A Paranoid Reverie

Does everyone important need to be surveilled?

Consider the following mental experiment. Suppose that one of the intelligence agencies comes across new plans for Russian espionage in the United States. Do they present the evidence to the President at his daily intelligence briefing? Probably not because by all accounts these are short and supplied through graphics. But let us say suspicious Russian behavior is persistent. The President, after all, is the great decider about national defense policy and it is or always has been the obligation of his intelligence agencies to supply him with the best of their products so he can decide what course of action is in the national interest. But what happens when the President is himself distrusted, on the basis of prior experience, not to be discrete with national security information, that in itself an unprecedented event, and even more so, is suspected of and being investigated for collusion with the Russians? What are the intelligence agencies to do? Giving him the information might be dangerous because he might pass it on to the Russians and not giving it to him borders on treason in that the intelligence agencies would then be subverting their duty to serve all presidents.

One thing the intelligence community could do under such circumstances would be to inform their oversight committees in Congress that they have information they are reluctant to reveal to the President and ask the guidance of those committees about what to do, thereby shifting responsibility from federal agencies to one of the constitutional branches of government. But what are the committees supposed to do? They would themselves be treasonous or abetting the treason of the agencies if they were to tell the agencies that it was alright to withhold information from the President. At the least, it would tell them that the “deep structures” of the government, as they have come to be called, no longer have confidence in the President and so it was time to remove the President from office, whether by impeachment or the 25th Amendment or a stroll from the Capitol to the White House by senior Republicans to tell the President that it was time for him to resign. Whatever the result, the intelligence agencies could be accused of arranging a coup against the President, which is what Kissinger said happened when the Watergate committee so aggressively pursued Nixon.

For all I know, the first steps in this process have already taken place. The daily intelligence briefing is artfully scrubbed and the list of White House officials who need to be informed of national security threats is increasingly limited. I don’t know if the brakes on a free flow of information to the White House are any more on than that.

This mental experiment that I have outlined shows just how serious is the present mess, how much more serious it is than managing a flamboyant and not very attentive President. Reagan hardly understood his briefings. They had to be turned into the equivalent of the training films he had narrated during the Second World War. Thinking through, however, the ways to rid the nation of a President is very extreme, the equivalent, as the Founding Fathers knew, of beheading a King, and thinking through how to curtail his powers is like a set of courtiers trying to bypass the King they serve through subterfuge, something which at one time would risk their heads but now risks only their honor.

Should Presidential candidates be vetted by intelligence agencies before they run? This is counter to  the democratic spirit that there be no test for office (other than having been born here), which seems a wise dictate because who knows what strengths of character and insight will be required to manage the duties of the office. Lincoln would not have passed a mental fitness test and Kennedy would not have passed a physical fitness test and Truman would not have gotten past a credentials test that required more than a high school diploma to be considered minimally adequate for the job. It is up to the American people to determine who has the character and background to do the job at any given moment, and the American people, in their great un-wisdom, decided it was Donald Trump.

The question is whether presidential candidates are not already vetted by the intelligence agencies and not just by the media. Carter had security clearances when he was in the Navy and Obama probably proved squeaky clean even if his detractors thought he was an Arab agent or a fellow traveler of Seventies radicals. The CIA or FBI would not have found George W. Bush’s drinking disqualifying. But if this screening had been in place for Trump, would he have passed the test, given that the FBI would have known about his previous business dealings with the Russians? I conclude, then, that no security clearances for presidential candidates are in place because otherwise someone would have leaked what was damaging about Trump.

This conclusion may be wrong because it would be so easy and tempting to keep dossiers on leading political figures. J. Edgar Hoover did it. And the country may need it to be done to keep it out of just the mess it is currently in, everyone contemplating whether the incumbent President will be ousted for things that were very long in the works and which would have left many tell tale signs. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who told us to worry about too much classification in government, too many things labeled top secret and people measuring themselves by how much of it they had access to. What Moynihan missed was that not enough is collected or revealed to keep us safe.