Since FBI Director James Comey has become a kind of arbiter of the political discourse – to say his pronouncements have been decisive would not, I think, be an overstatement – his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee was much anticipated. As Hillary Clinton and her supporters continue to re-litigate the presidential election, blaming him for her defeat, how he would defend his decision to reveal that the FBI was investigating her private email server, and the possible unauthorized release of classified information, was the focus of much interest. And yet the really interesting aspects of his testimony had to do with two questions that, in a free society, would not normally be the domain of law enforcement: 1) What should be the nature of our relations with a foreign country, i.e. Russia? And 2) what is a legitimate journalistic enterprise?
The first question belongs in the realm of the State Department, the White House, and Congress: that is, unless having any sort of non-hostile relations with Russia have now become illegal. Given the current political atmosphere, one might well conclude that this is now the case, and that was certainly the tone of the questioning – and Comey’s answers – at the hearing. Leave it to Lindsey Graham to gin up a veritable orgy of Russia-bashing: after a series of questions about the investigation into alleged Russian “interference” in the election, he asked:
“GRAHAM: So what kind of threat do you believe Russia presents to our democratic process, given what you know about Russia’s behavior of late?
“COMEY: Well, certainly in my view, the greatest threat of any nation on earth, given their intention and their capability.
“GRAHAM: Do you agree that they did not change the actual vote tally, but one day they might?
On this last, Comey seemed to demur, but that such a question could even be asked unaccompanied by a chorus of laughter highlights the utter absurdity of the discourse in Washington. The very idea that any nation, anywhere on earth, represents a dire threat to our democratic process is itself absurd. After all, are Russian armies poised at the Canadian border, ready to take New York? To listen to our solons, assembled in solemn conclave, one would think it was the KGB, and not al-Qaeda, that blew up the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon on 9/11.
This nonsensical Russophobia – like the Red Scare before it – is meant to distract us from the real threat to our democratic process – which comes, not from any foreign enemy, but originates right here at home, with Washington at its epicenter.
This was brought home later in the hearing, when Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), brought up the question of WikiLeaks. Taking up where Sen. Graham left off, Sasse asked if we might expect the alleged Russian invasion of our politics to intensify, and Comey obliged him by answering in the affirmative – “especially” in 2020. The questioning continued along these same lines:
“SASSE: Do you believe any of WikiLeaks disclosures have endangered American lives and or put at risk American interests?
“COMEY: I believe both have been the result of some of their releases.”
It’s a lie that WikiLeaks releases have led to the death or endangerment of a single American anywhere: if it has, then why didn’t Comey name the victims and the circumstances? As for endangering “American interests,” the question of whether these are advanced by maintaining a worldwide regime of surveillance and repression is not something either Sen. Saase or Comey are prepared to address, and with good reason. The Senator from Nebraska, who seems to represent the interests of a certain fortress in Langley, Virginia, more than he does the people of his own state, was eager to know what we were doing about prosecuting the founder of WikiLeaks:
“SASSE: Can you help me understand why Julian Assange has not been charged with a crime?
“COMEY: Well I don’t want to comment on the particular case, because I don’t want to confirm whether or not there are charges pending. He hasn’t been apprehended because he’s inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London.”
The FBI Director, in answer to Sasse’s worry that Assange is not being pursued with sufficient vigor, rushed to reassure him:
“COMEY: I don’t know where you got that impression, but WikiLeaks is a important focus of our attention.
“SASSE: I intentionally left the almost half of my time for you to sort of wax broadly for a minute. There is room for reasonable people to disagree about at what point an allegedly journalistic organization crosses a line to become some sort of a tool of foreign intelligence. There are Americans, well-meaning, thoughtful people who think that WikiLeaks might just be a journalistic outfit. Can you explain why that is not your view?
“COMEY: Yes and again, I want to be careful that I don’t prejudice any future proceeding. It’s an important question, because all of us care deeply about the First Amendment and the ability of a free press, to get information about our work and – and publish it.
“To my mind, it crosses a line when it moves from being about trying to educate a public and instead just becomes about intelligence porn, frankly. Just pushing out information about sources and methods without regard to interest, without regard to the First Amendment values that normally underlie press reporting. And simply becomes a conduit for the Russian intelligence services or some other adversary of the United States just to push out information to damage the United States. And I realize, reasonable people as you said, struggle to draw a line.
“But surely, there’s conduct that so far, to the side of that line that we can all agree there’s nothing that even smells journalist about some of this conduct.”
