Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The progressives’ hysterical response to President Trump stripping the security clearance from ex-CIA boss John Brennan reveals the sandy foundations of progressive ideology and its technocratic rule. Trump, of course, was responding to Brennan’s blatant politicization of his office, both while working for Obama, and now as a paid talking head on MSNBC. Like all attacks on Trump, the defense of Brennan is so intense because any assault on the federal Leviathan threatens to expose the false assumptions justifying its concentrated and unaccountable power.
The rush to the barricades on the part of bipartisan anti-Trumpers and deep-state veterans was a harrumphing “how dare you sir” rhetorical misdirection away from the privilege and power enjoyed and abused by the deep state. The fundamental justification for that power is the technocratic expertise its functionaries presumably possess. From the start progressives have rationalized their dismantling of the Constitution’s separated powers, and their expansion of federal offices and agencies, by touting “the beneficent activities of expert social engineers who would bring to the service of social ideals all the technical resources which research could discover,” as progressive theorist Herbert Croly put it.
The practice of letting retired security agency members keep their security clearances is defended on this notion that agency veterans exclusively possess collective skills and wisdom that could be useful for subsequent presidents and agency heads. The problem with that rationale is that there’s not much empirical evidence backing it up. What foreign policy success since World War II could be produced to buttress this claim that a college of “wise men” can be, or has been a helpful resource for policymakers?
There is, however, much evidence to the contrary. Where were these “wise men” in the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the State Department when Jimmy Carter badly mishandled the Iranian Revolution, and created one of our most serious foreign policy problems? How did they miss so badly the traditional Islamic origins of the revolution? How come apparently no one had read the Ayatollah Khomeini’s books, or listened to the sermons smuggled on cassette-tapes into Iran from France? Where were the old, more knowledgeable Middle East veterans whose wisdom they could have consulted? No doubt there were some, but subsequent events demonstrates that they were not listened to. The stale paradigm of “anti-colonial” resistance to an American “puppet” in order to create a more liberal government directed Carter’s feckless policies until it was too late.
This is just one example of foreign policy bungling that apparently the retired experts could not prevent with their advice. The rise of al Qaeda that started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is another––a failure the consequences of which were the smoking ruins of 9/11, and the metastasizing of jihadism across the globe. Speaking of the Soviet Union, where were the sages who foresaw its collapse? You can count them on one hand. It took an “amiable dunce,” as the deep-state wise men called Ronald Reagan, who knew how to escort the Soviets into the dustbin of history by calling out their tyranny and starting an arms race they couldn’t win.
Or how about India, Pakistan, and North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons? How did the font of “institutional wisdom,” ex-functionaries with security clearances, miss that? North Korea is particularly revealing, since our foreign policy establishment and its fetish of diplomacy paved the Kim dynasty’s road to nuclear weapons. Or how about the collapse of Yugoslavia into brutal ethnic and religious conflict in the Nineties? Or the futility of the post-9/11 wars in creating liberal democracies in a region dominated by a religion that sees such ideas as alien, infidel attacks on the one true faith? Or the rank stupidity of removing Libya’s Muamar Ghaddafi, without a clue about who would replace him, or how his stockpiles of weapons could be kept from the hands of jihadists? Or the colossal mistake of cutting a deal with the Iranians and giving them over a billion dollars to finance their aggression and terror, not to mention the time to reach nuclear break-out?
What these examples demonstrate is that foreign policy is not a discipline of techniques, methodologies, and expert knowledge that can calculate successful policies. Like all human behavior, relations among states are complex and unpredictable, because people are driven by conflicting ideals, irrational passions, and unsavory motives such as domination of others, or fealty to illiberal cultural practices and goods that we in the West find unsavory. Any knowledge we may have will perforce be provisional and imprecise. Only the history of human actions in similar circumstances can give us some guidance about how to handle a conflict. For history is a repository of the collective experience and wisdom of humanity, and a catalogue of permanent patterns of human behavior that comprise, as the Roman historian Livy said, “Fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”
But that prizing of experience, common sense, and traditional wisdom cuts against the grain of technocratic progressivism. Also undermining the idea of technocratic administration are the problems with large, government funded bureaucracies shielded from accountability to the people. The much-touted “institutional wisdom” often comprises in the main how the agency works internally, and how one advances up its hierarchies. Survival of the institution becomes more important than fulfilling the function which it supposedly serves. And received wisdom can fossilize into sacrosanct paradigms to which employees must pledge fealty.
