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The Security State Wags Its Tongue

Our taste for national-security punditry began well before Trump


It has been a good year for our national-security pundits, in case you haven’t heard. A fever to explain what’s really going on at the CIA and the State Department has gripped the media, and insiders are in high demand. Got sources among the spooks and suits, or even just an educated hunch? Go straight to the cable-news green room. Collect a bunch of Twitter followers.

This rising tide of interest has lifted many boats, among them industry blogs like Lawfare, whose staid dissections of foreign policy now pass as fascinating reading. As Trump-induced upheavals rocked the security establishment, the Lawfare crowd—led by Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey—saw its January traffic surge more than 500 percent. A recent profile in the New York Times Magazine called the blog, which is published by the Brookings Institution, a “go-to bipartisan site for remarkably speedy and informed analysis.” As for what Lawfare likes to call itself—a forum for discussion of “hard national security choices”—well, that is something else entirely.

Let’s face it: If new readers are flocking to Lawfare, it is probably because they hope to find some scrap of insight into the resistance that is supposedly gripping the intelligence community, which will soon, they fear or fondly dream, rise up against the president for colluding with Russia to steal the 2016 election.

The rise of the national-security commentariat has been a long time coming.

But we can’t blame Russia-mania alone. The rise of the national-security commentariat has been a long time coming. It tracks the maturation of the security state’s managerial class. Over the past couple of decades, thousands of mid- and high-ranking national security officials, political appointees and longtime bureaucrats alike, have graduated to positions at think tanks, defense contractors, universities, federal judgeships, and media outlets. Sixteen years of constant warfare and bloated intelligence budgets have produced a surplus of well-credentialed experts who regularly appear on TV, op-ed pages, and Beltway panels to shill for their unacknowledged conflicts of interest or to debate which of the half-dozen Muslim nations we’re presently bombing poses the most urgent threat.

What is it we want from these experts? The same things they implicitly promise us. They’re here to dispense sage counsel and shepherd us, with a firm hand, through the shadows of American power and the outskirts of American law. Their patriotism means they won’t stand for partisanship, and all the “former”s in front of their names (and the letters afterward) show us that they know exactly what they’re talking about.

The allure is undeniable. Once these people worked in secret to authorize bulk surveillance or debate the legality of certain stress positions. Now they explain that work to you on Twitter—or at Lawfare, Just Security, The Cipher Brief, Foreign Affairs, or any number of mostly indistinguishable think-tank blogs. Of course, there are limits to these performances of transparency—unlike most news outlets, for example, Lawfare refuses to publish classified information—meaning that the former securocrat will always be limited in what he can share with his audience. But perversely, that only increases his appeal. That he knows more than us is practically axiomatic, a matter of shared faith. When speaking to the public, he’s expected to explain, but never too much or too deeply. Instead, he plays the role of a priest, serving as intercessor between the public and the secret knowledge for which he acts as a guardian and interpreter. He offers soothing homilies about the need for a muscular executive or defends the sober-minded patriots at the controls of the NSA. And when the securocrat is losing an argument, he can always point to some nebulous body of secret law or classified information that the public can’t access.

On these terms of debate, the civilian is always at a loss. Perhaps it is this imbalance of power that has muted our critical engagement with our media surrogates. Perhaps this is why we speak in whispers of the workings of the “deep state,” or swoon for hundred-tweet threads laying out elaborate Russophobic conspiracy theories.

You would think we would have learned by now that security clearances do not grant magic powers of wisdom and clairvoyance.

You would think we would have learned by now, after the invasion of Iraq and the election of Donald Trump, that while security clearances may grant their bearers access to many things, they do not, in fact, grant magic powers of wisdom and clairvoyance. On the contrary, they seem to convey a kind of bland devotion to the status quo. Even as the longest wars in American history have hollowed out the nation, turning us into an authoritarian imperium bumbling toward austerity and environmental collapse, while killing hundreds of thousands, our officials remain occupied with bureaucratic questions about how to parcel out surveillance authorities or the relative intensity of the latest clandestine bombing campaign. You will never hear a natsec expert advocating for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East, the closure of one of our seventeen intelligence agencies, or taking a hacksaw to the Pentagon budget. These possibilities remain unthinkable to them—and, if we listen to them long enough, to us.

Over at Lawfare, which had been rolling along in happy, policy-heavy wonkery for six years before its recent turn in the public eye, it may seem like the experts are shifting their tone in response to the extraordinary times in which we find ourselves. For some, this is cause for excitement; an awakening amongst the national-security experts equals hope for the impeachment-watchers. But before we surrender to expert-itis, let’s make sure to state what should already be obvious: These are not the agents of change we were looking for.

When Lawfare touts its commitment to “hard national security choices,” it none too subtly aligns itself with the establishment consensus of America’s post-9/11 foreign policy. According to this bloodless narrative, the Bush administration, in its last couple of years, evolved in its approach to counter-terrorism—goodbye, invasions without pretext; farewell, black sites and torture—and created a sensible strategy (light footprints, regular drone strikes, secret JSOC raids, training of proxy forces) that the Obama administration followed almost to the letter. In perpetuating this grand strategy, Obama, adopting his famously milquetoast formulation, decided to look forward, not backward. That was good news to people like Benjamin Wittes, who once declared that calling for accountability for torture equaled “the criminalization of policy differences—nothing more or less.” True patriots wouldn’t let something picayune like the law get in the way of proudly advancing American interests.

Perhaps this is why we speak in whispers of the “deep state.”

Those in the “soft-law community” just don’t get it, according to Wittes. They’re hobbled by a focus on the weak and vulnerable. In a bold act of ideological inversion, Wittes has accused human-rights authorities of jeopardizing the laws of armed conflict by focusing too much on the actions of major powers (the United States, Israel) over those of the insurgent groups they’re fighting (Hamas, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda’s many franchises and offshoots). “They are more afraid of and offended by American power and Israeli settlement activity than they are of the behavior of non-state actors,” Wittes wrote in a 2015 post titled “Notes on the Erosion of Norms of Armed Conflict.” In the view of this national-security expert, it’s not violent drone war, the assassination of American citizens without trial, or foreign occupations that have undermined the rule of law; it’s liberals’ perseverating over the rights of the people we kill.

In the Lawfare cosmology, there are strategic and policy choices, but there are no moral ones. Hence the only consequences for officials, like John Yoo, who write legal memos justifying torture should be a sinecure at a top law school and the honor of being quoted approvingly in Lawfare. Shame and public criticism, not to mention legal liability, is anathema. Democratic norms matter, but not democratic accountability.

In the closing of the New York Times Magazine profile, Jack Goldsmith, one of Lawfare‘s founders and a former Bush Justice Department lawyer, shares his hope that the courts don’t act as too much of a check on Trump, so that future presidents can retain the same kind of authority wielded by Bush and Obama. “The checks and balances may be working so well that the presidency will emerge as too weak,” Goldsmith said.

What should disturb us more: the minimization of the Trump threat or the ghoulish eagerness to return to business as usual after the system survives him? On that topic, at least, the natsec wonks are silent.