Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia to a dubious decision by the FBI to begin spying on the political opponents of Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration.
Given the failure of the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller to prove the collusion allegations, Barr’s attempt to determine whether the unprecedented probe of a presidential campaign was an abuse of power seems reasonable. But Barr’s decision is a huge problem for Democrats who are hoping to pursue the impeachment of Trump by picking up the case that Mueller failed to make after two years of effort.
So we saw CNN crime-and-justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz this week telling host Don Lemon that it is “troubling” that the Department of Justice is questioning the work of CIA agents. “You don’t do this,” Prokupecz said. “The CIA kind of operates in their own world.” Indeed the CIA does, but that never stopped Democrats or the press from going all out to probe its activities as long as said activities were perceived to further their opponents’ political agenda.
Prokupecz and the House Democrats who are rushing to the barricades to defend the actions of former CIA director John Brennan at the beginning of the Mueller probe are acting as if the agency’s reputation has never before been called into question. Some of them may be too young to have experienced the political ferment of the 1970s and’80s, in which congressional committees led by Democrats such as Frank Church and Otis Pike conducted far-reaching investigations that embarrassed the intelligence establishment. But surely they have some memory of the debates about intelligence after the 9/11 attacks and the heated run-up to George W. Bush’s Iraq War. The only difference between those episodes and this one is that the political parties have switched sides.
In the past, it was Republicans defending the FBI and the CIA against Democrats’ charges that these agencies were out of control. But since the summer of 2016, when the intelligence establishment seemed to join forces to raise alarms about Russian meddling in the presidential election and, more important, to raise concerns about untrue allegations of Trump-campaign collusion in that meddling, Democrats have acted as if Langley and Quantico are beyond reproach.
Once Trump started criticizing the intelligence agencies’ consensus about Russians’ election interference, and then after it became known that the FBI and CIA had begun probing his campaign in the summer of 2016, Democrats became unstinting in their defense of the agencies. By contrast, Republicans who had been stalwart CIA and FBI defenders suddenly became bitter critics, demanding transparency and sometimes floating the same sort of conspiracy theories about the intelligence community’s activities that used to be the province of the Left.
Sensible people of either party will always seek to mix deference to the intelligence community’s mission, which often requires a fair degree of secrecy, with an understanding that all government officials and agencies must be kept on a tight leash lest they abuse the awesome power vested in them.
To those who have followed past controversies involving the FBI and CIA, it should seem entirely plausible that some federal law-enforcement agents could let their distaste for Trump get the better of them. That Democrats no longer care and Republicans suddenly do testifies to the fact that in Washington, most things always boil down to politics.