In such circumstance, claiming some value to the experience and knowledge of retired agency hands becomes even more dubious. And for the ambitious, other more unsavory motives may be at work. Offices often become stepping-stones to further career advancement, and possession of an agency title can be monetized in corporations and think tanks. In that context, letting ex-security agency workers keep their security clearance creates a valuable incentive for hiring them as consultants or media commentators.
The furor over Brennan’s lost security clearance is particularly enlightening because his career both in and out of office epitomizes these problems. Enough evidence has emerged to show that Brennan was up to his neck in the concerted effort to weaponize intelligence in order to shield Hillary Clinton and damage Donald Trump. As an MSNBC contributor, he has continued to do so, using his security clearance to suggest that he is privy to secret knowledge that supports his claims, but that are protected from scrutiny by the information’s classified status. When he said that Trump’s comments in Helsinki were “treasonous,” for the terminally partisan and critically impaired reader his access to classified information gave his preposterous charge an unearned authority.
In addition to politicizing his job, Brennan was terrible at it. His alleged “knowledge” that is so useful that he deserves to keep his security clearance comprised received wisdom that usually ended up serving his president’s political needs. As Homeland Security Advisor in 2011, he dismissed al Qaeda’s talk of a caliphate as a “feckless delusion that’s never going to happen.” Except it did three years later under the tutelage of al Qaeda offshoot ISIS. He further claimed that al Qaeda would be gone by the end of the decade, and then embargoed information from the cache of documents recovered from Osama bin Laden’s hideout because they showed that reports of al Qaeda’s demise were grossly exaggerated, a fact that contradicted Obama’s reelection campaign claim that al Qaeda was on the run.
Brennan’s earlier comments about Islam and its tenets likewise were grossly inaccurate and trimmed to serve Obama’s strategy of flattering “outreach” to the Muslim world. In 2009 Brennan proclaimed, “Nor do we [Obama administration] describe our enemy as ‘jihadists’ or ‘Islamists’ because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community, and there is nothing holy or legitimate or Islamic about murdering innocent men, women, and children.” So much for 14 centuries of Islamic scripture, doctrine, and practice. He encouraged Obama’s embrace of the Muslim Brothers and helped them come to power in Egypt, where they were removed before they could completely wreck an important regional ally. How useful can the “wisdom” be of someone who, whether from ignorance or propaganda, mischaracterized so badly an enemy’s beliefs and motives, and supported policies so detrimental to the country’s security and interests?
But Brennan’s whitewashing of jihad remains today part of the foreign policy establishment’s received wisdom about our conflict with Islamic jihad. Ideological preferences and political expediency, not evidence and analysis, create that “knowledge” possessed by “experts.” Career advancement, whether in or out of government, also rewards reinforcing those ideas. That’s partly why 13 other ex-intelligence employees wrote a letter in support of Brennan. The list includes James Clapper, another political operative and dunce about Islamic jihad, who claimed that the foremost tutor of modern jihadism, the Muslim Brotherhood, was “largely secular” and had “eschewed violence.” Like Brennan he was serving Obama’s delusional policies.
Finally, as Brennan has shown, the possession of a security clearance after leaving government service is a huge advantage in finding work as a consultant, media pundit, or corporate board member. Maybe these 13 former intelligence bureaucrats have more noble motives for criticizing Trump, but basing their argument on a specious “free speech” right doesn’t support that assumption. Nor does the fact that two of the signers, James Clapper and Michael Hayden, were named by Trump as others who may be stripped of their clearance for gross politicization of their government experience. Government workers like their perks and fight hard to keep them.
In fact, keeping or losing a security clearance has nothing to do with free speech, especially since those with such clearance can’t reveal publicly what they know, and so do not face accountability for using that secret information dishonestly. They can, of course, leak such information, as the last few years’ tsunami of leaks has shown, making it obviously prudent to minimize the number of potential leakers. And it’s particularly shameless to claim someone has lost the right to speak freely when he publishes an op-ed in The New York Times with its three million subscribers. Trump’s action has enlarged, not destroyed, Brennan’s megaphone, and no doubt has enhanced his market value.
The Brennan affair, like so many others in our political circus, shows progressivism’s unholy alliance of careerism, partisanship, and ideology. Such are the wages of progressivism and its technocratic pretensions. Despite their promises of a better world, in the end they create huge bureaucracies with well remunerated billets and stale received wisdom that impedes rather than advances our national interests and security. The foreign policy failures of just the last half-century are the best argument for ending the practice of letting all of Leviathan’s caretakers keep their security clearances. If we have need of their wisdom, there are safer ways of acquiring it.