Is there some cosmic law of recurrence that decreed that as soon as Donald Trump had decided to go full-Nixon by firing the FBI director who was investigating his crimes, Henry Kissinger would pop up in the Oval Office?
Was he really there in the flesh, or were the photographers astonished to find his image appear on the film negatives? “Where two or three are gathered to subvert the Constitution, there am I among you.”
The serious point is, this shows how Trump’s impulsiveness (fortunately) gets in the way of his authoritarian showmanship. Presumably, a competent would-be strongman would have found a moment to subvert the rule of law for reasons that HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH TREASONOUS CONTACTS WITH MOSCOW (which didn’t happen anyway), when he wasn’t scheduled to meet the next day with
his handler the Russian ambassador and with Nixon’s Watergate henchman National Security Advisor.
After the November US election I agreed with many commentators, who said that Comey really should resign for his failures of judgement or (depending on who you’re listening to) malfeasance with regard to the Clinton email server investigation, that it would provide partisan satisfaction for Democrats for him to be forced out, but that it was essential for the nation for him to stay in office as an independent check on the president’s authoritarian impulses. Some said he has the most secure job in Washington, since Republicans and Democrats both wanted to keep him, albeit for very different reasons.
We’re used to thinking of scandals as something that will damage the politicians involved if and when they come out, possibly driving them from office. But that’s not always how it works. That isn’t even really the fundamental dynamic. Hidden criminality by people in power locks them in a death struggle with the rule of law and the system of honest democratic politics. Only one can survive. If the politician has weak support, or self-doubt, or respect for democratic norms then it’s like a moon in Jupiter’s gravitation — for all intents and purpose we can just say it’s the massive planet (the constitutional system) acting on the small body. But it can be more like a black hole interacting with a star: Both are perturbed, and until they get close you can’t judge how massive the black hole is. Continue reading “Comey of errors”
From the perspective of normal human psychology, everything about the Trump-Putin interaction seems off. As I remarked before, if Trump were really a Russian agent, you would expect Putin to advise him to be less conspicuous in advocating Russian interests, simply to preserve his usefulness.
On the other hand, imagine Trump as a naive businessman with generally russophile leanings. (I don’t know, maybe he read The Gambler at an impressionable age, and modeled his life on it.) He’s had no significant contact with the Russian leadership, but he once met Vladimir Putin at a beauty pageant, thinks he praised him (mistakenly), and thinks he could do some good for the world by relaxing tensions with the world’s second-largest nuclear power. He is convinced that he deserves to be president, but privately unsure the world will acknowledge his greatness. Now he receives intelligence briefings giving strong evidence that the Russians are attempting to interfere with the election in his favour. What would he do? Before the election maybe he keeps quiet and tries to suppress or discredit the claims. But you would expect him to be seething with fury, that the Russians threaten to taint his election. The help they’re giving is marginal, but the blowback is potentially enormous. It’s like a referee intentionally calling an unwarranted penalty in a football match. It probably won’t change the result, but it makes the favoured side look terrible. To do that without consent is an act of aggression against those you’re ostensibly helping. Continue reading “Defending the fraud”
Maybe in 2020 we can clarify matters by dropping the Republican/Democratic mask and just let the FBI and CIA field their own candidates.
Against all odds, all political sides in the US are converging toward agreement. Here was a headline from the left-wing Daily Kos that seemed extreme three weeks ago:
Former spy reports Kremlin cultivated Trump as an asset for 5 years
And here is Donald Trump, speaking yesterday at a press conference:
If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks, that’s called an asset
were, they would surely order him not to blow his cover by so blatantly promoting Russian interests.
I realise I’m clutching at straws here…
Powers that give MI5, MI6 and GCHQ a “dizzying” range of electronic surveillance capabilities will be laid out in the investigatory powers bill next month, in a move that will bolster the confidence of the intelligence agencies but pave the way for a row with privacy campaigners.
According to one headline announcing this report in the Times, the security services will get the “legal right” to hack into people’s computers and other electronic devices. Under must circumstances, “legal right” might be seen as redundant, but not here. They already do these things, they have the power to do these things, but what they lack, apparently, is confidence in their abilities.
Cue the Growth Mindset (TM). I suppose it was only a matter of time before education fads started sloshing over into spying: After all, aren’t GCHQ and the others supposed to be “learning things”? What they need is confidence. The standard critiques apply:
Confidence and motivation are crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air.
I’ve always been impressed by German political scandals. More generally, I think that the quality of political scandals is an excellent indicator of the general health of a country’s political culture. More than 20 years ago I was in Germany during the Briefbogenaffäre, the “letterhead affair”, when the business minister and deputy chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign after having used his department’s letterhead to tout a really banal business idea of his cousin (selling plastic chips to be used instead of one-mark coins to stick into supermarket trolleys as deposit), calling it a “pfiffige Idee” (clever idea). At the time I thought the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and simultaneously I was impressed at a political culture capable of being genuinely shocked by minor corruption. You couldn’t imagine an Italian minister being forced to resign over something like that.
