Imagine an alternative reality, one that actually existed within the memory of most readers of The Ellsworth American. A Republican has just been elected President. His name is Ronald Reagan (or Dwight Eisenhower). The glow of victory is shadowed by persistent reports emanating from U.S. and foreign intelligence sources that the Russian KGB had conducted a covert effort to influence and subvert the recent election. Some reports suggest that certain staff members working for the Republican campaign had suspicious, unreported contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. Although the initial information was sketchy, there were indications that Moscow had planted spurious news articles, created fictitious political action committees and perhaps bribed key members of Congress, all to defeat the Democratic candidate. What would Reagan (or Eisenhower) have done?
This writer was in Washington during the Reagan administration, first at the CIA and then with the Senate Intelligence Committee. In those capacities, I worked closely enough with senior officials in the Reagan national security apparatus to feel confident in predicting just how they would have responded to such reports. President Reagan and his then Chief of Staff, James Baker, would have called for a no-holds-barred investigation to determine just what had actually happened. The two Congressional Intelligence Committees (Senate and House) would have immediately launched their own inquiries which would have involved closed-door testimony from senior intelligence officials. Meanwhile, the FBI and CIA would have already been tasked by the White House to follow every lead and use every intelligence resource (human and technical) to uncover and analyze the facts. Although most of these efforts would have involved classified information, both the White House and Congress would have given occasional public briefings to keep the press (and the public) broadly informed concerning the evolving story.
A result of these efforts would have been multiple reports (with public and classified versions) detailing the findings. If the investigations revealed that Moscow had indeed tried to subvert the U.S. election, there would have been hell to pay. Reagan (or Eisenhower) would have imposed a variety of punishing sanctions until the Russians took public responsibility. Neither Reagan nor Eisenhower would have cared a whit that Russian subversion was intended to help their own electoral prospects. In this imagined scenario, a key figure would have been the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator William Cohen of Maine. Like the committee’s chairman, Senator Boren (D-OK), he was respected and liked on both sides of the political aisle. Whatever final conclusions the Intelligence Committee reached would have been widely accepted by other members of the Senate. Why? Because neither Reagan (or Eisenhower) or Boren or Cohen would have even considered playing politics when it came to a first order national security issue — what amounted to a Russian act of war against America.
That was then; this is now. And our imagined scenario is real. The FBI has been investigating multiple credible reports that Russia, in fact, mounted an extensive and sophisticated campaign to subvert the last presidential election. Instead of calling for a bipartisan investigation to get to the bottom of it, this President and his congressional allies have denigrated and dismissed the evidence while overtly defending the Russian leader who stands accused of the attacks. This necessitated the appointment of a Special Counsel (over White House objections) to investigate Russia’s alleged actions and whether there was active complicity on the part of “U.S. persons.” This leaves the Congressional Intelligence Committees with the responsibility to support and supplement the work of the Special Counsel. The Senate committee under Senator Burr (R-NC) and Senator Warner (D-VA) has tried to do just that.
But the chairman of the House committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) is playing a very different game. Nunes insisted on releasing a “memo” (written solely by Republican staff) over the objections of the FBI and Justice Department (as well as committee Democrats). The memo purports to show that the FBI has been guilty of political partisanship (favoring the Democrats) in how it handled surveillance of a Trump campaign official, Carter Page. (Page had a long history of Russian contacts.) Just a few weeks ago, the White House was characterizing Page as a loose cannon who had almost nothing to do with the campaign. Now he has suddenly become a heroic martyr victimized by a supposed FBI witch hunt. A veteran defense attorney observed that when you have a weak case it is a standard tactic to ignore the substance of the charges (Russian subversion) and instead accuse the prosecution of political bias. All you really need to know about the Nunes “investigation” is that he refused to allow the FBI to even testify before the committee. President Trump predictably gave his full-throated endorsement of the Nunes brief calling the actions of the FBI “a disgrace.”
What is going on here really is a disgrace. But it is much worse than that. In Reagan’s or Eisenhower’s day, it was simply taken for granted that the President, the White House staff and the leaders of Congress were patriots. The idea that such people could openly side with an enemy state against the interests of America was simply unthinkable. But Mr. Nunes has chosen to serve a narrow, tawdry political agenda over the national interest. If there was any doubt concerning Russia’s role, we now know that a huge online supposedly American grass roots campaign demanding publication of the Nunes report was in fact generated and orchestrated by Russian cyber operatives.
Vladimir Lenin is said to have commented that foreigners who serve Russian interests are “useful idiots.” He must have had Mr. Nunes and his friends in mind.