Politicizing security and intelligence services and the military is an all too familiar first step in a country’s transition from a representative democracy to a dictatorship. It has happened in many countries. The laws of the United States embody strong protections against that type of thing happening here, and it won’t occur if those laws are respected and enforced.
Two recent incidents, one involving the FBI and the other the CIA, however, give us cause to be concerned.
First, the FBI dropped its bombshell ten days before Election Day – a letter written by FBI Director James Comey to the US House of Representatives government oversight committee. Mr. Comey provided an update that he had promised the committee on an investigation of Hillary Clinton’s State Department email server, which the FBI had concluded over the summer without recommending charges against anybody. The letter contained virtually no new information other than the FBI’s intention to look for yet more emails from Clinton on a laptop that it had obtained from one of her former aides in a separate investigation of a different person (a former Congressman) for something else (sexting minors) having nothing to do with Clinton. The FBI letter was of course immediately posted on the Internet by the politically motivated congressmen who loudly proclaimed a falsehood, that the FBI was “reopening” its investigation of Clinton’s email. The letter never should have been written by the FBI Director in the first place, given that it could have only one conceivable use – to sway the presidential election. As it did. Although the FBI announced a week later that it had found nothing of interest concerning Clinton on the laptop, the FBI had already given rise to virtually a week of speculative and slanderous news reports about Clinton, who then lost the election.
By succumbing to pressure from Members of Congress to provide election eve updates on investigations involving political opponents, Director Comey violated the Hatch Act which prohibits any use of a federal executive branch employee’s official position to influence the outcome of a partisan election. The fact that Comey might not have had any animosity toward Clinton and instead may have been coerced into this illegal conduct by Members of Congress is even more frightening than if Comey himself had intended to sway the election. A country where members of the legislature can pressure the FBI into investigating opponents and swaying elections will not remain a representative democracy for long. An FBI Director who cannot stand up to such pressure to pick winners and losers of elections should lose or forfeit his job. Instead President Donald Trump, who likely owes his job to Director Comey, has made it clear that Comey will remain.
Second, and even more worrisome, just a few days into his term, President Trump gave a speech before senior officials of the CIA. His words were:
“You know, the military and the law enforcement, generally speaking, but all of it — but the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military. And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did. But I would guarantee a big portion, because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks. We’re all on the same wavelength, right? He knows. It took Brian about 30 seconds to figure that one out, right, because we know we’re on the same wavelength.”
Never mind that the CIA officials before whom the President spoke, like employees of the FBI, are prohibited from using their official position to engage in any partisan political activity. They are of course allowed to vote, but they are among the group of federal employees employed in national security and intelligence, who are not allowed even in their personal capacity to play significant roles in political campaigns. The CIA employees present at the President’s speech also were almost all members of the civil service, entitled to protection of their jobs regardless of who is in the White House. They and other intelligence officials had already been humiliated by President Trump for doing their jobs — when he refused to accept the near unanimous conclusions of US intelligence officials that Russia had engaged in a concerted effort to hack American computers and influence the outcome of the 2016 election. Now they were essentially being asked by the President en masse to confirm that they were on the same political wavelength with him after he told them that he presumed they voted for him.
Fortunately, they essentially refused. And it is instructive what one person in attendance told CNN about their colleagues’ reaction:
“One source who attended Trump’s appearance said many people there were troubled by the political aspect of the remarks, in which the president speculated about how many people in the room may have voted for him.
‘We are not political in that way,’ the source said. ‘Talking about whether we voted for Trump is offensive and foreign to us by the president … Many people felt used and awkward throughout. Of course there was applause, but it was uncomfortable.’”
Which candidate each one of these CIA employees voted for in the election has absolutely nothing to do with their official mission, which that day was to have the opportunity to listen to an official speech by the President. Their broader official mission is to protect our country from foreign espionage and other threats, regardless of who the President is. It was clear to each one of them, even if oblivious to President Trump, that their work for the CIA can have absolutely nothing to do with helping or hindering his political career. Other than in their personal capacity as US citizens casting secret ballots on Election Day, CIA employees have no greater role in determining the outcome of an American election than should the president of Russia or anyone else who has no business meddling in U.S. electoral politics. And their personal political choices must never enter the workplace in the way that the president forced that to happen.
Once again, there are federal laws specifically designed to prevent this type of performance from happening at the CIA. As with FBI Director Comey, any CIA employee who used his official purpose to help or hinder President Trump’s election in 2016 or his reelection in 2020 would violate the Hatch Act. While the President himself is not subject to the Hatch Act, he is clearly prohibited from pressuring his subordinates to violate it. Furthermore, the Civil Services Reform Act of 1978 provides that federal employees are to be “protected against arbitrary action, personal favoritism, or coercion for partisan political purposes.” A president suggesting to career government employees that he presumes they voted for him, and then suggesting they communicate to him that they did so is a blatant violation of this law.
Neither President Trump nor anyone else in his administration should be allowed to enlist the intelligence and security forces of the United States for any political activity. While the Hatch Act and Civil Services Reform Act prohibit politicization of a wide range of federal employees, such illegal acts are most threatening when employees of intelligence and security agencies and the military are involved. Employees in those agencies and departments who politicize their jobs must be removed, and a president or other supervisor who pressures them to politicize their jobs must be removed as well. The United States has been a successful representative democracy for over two hundred years because we have laws that protect our democracy, we expect persons in positions of power to obey those laws, and we take prompt action to enforce those laws when they are broken.