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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Hang the DJ

In the wake of the Durham report, we must ask whether our state security apparatus is compatible with republican government.

Clinton Attorney Michael Sussman Acquitted Of Charge Of Lying To The F.B.I.
(Photo by Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)

Following a conspiracy to overthrow the government in 1310, the Republic of Venice established an emergency security council, the Ten, with extraordinary policing and judicial powers for sniffing out and snuffing out enemies of the state. The emergency lasted for almost five centuries. 

The Ten became a fixture of an increasingly sclerotic constitutional order dominated by oligarchic infighting; a century after its foundation, popular election of the chief magistrate, already a largely obsolescent process, was formally abolished. At the time of Napoleon’s conquest, the one-time queen of the Mediterranean was completely given over to political jockeying between a handful of great families and increasingly elaborate public festivals.

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In Rome, Augustus Caesar established the Praetorian Guard as a security apparatus loyal to him personally for guaranteeing his own personal safety against dynastic enemies or those who would reestablish republican government; within a century, it was a determining factor in raising a new emperor to the purple. A century after that, it became in many cases the singular factor in making the new emperor, or getting rid of the old one.

Security apparatuses, especially those granted extraordinary powers nominally for the preservation of the state, mix poorly with democratic republics. Hardly a novel insight, but something to bear in mind when approaching the report published Monday detailing Special Counsel John Durham’s findings in his investigation of the Russiagate debacle.

There are few surprises here for those who have been following the occasional drips of information coming out in the press. Durham found that Crossfire Hurricane, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s inquiry into former President Donald Trump’s supposed “collusion” with the Russian government in the 2016 election, was premised on hilariously thin sources that the Bureau neglected to verify in even a cursory way. (The account presented in the report’s executive summary reminds the reader of nothing so much as the intelligence laundering scene in the Iraq War comedy In the Loop.) The operation was approved by officials with an overwhelming animus against Trump.

The regime-friendly press has been at pains to dismiss the report as a nonentity—the Washington Post editorial is a standard example, claiming that Durham’s failure to discover a widespread deep state conspiracy against Trump is the bottom line. This kind of interpretation seems perverse—isn’t the bottom line that some disgruntled career bureaucrats, on the most threadbare pretexts, were able to clutch the engine of the security state into gear to disrupt American public life for several years?  

The press does get one thing right, however: Durham’s modest recommendations for process reform seem just that, modest. The substantive proposal is assigning an official to test the premises for FISA surveillance requests, devil’s advocate–style. Otherwise, Durham suggests the Bureau should just do better.

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Ultimately, of course, meeting those responsibilities comes down to the integrity of the people who take an oath to follow the guidelines and policies currently in place, guidelines that date from the time of Attorney General Edward H. Levi and that are designed to ensure the rule of law is upheld. As such, the answer is not the creation of new rules but a renewed fidelity to the old. The promulgation of additional rules and regulations to be learned in yet more training sessions would likely prove to be a fruitless exercise if the FBI’s guiding principles of “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity” are not engrained in the hearts and minds of those sworn to meet the FBI’s mission of “Protect[ing] the American People and Uphold[ing] the Constitution of the United States.”

The Bureau is at pains to assure us that the lessons have been learned and no further action is needed. I’m sure we are all resting easier. 

Durham recommends little by way of criminal prosecution, noting that not every kind of misbehavior rises to the level of breaking the law; a skeptic might be forgiven for thinking that a system in which such misbehavior—despite its vast consequences for the life of the nation—is discretionary might be in need of reform, or wholesale abolition.

I have written at some length about how the very structure of America’s state security apparatus is an affront to liberty. Every Ruby Ridge standoff, every Waco siege, every NSA surveillance scandal, every Russiagate inquiry, and, one suspects, every Mar-a-Lago raid is to be followed by an investigation in which malfeasance is admitted and nothing substantively changes. It is true that there is no replacement for virtue in our public servants, but one of the ideas behind the whole American project is that there are checks on their power.

Fellow travelers of the security state argue that the preservation of the American way of life depends on these far-reaching compromises. Maybe this was true in the Cold War, although one entertains doubts. (Were the Soviets or the Chinese behind the removal of Kennedy and Nixon?) In their current iterations, these agencies do little to nothing to keep Americans physically secure, let alone to preserve the political rights that were once the envy of the world.

As they exist—as they actually can exist—are the three-letter agencies compatible with American self-government? Is FISA compatible with American self-government? Or will these organs and legal mechanisms always lead to entrenched cartels operating without political accountability, pursuing their own ends irrespective of the will of the people? Do you want the Peter Strzoks and Lon Horiuchis of the world to have the final say on our public life?

At the end of the Coen brothers’ comedy Burn After Reading, J.K. Simmons’s jaded CIA official asks his subordinate, “What did we learn, Palmer?” 

“I don’t know, sir,” the puzzled Palmer replies. 

“I don’t f***ing know either. I guess we learned not to do it again. I’m f***ed if I know what we did,” Simmons muses. 

“Yes, sir, it’s hard to say,” Palmer agrees. 

Well, I can think of one thing. Exhortations to be better are all very well; we can say that we learned not to do it again. But it might be time to burn down the disco.