National Security & Defense

On Susan Hennessey, the Problem Is the Appointer, Not the Appointee

President Biden waves before boarding the Marine One in Washington, D.C., May 7, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Despite her annoying social-media persona, she’s an authentic expert in cybersecurity and intelligence law and a patriotic American.

The few times I’ve dealt with her personally, Susan Hennessey has been gracious and unfailingly civil in our disagreements. That is part of why I’m not inclined to pile on the criticisms of her appointment to a senior-counsel position in the Biden Justice Department’s National Security Division.

Another part involves why I haven’t objected to a number of other appointees, particularly to executive posts not subject to Senate confirmation. President Biden won the election. Under the Constitution’s distribution of authority, as explicated by Justice Scalia (in his famous 1988 Morrison v. Olson dissent), all federal executive power is reposed in him. Within reason, I see little point in objecting to his choice of subordinate executive officials, delegated to wield his power at his pleasure.

What does “within reason” mean? The principal considerations are whether such appointees are competent, scrupulous, and committed to upholding our constitutional system. Moreover, because unilateral disarmament is a loser strategy, I don’t think conservatives and Republicans can limit objections to these principal considerations if Democrats make the confirmation process a living hell. But there is no need to tease out what that might entail in connection with a non-confirmation appointment. President Biden, like President Trump, gets to fill these posts with people who drive the other side nuts. Even if one had a meritorious objection, there’s no stopping it.

Hennessey should be an appointee who gives the other side comfort. Instead, she agitates a fair number of people. For that she has herself to blame — which is to say, her media and social-media schtick, described in detail in this report by our Tobias Hoonhout and Isaac Schorr, as well as in Dan McLaughlin’s post. The persona demeans the reality that she is an authentic expert in cybersecurity and intelligence law. She is also a patriotic American who grasps that there are hostile foreign actors — regimes and terrorist organizations, in particular — scheming tirelessly to do us harm.

As a general matter, I am not on the same page with her politically, but so what? It irritates me, for example, that like almost all partisan Democrats, she was unwilling to give Justice Kavanaugh the same benefit of the doubt she seeks for those she favors politically, and that she has spoken approvingly of Court-packing. But her take on domestic politics is irrelevant to whether she will provide sound advice to government officials on security-law questions, the job she’s been appointed to do.

Specifically with respect to national security, I disagree with left-leaning experts on a number of fundamentals — on, for example, the proper role of the national-security bureaucracy in a republic (i.e., it must be subject to effective oversight, not treated as an independent fourth branch of government); the need to hold our agencies accountable (i.e., not allow them to take cover behind a black box of security secrecy); the value of FISA (I’d scrap it); the wisdom of intruding judicial processes into security functions that are political in nature (it’s unwise); etc. But these are big policy questions, remote from the National Security Division’s day-to-day work of protecting the country (and, alas, big policy questions about which Republicans have largely stopped being serious — a topic for another day). We need our national-security apparatus to work well regardless of the philosophical predispositions of whoever is running it. Hennessey, the experienced former NSA official, is a serious, capable person in that regard.

I wouldn’t say the same thing about Hennessey the Twitter persona, and not just for the reasons comprehensively laid out by Tobias, Isaac, and Dan. Hennessey has compellingly, if only implicitly and reluctantly, made the point herself by purging her tweets.

For reasons I’ll never understand, Trump derangement is a phenomenon that strikes both sides of our political divide with equal and opposite stridency. On tough legal issues regarding national security in a time of persistent terrorist threats and great-power perfidy (especially on the cyber front), Lawfare, which Ben Wittes runs with Hennessey as managing editor (until her recent appointment), has been an extremely valuable site. To see it lose its mind over Trump, along with most sensible national-security experts of a centrist bent, has been baffling — just as it is baffling to watch a goodly chunk of the Republican Party organize itself around Trump’s intensely personal populism rather than principled conservative opposition to Biden’s ruinous agenda (another topic for another day).

Like many pundits, Hennessey became glib and provocative in her social-media commentary and cable-TV appearances — where news coverage related to a commentator’s area of expertise has taken a back seat in recent years to how news stories could affect the battle between Trump and the anti-Trump “Resistance.” This reached the height of farce with Russiagate. While abundant, Hennessey’s contributions to Resistance commentary are neither original nor unusual.

Consequently, of all the tweets and other remarks Tobias, Isaac, and Dan catalogue, I was most disturbed by one that had nothing to do with Russiagate: Hennessey’s tendentious criticism of Trump’s retaliatory killing of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, a terror master behind decades of murderous attacks on Americans. Like President Obama’s targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden, the Soleimani operation is one that national-security experts of any political persuasion should have supported.

I believe Hennessey, as a national-security official armed with superior information and in an agency accountable to congressional oversight, would see the matter differently from Hennessey as a Trump-can-do-no-right pundit keeping herself viable for a job in the next Democratic administration.

On the other hand, the decision-maker who actually matters in the Biden administration, the president himself, was (as vice president) nearly alone in opposing the bin Laden raid. He was wrong, just as he has been wrong about nearly every important thing for about a half century. Yet Democrats nominated him, and Americans elected him. Whatever one thinks of Susan Hennessey, who will not be a decision-maker, that is the challenge for our national security.


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