Easy Chair — From the September 2019 issue

The Deep State of Dementia

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My first reaction upon seeing what was supposedly a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard removing what was alleged to be a mine from the broken hull of what we were told was a Japanese oil tanker was to think, My, how disinformation has progressed!

Our leaders used to require not one but two dark and stormy nights, half a world away in a different gulf, in order to foist a disastrous, ill-­conceived war on the American people. These days, a casus belli can be declared in broad daylight and in time for the evening news, complete with a live enemy caught red-­handed trying to remove the evidence. Or so we’re told.

Mind you, I don’t have much reason to doubt that the scene we were shown from the Persian Gulf was exactly what we were assured it was. Iran’s Islamic dictatorship is a repressive and often bellicose regime: the Revolutionary Guard and others in Iran’s government do export terrorism, and they have backed not only the Houthi rebels battling the Saudis for control of Yemen but also fellow Shia fighting Sunni factions in Iraq and Hezbollah in its war against Israel. It’s also highly possible that Iran disabled the tanker, to demonstrate as clearly as possible what a U.S. attack might mean.

What’s missing from the narrative here is the context for the man removing the mine—­such as how much was done to push Iran into sending that particular message. That story begins with the Trump Administration’s decision to pull out of an international agreement by Iran to limit its nuclear research and development program in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions—­not because Iran wasn’t abiding by the agreement but mostly because our own maximum leader wanted to destroy one more useful legacy of his predecessor. Next was the current administration’s attempt to strangle Iran with economic sanctions, followed by an ultimatum that Iran let itself be reshaped by the United States—­a scenario that worked out so well for all concerned when the ­CIA stuffed the shah back on the Peacock Throne after his own people tried to start a democracy in 1953.

As of this writing, Trump has tiptoed back from the cataclysm, but the odds are good that the matching desk set of buffoons who are his closest foreign-­policy advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, will manage to talk him off the ledge and onto the pavement below.

War with Iran, if it does come, will make our war in Vietnam look like a walk in the park. Iran is not the usual divided relic of imperialism against which we prefer to demonstrate our might but a proud and ancient country with more than 83 million people, a standing army of half a million men, considerable experience at war, and a global reach. If you thought the war in Southeast Asia came home to roost, just watch this one.

It all seems unreal: the cast of reckless adventurers in the White House, our cartoon president, a crisis so blatantly manufactured. Look, here is our Big Lie, Trump and friends tell us. It’s a big, beautiful lie, the best lie ever, the greatest lie anyone’s ever told to get this country into the worst and most unnecessary war it’s ever going to fight. And isn’t America great again?

How is such a lurch into the dark even countenanced now, with the costs of our still-ongoing debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan closing in on 7,000 American deaths, untold injuries, and nearly five trillion dollars and counting, not to mention the exponentially larger costs in death and destruction we have inflicted on those places to so little end?

The answer, as usual, can be found in the beginning of the narrative. What happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam, fifty-­five years ago? Good luck finding out. There is no full accounting, not to this day. The official story at the time of the incident was that on the nights of August 2 and August 4, 1964, North Vietnamese torpedo boats recklessly attacked the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox, which was monitoring the Vietnamese coastline, with shells, torpedoes, and gunfire. Our destroyer and our planes fired back, crippling or destroying the Vietnamese boats, and the next thing the American public knew, President Lyndon Johnson was making a nationwide broadcast, asking Congress for what became the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, unconstitutionally and disastrously giving him a free hand to do whatever he wanted in Vietnam.

Even at the time, conflicting accounts of the incident were beginning to leak, many from American eyewitnesses—­such as Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who flew over the scene on both nights, fired on Vietnamese boats the first night, and flatly denied that the Maddox had been attacked at all on the second night. Had the Vietnamese boats actually fired at the Maddox the night of August 2? Maybe. Had they fired on the ship the night of August 4? Almost certainly not. But while the public struggled to understand the government’s murky assertions, almost no one seemed to grasp the sheer ludicrousness of the claim that vastly smaller and inferior boats had seriously endangered a U.S. destroyer with ready access to air power peacefully minding its own business on the high seas.

