Vigilante justice comes to the White House (and I don’t know whether to cry or cheer)
As a columnist and talk-show host, you don’t often find me at a loss, split on an issue right down the middle. And yet, with Flynn, here we are.
Here’s the context: Flynn, a retired U.S. Army general known for a brash personality and upsetting Washington’s bureaucratic apple carts, is known to have been close to members of the Russian government, right up to and including Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
These connections are not a secret and have been known, and controversial, ever since Flynn emerged as a key adviser to and supporter of Trump during last year’s election campaign. Flynn is also notorious for publicly embracing elements of the so-called “alt-right” fringe of the U.S. political spectrum, particularly as regards Islam.
Combine that with the current tensions and the very real concerns, validated by U.S. intelligence agencies, that Russia is using intelligence and cyber tactics to destabilize Western democracies — including, of late, the U.S. It made for a toxic brew.
Opposition to Flynn’s appointment as National Security Adviser had been intense and sustained, and has only become hotter as more and more reports have emerged showing that U.S. justice and intelligence officials are deeply worried about the Trump administration’s ties to Moscow. (These ties go further than Flynn, but he was certainly a flash point for attention and criticism.)
That’s the context, like I said. And here’s the kicker: when Flynn resigned on Monday, it was because U.S. intelligence officials had made available to the White House a transcript of a telephone call between Flynn and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. The transcript apparently convinced the White House that, at best, Flynn had not been totally upfront with the administration, especially Vice-President Mike Pence, about the nature of his calls with Russian officials.
Oh, and one more thing: someone in the U.S. intel community made sure the press, including the Washington Post and The New York Times, knew exactly what was going on. The Post and Times, among others, were basically looped in — in real time — as the White House deliberated Flynn’s fate. On Monday, Trump decided he’d had enough, it’s reported, at least partially because he knew a media firestorm was coming his way. He asked for, and received, Flynn’s resignation.
In my opinion, it’s a good thing that Flynn is out from the security job. It’s a vital position and the man’s unsuitability for it has been manifest for months. I’m not sorry to see the back of him. And I’m also not too upset that he was forced out by manoeuvrings by the intel community, since that seemed to be the only way the White House was going to listen.
But this, my friends, is a problem. Because — how the hell did we get here? I don’t know what I find more distressing — that the U.S. intel community is directly working against the White House or that I’m relieved that they are.
I do not say that lightly.
Anyone who’s read my columns will know that I am a national security hawk. I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the security establishment over the politicians, and that’s especially true when dealing with the Trump administration. I wish the president and his country well — all Canadians should — but I have very deep concerns about his suitability for the job of president.
I’m also worried by the abundantly clear fact that this is an unusually chaotic White House, so much so that the intel community has apparently decided it needs to go to war with it. An untested, inexperienced president, supported by only a partial staff of dubious intent and skill, is a terrible combination. It’s dangerous. It worries me.
But I also believe in democracy and our institutions. Profoundly.
It’s such a cliché to say so, but I genuinely do love freedom and the institutions that make up the sinews of effective governance in a liberal democracy. Our social order, our very notion of democracy, is something I have long believed is far more fragile than we commonly believe.
One of the most important parts of that social order is unquestioned civilian control over the military and intelligence services. Having a fearsome military and deadly efficient spy service is in no way incompatible with democracy, so long as those lethal forces are kept securely in check by the people’s elected representatives. That’s the bargain. That’s how this works.
And it’s not working in the United States today. Clearly. The U.S. intel community set out to take down Flynn and succeeded. And I honestly can’t tell you if I’m appalled or delighted. I think I’m both at the same time.
It occurred to me this morning, reading the newspapers regarding the whole debacle, that what we’ve seen in Washington this week is a form of state-powered vigilantism. Powerful people in Washington, with access to enormously sophisticated tools of statecraft, saw someone they felt was a bad person who could do great harm and set out to neutralize that threat, by whatever means necessary.
As always with vigilante justice, it’s easy to smirk a bit when the bad guy, previously so assured of their invulnerability, gets what’s coming to them. But it’s also easy to see where this could lead. The genie is out of the bottle. Will the spooks even try to put it back in? Do the ends ever justify the means?
I don’t know. I wish I did. And what I find most upsetting is how I can’t seem to decide. Moral choices regarding who watches the watchers are never going to be easy. But until now, we in the West haven’t had to see just how hard they truly are.
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