Now there’s a new scandal, and Germany has again showed itself to be a country that takes democratic values seriously. About a week ago the blog netzpolitik.org, a major organ for German journalism about issues of internet freedom and privacy, received notification that the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA — basically, attorney general) that they were officially being investigated under suspicion of treason, for having published secret documents of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV — the “Federal Agency for Defense of the Constitution”, the somewhat Orwellian name that Germany has bestowed on its internal secret police) relating to its new plans for mass internet surveillance with a special secret budget. The letter says that the investigation was provoked by a criminal complaint issued by the Verfassungsschutz.
What happened next was surprising. The Verfassungsschutz and the GBA were both strongly criticised in the press, with accusations that they were trying to stifle public criticism. Comparisons were drawn to the 1962 Spiegel Affair, a crucial event in postwar German history, where the government imprisoned journalists who had revealed secret documents showing weaknesses in German military preparedness, but was then forced to back down. Then the circular firing squad began. The justice minister criticised the decision as improper. The GBA office said they were obliged to act on the complaint from the BfV. The BfV said they only reported the facts to the GBA, they had no responsibility for the criminal investigation. Then the GBA fired back at the justice minister, saying his comments were an “intolerable interference” in the independence of the judicial system. Whereupon the justice minister fired him and had the investigation stopped.
It’s hard to imagine any important political or judicial figure in the UK or US losing his job because he was seen as being too aggressive in protecting state secrets against press freedom.
I’m genuinely perplexed by pretensions of morality among representatives of espionage agencies. Today various news outlets are reporting that Russia and China have gained access to the Snowden files, and so found details of western agents and methods. Now, a certain skepticism is required: No details are offered, only that “sources” “believe” this to be so. Even if this information has reached Russia and China, the US government has shown itself to be so inept at network security lately that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that they gained access through a different route.
That doesn’t stop the grandiloquent sermonising. According to the Sunday Times,
One senior Home Office official accused Snowden of having “blood on his hands,” although Downing Street said there was “no evidence of anyone having been harmed”.
Imagine if it were discovered that Edward Snowden were actually Eduard Snowdinsky, a Russian sleeper agent whose parents had been smuggled into the US to raise an agent with US background. Now that he has successfully completed his mission and returned to the motherland, what could American officials (and their running-dog lackeys) say but “Good on you. Impressive operation.” After all, everyone does it, if they can. That’s what they say when they spy on our allies, who (they say) are only putting on a show of saying they feel the Americans betrayed their trust. Or when they spy on their own citizens, who they say are simply naive in not recognising the force majeure. They wouldn’t say he had “blood on his hands”, or any such nonsense smacking of bourgeois morality that they’ve all moved beyond when they saw the higher purpose of spying on the whole world. So, are they just putting on a show?
Perhaps more to the point, should I be more appalled by the actions of a Snowden, who revealed US secrets in an attempt to defend universal principles of democracy and human rights, and the US constitution in particular; or by the actions of the NSA, who were so busy breaking into video-game chats that they couldn’t be bothered to make appropriate efforts to defend the US against having the complete set of US government security clearances hacked? That’s information that definitely puts people at risk of harm.
Is it a coincidence that these stories are coming out at the same time?
Angela Merkel is caught in a political struggle over the German government’s relationship to the NSA. One element of the struggle is the government’s attempt to suggest, without explicitly saying so, that the US was open to negotiating a “No-Spy” treaty, whereas they knew that the Americans had made absolutely clear that no such treaty would be entered into. What I find fascinating in this affair is how blatant the US is willing to be about its contempt for the sovereignty of other nations:
Doch bereits im Juli 2013 hatte die Europa-Strategin im Weißen Haus, Karen Donfried, in E-Mails an Merkels Berater Christoph Heusgen trotz dessen nachdrücklichem Bitten vermieden zuzusichern, dass sich US-Geheimdienste in Deutschland an deutsches Recht halten würden. Die “SZ” zitiert etwa aus einer E-Mail vom 19. Juli 2013:
“Bei uns liegt der Fokus natürlich darauf, ob wir das US-Recht einhalten. Unsere Experten fühlen sich nicht dafür gerüstet, die Einhaltung des deutschen Rechts zu beurteilen.”
[Already in July 2013 the White House European-strategy expert Karen Donfried had refused to give assurances to Merkel’s advisor Christoph Heusgen, despite his explicit request, that US espionage agencies in Germany would follow German laws. Süddeutscher Zeitung quotes from a July 19, 2013 email:
Our focus is naturally on whether we obey US laws. Our experts do not feel qualified [literally, “adequately armed”] to evaluate our conformity with German laws.]
What admirable modesty! It’s only natural that their number one concern is whether they are obeying US law, and given their very limited success in achieving that goal, they have no excess capacity for anything as complicated as trying to simultaneously obey both sets of laws. The expertise budget is really not unlimited. Not to mention that the German laws aren’t even written in English!
I know I find it more than I can manage to decide, on any given day, whether I’m going to obey US or UK law. I imagine finding myself some day in court, having to say, “I’m sorry Judge, but my focus is on whether I obey US laws. I do not feel qualified to evaluate my conformity with UK laws.”
Of course, someone might say that representatives of the US government who feel themselves incapable of keeping within the confines of German law do have the option of staying out of Germany…