Many years after the bloody fiasco that was our war in Vietnam, it was revealed that the Maddox was likely not on the high seas but well within North Vietnam’s territorial waters. There it was gathering military intelligence and probably supporting South Vietnamese commando raids organized by the ­CIA that had been going on for three years, just looking to cause a provocation. “At that time,” Undersecretary of State George Ball later told a journalist, “many people . . . were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing.”

“Hell, those damn, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish,” ­LBJ said in private.

Robert J. Hanyok, a historian for the National Security Agency, found that the ­NSA had “deliberately skewed” intelligence to make it look as though the August 4 attack, at least, had occurred when in fact it never did. Hanyok initially published this claim in an in-­house ­NSA journal in 2001, but in 2005 the New York Times suggested his report had been squashed by “higher level agency policymakers” who feared the revelation would undermine the effort to go to war—­over false intelligence—­in Iraq.

This cover-­up makes perfect sense, for the deep state thrives in the murk. The real deep state is not some cabal meeting in a secret Pentagon cavern. It is, instead, the men and women of the permanent government, held together by their loyalty to one another and to the protocol of how decisions are made and executed in Washington. And, always, the deep state operates to the exclusion of allowing too much transparency into the process—­even when transparency would mean averting another failure.

Just weeks before the invented crisis with Iran came to a boil, Attorney General William Barr carried off his laughably easy cover-­up of what the Mueller report contained. All Barr had to do, it turned out, was refuse to release it for our consideration, then blatantly lie to us that the report “is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-­of-­justice offense.”

Robert Mueller himself—­a decorated Marine officer, former prosecutor, U.S. attorney, U.S. deputy attorney general, and former director of the ­FBI—­responded to this gross distortion of his work with a short note to Barr, complaining in language as sleepily bureaucratic as possible that “the summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”

Speculation had been rife for months that President Trump would attempt to suppress the Mueller report when it finally did appear. A man who actually wanted to get the truth out—­particularly a longtime resident of the Beltway—­would have conveyed to Barr, formally or informally, that he would not stand for any distortions of his work, and that the full report, complete with his own conclusions, would be released within minutes to the press if Barr tried any nonsense.

Instead, more than a month passed before Mueller’s somnolent objection finally leaked its way into public knowledge. Only a month after that did Mueller agree to a brief press conference, in which he made it clear that he would not testify to Congress and refused to answer any questions, making the whole performance less of a press conference than an exercise in virtue signaling.

More recently, Mueller agreed to appear before Congress after all, which was at least a start toward the truth. But let’s take a moment to look at the manner in which this great investigation has proceeded. Mueller and his people confirmed that there had been a massive Russian effort to hack and distort our presidential election—­the sort of thing that used to actually disturb Americans—­but that he could not connect Trump or his campaign to that effort. He also strongly implied that there were grounds for accusing the president of obstruction of justice, but made sure to tell us that “under longstanding [Justice] department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional.”

Thus did Mueller’s superb verbal sleight of hand change “department policy” into settled constitutional law. Obviously, there are many problems with charging a sitting president with a crime, but it’s not at all clear that the Constitution sets up the chief executive as the one individual in the United States who is above the law. Under Mueller’s interpretation, Trump could indeed test his long-­standing boast that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and get away with it. For that matter, he could shoot the officer who carries around the briefcase of nuclear launch codes for him and hand said codes over to his Russian friends without so much as risking arrest until the impeachment hearings concluded.

Robert Mueller’s simultaneously defining himself as helpless Justice Department flunky and supreme arbiter of the Constitution is above all another romp in the murk. It’s also entirely expected.

I had few expectations of the Mueller report myself. The ­FBI has never been an organization particularly devoted to getting the truth out, and hadn’t former director James Comey already violated “longstanding department policy” by helping tip the 2016 election to Trump in the first place, with his announcement of a baseless investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails? (Normal department policy is never to comment on an ongoing investigation during a campaign, even regarding the most minor political races. Until it came to Hillary Clinton in 2016.) And waiting in the wings was “Cover-­Up General” Barr, as William Safire called him during Barr’s last incarnation as attorney general, when he helped George H. W. Bush conceal his role in the Iran–­Contra scandal.

