John Buell

The Enemy of Your Enemy Is Not Your Friend: Russia, the CIA, and American Democracy

The case for an independent investigation of the Russian role in the 2016 Presidential election is building, often premised on a concern for the future of out democracy. Yet whether these investigations enhance our democracy will depend on attentiveness to the possible risks posed by the investigations themselves.

Just as Republicans and Democrats have a stake in the outcome of such an investigation so too do the intelligence agencies and various factions within these agencies. Not since the days when J Edgar Hoover blackmailed US presidents have intelligence agencies exerted so much influence over the direction of American politics.

Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell puts it well: We have reached a new low with “17 different heavily funded intelligence agencies and groups, headed by the DNI and the CIA all apparently playing their own little games within various segments of a political community in this country and leaking accordingly. And I don’t eliminate the FBI from that either. Why else would Comey come out, for example, just prior to the elections and say he had other e-mails and imply that they might be damning of one of the candidates? It’s everyone playing in this game and it’s an extremely dangerous game.”

If one result of this investigation is to strengthen the hand of these agencies or any subset within them, our democracy will be further compromised.

Let’s be careful about what is being alleged. Russians may have hacked DNC computers and done as much as possible to spread the embarrassing e mails, but that does not constitute proof that there was collusion with the Trump campaign. Especially where Russians are concerned it is all too easy to jump to extreme conclusions.

One Naked Capitalism blogger reminds us: “In the midst of the hysteria about Russian interference in the 2016 election — 52% of Democrat voters believe it’s definitely or probably true that “Russia tampered with vote tallies”, a view for which there is no evidence whatever, and which is a depressing testimony to the power of propaganda to produce epistemic closure in liberals as well as conservatives.”

Investigators and the larger public should draw no conclusions from conversations between Trump surrogates and any foreign ambassadors or government officials, including Russians. It is normal procedure for transition officials or campaign surrogates to meet with foreign leaders. As the blog Naked Capitalism puts it, this is called diplomacy. It would be tragic if one result of this investigation is to cast further aspersions on diplomacy.

The same evidentiary standards should apply across the board. Some critics of the Trump/Russia collusion as a trial by innuendo have demanded that the CIA release its smoking gun, the raw evidence. The agency has demurred, with the standard line that it must not divulge sources and methods. Yet for an issue as consequential those limits have been violated. More to the point, some of the Trump opponents have already violated this norm. Consider the following from a recent New York Times story — American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.

As one Naked Capitalism blogger puts it: “Here the [New York Times] is divulging “sources and methods” — usually the holy grail of the intelligence community. US intelligence is intercepting communication “within the Kremlin”? That is surely of interest to Russian counter-intelligence.

This investigation also poses risks to international politics. Not only is diplomacy denigrated but also in the process one hears potentially dangerous expansions of current concepts of war and aggression. In an interview with Sir Adrian Bradshaw, the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said “allegations of interference in American and European elections and an international disinformation campaign could cause the definition of an “attack” to be widened. General Bradshaw said the article, number five, would come into effect “when it’s declared to be”.“It is a political decision, but it is not out of the question that aggression, blatant aggression, in a domain other than conventional warfare might be deemed to be Article Five,” he told the Times.

Any investigation of this affair must steer a fine line. The Trump Administration has every right to pursue a different policy with Russia though not, of course, to conspire to rig an election. Given the long history of Cold War tensions it is all too easy for today’s neoliberals to treat advocates of a more peaceful climate as dupes of the Russians. Glenn Grenwald, quoting I.F. Stone, puts this case well: If Communists are some supernatural breed of men, led by diabolic master minds in that distant Kremlin, engaged “n a Satanic conspiracy to take over the world and enslave all mankind — and this is the thesis endlessly propounded by American liberals and conservatives alike, echoed night and day by every radio station and in every newspaper — the thesis no American dare any longer challenge without himself becoming suspect — then how to fight McCarthy? Today the question is how to oppose an increasingly bellicose policy toward Russia as orchestrated by President Obama and further intensified by HRC without being labeled a Russian stooge?” In the worst- case scenario could Trump’s need to prove he is not a Russian pawn make his trigger finger itchy?

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2017

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