Despite the increasingly bizarre and even tyrannical behavior of Donald Trump, the mainstream media are still assuring Americans that our checks and balances are in play, and that the “guardrails” of democracy are in place. Serious pundits are even suggesting that the likelihood of impeachment has become greater and that the 25th amendment of the constitution, which offers protection against presidential disability, could be apt. My own view is that there has been serious deterioration in the institutions of governance over the past several decades, particularly in the area of political oversight, and that our political roller coaster will continue in the near term.
Even before his inauguration, Donald Trump indicated that he would be waging a war on intelligence on every level, not only the institutions of the intelligence community but the larger issue of intelligence or expertise. He has big plans for economic policy, but there are no genuine economists in his circle. Trump talks about foreign policy, but there are no diplomats in the conversation. He has huge areas of ignorance, but no interest in finding individuals with real expertise.
Trump appointed the most incredibly mediocre cabinet in our nation’s history, highlighted by individuals in the domestic arena who had no knowledge of the departments that they would be heading or, even worse, sworn to the strategic weakening of these departments. In the international arena, Trump appointed a group of retired and even active duty general officers who lack the institutional memory and geopolitical experience that key posts, such as secretary of state and national security adviser, require. General Michael Flynn’s short-lived experience as national security adviser was particularly embarrassing, but his successor, General H.R. McMaster, is clearly not fully in charge of the national security council.
Trump’s removal of FBI Director James Comey without justification threatens the sanctity of the investigation of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and the contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign associates. This act of politicization clearly compromised our key law enforcement agency and challenged the ten-year term limit for the director, which was designed to guarantee the absence of politicization. In doing so, Trump has challenged the very institutions created to safeguard our democracy.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump is in a position to do even greater harm to governance because of the deterioration in the key institutions of oversight that exist within Congress and key governmental departments. There has been a steady decline in the authority and bipartisanship of the congressional intelligence committees that has contributed to the inability of the Senate and the House to investigate the Russian interference in the U.S. election last year, let alone the possibility of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russian officials. More recently, we have seen a derogation in the role of the Office of the inspector General in such key departments as the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency.
CONGRESSIONAL INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEES.
The congressional intelligence committees were established 40 years ago as senior bipartisan committees. Bipartisanship died in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush guaranteed Republican support for the confirmation of Robert M. Gates, and committee chairman David Boren (D/OK) promised his support. The chairmanship of Arlen Specter in the 1990s worsened the partisan atmosphere, but the objectivity of the committee suffered a fatal blow more recently, when Senator Richard Burr (R/NC) made sure that no Republican supported or even contributed to the authoritative report on CIA’s torture program. In an ugly display of retribution, Burr then blocked the senior drafter of the report, Alyssa Stazak, from confirmation as legal counsel for the Department of the Army.
The Senate and House investigations of the Russian hacking prior to the election are going nowhere because the Republican chairmen of the committees, Burr and Representative Devin Nunes (R/CA), are doing their best to make sure the Russian probe doesn’t involve their Republican president. Nunez didn’t even issue a statement in the wake of the firing of Comey, the only top congressional leader on a intelligence committee not to do so. The ranking Democratic members of the intelligence committees are doing their best to keep the investigation open, but key agencies, such as the CIA, are not being forthcoming in turning over key pieces of intelligence. These obstacles can only worsen in the near term.
THE OFFICE OF THE INSPECTOR GENERAL.
For the past sixteen years, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been pushing back against the statutory Inspector General of the CIA as well as the Offices of the Inspector General (OIG) at key agencies. The campaign against the CIA’s Inspector General (IG) was led by the senior leaders of the Agency’s National Clandestine Service, who resented the criticism of IG investigations on 9/11, torture and abuse, extraordinary renditions, and the 2000 downing of a missionary plane that killed innocent civilians in Peru. These reports were hard-hitting and revealed a great deal of malfeasance and even a high-level cover-up in the case of the missionary plane. The Senate Democrats could not have issued its authoritative report on the CIA’s torture program without the research and analysis conducted by the OIG over a five-year period. Nevertheless, the Senate Intelligence Committee hasn’t protected the independence and integrity of the OIG.
THE NEED FOR WHISTLEBLOWERS.
In addition to Republican intransigence, Donald Trump has summarily fired the three most important investigators in the process: Comey, acting deputy attorney general Sally Yates, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Comey is virtually irreplaceable because of his reputation for independence and rectitude. Yates’s riveting testimony last week on her dealings with Trump’s leading lawyer revealed the mendacity of the entire administration. Bharara is one of the leading experts in the country on money laundering, which could be central to understanding Trump’s financial dealings in Russia.
The absence of aggressive oversight makes it essential that whistleblowers step forward to report any evidence of the misuse of political power and to challenge the secrecy that fosters ignorance in the United States. The overuse of secrecy has already limited debate on national security policy, depriving citizens of information needed to participate effectively in much needed political debate. The uncertainty and disarray of the Trump administration and its ill-prepared national security team has made the importance of “telling truth to power” more essential than ever.