That our interpretation of the First Amendment is now dependent on the olfactory sensibilities of the FBI Director highlights the fact that the real danger to our republic isn’t in Moscow, but right here in the good old United States of America. If the WikiLeaks revelations – that our government is systematically engaged in spying on us, and is involved in any number of foreign operations that violate our alleged values and even cross the line into illegality – is “intelligence porn,” then so were the Pentagon Papers. According to Comey’s logic, Daniel Ellsberg should’ve been prosecuted and convicted for revealing the truth about the Vietnam war to the American people.
Sasse didn’t bring up the Ellsberg case, however he did try to get Comey to distinguish between what we consider legitimate journalism and, in effect, what the FBI Director considers to be espionage:
“SASSE: So I want to hear this part one more time and I know that the chairman has indulged me, I’m – I’m at and past time. But the American journalist who’s seeking this information differs from Assange and WikiLeaks how?
“COMEY: In that, there’s at least a portion and people can argue that maybe this conduct WikiLeaks has engaged in, in the past that’s closer to regular newsgathering. But in my view, a huge portion of WikiLeaks’s activities has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering, informing the public, commenting on important public controversies, but is simply about releasing classified information to damage the United States of America. And – and – and people sometimes get cynical about journalists.
“American journalists do not do that. They will almost always call us before they publish classified information and say, is there anything about this that’s going to put lives in danger, that’s going to jeopardize government people, military people or – or innocent civilians anywhere in the world.
“And then work with us to try and accomplish their important First Amendment goals while safeguarding those interests. This activity I’m talking about, WikiLeaks, involves no such considerations whatsoever. It’s what I said to intelligence porn, just push it out in order to damage.”
So let’s parse this. According to Comey, the distinction between WikiLeaks, and, say, the Washington Post – which has been publishing leaked information from its friends in the intelligence agencies in order to smear the President as a tool of the Kremlin – is that the latter “will almost always call us before they publish.” What this means is that Comey and company can leak whatever they want – but anything not approved by them in advance amounts to espionage. The leaking of the fact that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was in contact with the Russian ambassador prior to the election, and the releasing of the contents of a transcript of those calls to the media – that’s just fine and dandy. But Julian Assange publishing a video of a US military helicopter mowing down a van full of journalists, or revealing the fact that the Democratic National Committee actively sabotaged the Bernie Sanders campaign, is a “crime.”
In all fairness, Comey did say that the leakers are the criminals, and the publishers are not to be prosecuted – unless, of course, they’re WikiLeaks. Yet I don’t see that there’s any effort to go after, let alone prosecute, those who leaked the Flynn transcripts – Comey won’t confirm that there’s even an investigation underway – probably because some of them are within his own office.
This episode ought to scare the daylights out of anyone who is genuinely concerned about the survival of democracy in America. Comey’s prominence, his growing visibility in the conduct of our politics, is in itself a symptom of the danger: for now we have the chief law enforcement officer acting as the arbiter of who is and who is not a journalist. That he is now taking center stage in our political drama is indicative of the fact that we are living in a police state.
This is the logical consequence of our all-pervasive all-seeing all-knowing “intelligence-gathering” apparatus, which peers into our computers, our phones, and every aspect of our lives.
If knowledge is power, then Comey and the heads of our various intelligence agencies, are all-powerful. Forget the alleged Russian “meddling” in the last election – Comey had far more of an effect than did Julian Assange, as even Mrs. Clinton implicitly avers.
This is where we are in the year 2017: the accouterments of democracy are falling away, like the remnants of a chrysalis. What is emerging is a creature that bears no resemblance to anything the Founders intended, although they did warn against its appearance. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, foresaw the incubus that would possess us if we failed to guard against it:
“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people…. [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
We have been in a state of continual warfare since September 11, 2001, and Madison’s warning against the dangers of militarism is surely more relevant today than ever before in our history. For the apparatus of universal surveillance that has invested people like Comey with such inordinate power was born in and is sustained by this state of perpetual warfare.
The framers of the Constitution, fearful of the specter of militarism, added to that document a Third Amendment, which says that “no Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” And yet, thanks to the machinations of the War Party, we are at war, and will no doubt be in that condition for the foreseeable future. So the Third Amendment is no protection against the Comeys of this world, who have stationed their soldiers in our homes – in our computers, our phones, even in our television sets!
None of this will change until and unless our foreign policy of perpetual war is abandoned: that is, until and unless the Empire is finally overthrown. Only then can our old Republic be restored.
I fight for that day, and I live for it.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.