Revision — From the June 2017 issue

Security Breach

Trump’s tussle with the bureaucratic state

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Many never-Trumpers in both parties now regard the security bureaucracy as their last, best hope. Following the Washington Post’s disclosure on December 9 that the CIA believed Russia had intervened in the election to help Trump, the agency overnight became the great darling of many Trump critics. They urged it to share its secrets with the Electoral College with the goal of preventing the president-elect from taking office. Trump was “being really dumb” by feuding with the CIA, according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” Francis Fukuyama hoped that “America’s enormous bureaucracy” would restrain Trump. Bill Kristol proclaimed he would “prefer the deep state to the Trump state.” And The New Yorker assured readers that the intelligence community’s managers were likely to challenge Trump before Congress, which was as it should be: “This is just the sort of thing we want to see happening” as part of “the fabled ‘checks and balances’ in the U.S. system.”

Clearly the public has a right to know whether a president is telling the truth if he claims that his predecessor ordered that he be illegally wiretapped. The public also has a right to know whether the president’s staff illegally coordinated with a foreign government during the election campaign or lied to the FBI about foreign contacts. But consider the price of victory if the security directorate were somehow to establish itself as a check on those presidential policies — or officials — that it happened to dislike. To formally charge the bureaucracy with providing a check on the president, Congress, or the courts would represent an entirely new form of government, a system in which institutionalized bureaucratic autocracy displaces democratic accountability. What standing would Trump’s critics have to object to bureaucratic supremacy should an enlightened president come along, in some brighter time, and seek to free them from the “polar night of icy darkness” that Max Weber warned is bureaucracy’s inevitable end point? Where then would they turn, having consecrated the security directorate as their final guardian?

As a creature of the people’s elected institutions, the bureaucracy was never intended to be a coequal of Congress, the courts, and the president. Bureaucracy doesn’t even appear in the constitutional design that emerged from Philadelphia in 1787. Under the Constitution, power is delegated to the intelligence bureaucracy, not by it. Like other departments and agencies, an intelligence organization can exercise only those powers given to it by its constitutionally established creators. Those who would counter the illiberalism of Trump with the illiberalism of unfettered bureaucrats would do well to contemplate the precedent their victory would set.

This perilous precedent would be the least of it, however, should the bureaucracy emerge triumphant. American history is not silent about the proclivities of unchecked security forces, a short list of which includes the Palmer Raids, the FBI’s blackmailing of civil rights leaders, Army surveillance of the antiwar movement, the NSA’s watch lists, and the CIA’s waterboarding. No one passingly familiar with this record of abuse and misconduct could seriously contemplate entrusting these agencies with responsibility for preserving the nation’s civil and political liberty. Without constitutional accountability, what reason is there to believe that they would not quickly revert to their old ways, particularly should a national emergency provide plausible justification? Who would trust the authors of past episodes of repression as a reliable safeguard against future repression?

Trump has gotten where he is by defying experts and attacking elites. The security managers have gotten where they are by obeying authority, not questioning it. It’s possible that bureaucracy’s red tape will further entangle the president or that the scent of despotism will further bestir the bureaucracy. The more likely scenario, however, is darker. Some of Trump’s antagonists blithely assume that the security bureaucracy will fight him to the death, but it has never faced the raw hostility of an all-out frontal assault from the White House. If the president maintains his attack, splintered and demoralized factions within the bureaucracy could actually support — not oppose — many potential Trump initiatives, such as stepped-up drone strikes, cyberattacks, covert action, immigration bans, and mass surveillance. Security managers tend to back policies they see as ratcheting up levels of protection; that’s why such programs are more easily expanded than scaled back. That deep-seated propensity will play into Trump’s hands, so that if and when he finally does declare victory, a revamped security directorate could emerge more menacing than ever, with him its devoted new ally. Trump has already restored the CIA’s authority to conduct drone strikes, dropped plans for a far-ranging White House review of the intelligence community, and broadened Pentagon authority over military operations.

Undoubtedly, some officials will leave when faced with Trump’s sticks. But plenty, I suspect, will overcome their qualms, accept Trump’s carrots, and do his bidding. I have witnessed this dynamic firsthand. In 1978, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was interested in what steps American law enforcement and counterintelligence officials were taking (or not taking) to stop the intelligence services of repressive “allies,” such as Pinochet’s Chile, the shah’s Iran, and Marcos’s Philippines, from harassing, surveilling, and intimidating opponents within the United States. In Langley, Fort Meade, and elsewhere, my colleagues and I took the (still classified) statements of dozens of security officials. Some of them described conduct they found deeply repugnant. But we encountered no one who had objected, and identified no official who had resigned in disagreement. Everyone stayed.

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