To expect the entire web of establishment personalities to provide the whole truth about Trump and the Russians, or Trump and anything else, was always a fantasy, to put it mildly. But why blame the bureaucrats when our elected leaders did little better? After all, it was Barack Obama who, during the 2016 election, backed down on revealing the extent of Russian efforts to distort our presidential election, lest it look “too partisan.” Much of Obama’s presidency may be seen as an extended moral appeasement of the Republican Party, but this, in its turn, was hardly a departure from the past.

We like to think of a scandal such as Watergate—­with dramatic hearings in Congress, heroic stands in the special prosecutor’s office, judges upholding the rule of law, representatives of both parties reasoning together, and investigators and reporters alike bearing down relentlessly on justice until all the bad guys are driven from office or jailed—­as the norm. But it’s not. The miasma is the norm.

Aside from Watergate, it’s difficult to think of a single major federal scandal that was successfully investigated and resolved with real consequences for the perpetrators, save for possibly the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, which saw more than a thousand bankers convicted in court, legislators driven from office, and new financial regulations passed. (Though even then, several of those responsible—­including Senator John ­McCain—­managed to survive.)

What lives on is, mostly, the murk. Consider how little we really know—­how much was ultimately concealed—­about the other, potentially major scandals that have come and gone in those fifty-­five years from Gulf to Gulf.

Did Nixon try to disrupt peace talks in Vietnam so that he would be elected president in 1968? Well, there’s a mountain of evidence now that he did, including an H. R. Haldeman note revealing that Nixon had instructed him to “monkey wrench” the talks, but we don’t really know for sure.

Did the Reagan campaign purloin President Jimmy Carter’s briefing materials before their debate in 1980? Yes, “it seems virtually certain that a crime was committed,” according to evidence that a House subcommittee investigation churned up in 1983, but no one went to jail for it. Exactly what role did President Reagan and then Vice President Bush play in Iran–­Contra? Any chance of full discovery on that matter ended when Cover-­Up General Barr advised then President Bush to pardon Caspar Weinberger before his pending perjury trial, which he did. Weinberger had tried to lie about the thousands of pages of diary notes he had made on Iran–­Contra—­some of which apparently suggested that Bush was a full participant. But that’s yet another sinkhole we’ll never get to the bottom of.

Did the Reagan Administration cause the Challenger disaster by pushing for the launch of the space shuttle to take place on the same day as the president’s State of the Union address? Nine different White House staff members called ­NASA in the eight days before the launch, but the Reagan Administration’s own investigation found no evidence of pressure applied—­and the White House refused to release the relevant phone logs and notes.

How exactly was it that a rent-­a-­mob organized by Republican congressmen was able to stop the vote recount in Florida after the 2000 presidential election? How was it that only one banker went to jail when Wall Street collapsed the entire world financial system back in 2008? How come nobody went to jail for poisoning the water supply of Flint, Michigan? And is the water safe to drink yet?

The half-­answers and the non-answers pile up. One is tempted to say the cover-­ups worked, most of the time, but it’s rarely that clear-cut. More often, inertia worked. And now we see the reluctance of one Muelleresque figure after another, interested more in striking his or her own pose than in getting to the bottom of things.

A sort of institutional dementia is created, one in which we can barely remember how we got to where we are today. And in our inability to impress the truth upon our leaders, we give them the leeway to impress their lies upon us. A Ronald Reagan, able to avoid responsibility for selling arms to Iran—­well-known backer of terrorists!—continues selling his stories of notorious welfare cheats and Sandinistas ready to storm the border. A George W. Bush, able to steal an election, lies us into a war in Iraq. A Lyndon Johnson, not held accountable for the Gulf of Tonkin fabrication, keeps telling us there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And Donald Trump, permitted to sell out his country to foreign agents, is here to say that we must confront Iran. What could possibly go wrong?

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