William Barr, a two-time attorney general who served at the CIA in the 1970s, would seem to be an ultimate Washington insider. According to his Wikipedia biography, he has—or he had—“a sterling reputation” both among Republicans and Democrats. That changed when Barr announced his ongoing investigation into the origins of Russiagate, a vital subject I, too, have explored.
As Barr explained, “What we’re looking at is: What was the predicate for conducting a counterintelligence investigation on the Trump campaign.… How did the bogus narrative begin that Trump was essentially in cahoots with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election?” Still more, Barr, who is empowered to declassify highly sensitive documents, made clear that his primary focus was not the hapless FBI under James Comey but the CIA under John Brennan. Evidently this was too much for leading Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who assailed Barr for having “just destroyed…the scintilla of credibility that he had left.” Not known for a sense of irony, Schumer accused Barr of using “the words of conspiracy theorists,” as though Russiagate itself is not among the most malign and consequential conspiracy theories in American political history.
More indicative is the reaction of the generally liberal pro-Democratic New York Times and Washington Post, the country’s two most important political newspapers, to Barr’s investigation. Leaning heavily on the “expert” opinion of former intelligence officials and McCarthy-echoing members of Congress such as Adam Schiff, both papers went into outrage mode. The Times bemoaned Barr’s “drastic escalation of [Trump’s] yearslong assault on the intelligence community” while rejecting “the president’s unfounded claims that his campaign had been spied on,” even though some forms of FBI and CIA infiltration and surveillance of the 2016 Trump campaign are now well documented. (See, for example, Lee Smith’s reporting.)
Unconcerned by the activities of either agency, the papers warned ominously that Barr’s probe “effectively strips [the CIA] of its most critical power: choosing which secrets it shares and which remain hidden.” It “could be tremendously damaging to the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies.” Not surprisingly, given the Times’ three-year role in promulgating Russiagate allegations, it preempted Barr’s investigation by declaring that US intelligence agencies’ covert actions were part of “a lawful investigation aimed at understanding a foreign power’s efforts to manipulate an American election.” Considering what is now known, this generalization seems a whitewash both of the Times’ coverage and the agencies’ conduct. (In the Post, see coverage by Toluse Olorunnipa and Shane Harris.)
Hillary Clinton, also not surprisingly, agreed. As paraphrased by Matt Stevens in the Times on May 3, she accused Barr of diverting attention “from what the real story is. The real story is the Russian interference in our election.” According to the defeated Democratic candidate, “the Russians were successful in sowing ‘discord and divisiveness’ in the country, and helping Mr. Trump.” But who has actually sowed more “discord and divisiveness” in America—the Russians or Mrs. Clinton and her supporters, by still refusing to accept the legitimacy of her electoral loss and Trump’s victory?
Unfortunately, but predictably, Barr’s investigation has become polarizing, with Fox News, for example, bannering each new unsavory Russiagate revelation and the Times and the Post mostly ignoring them altogether. In particular, the Democratic Party, once traditionally skeptical of intelligence agencies, is becoming the party of an intel cult and thus of the new US-Russian Cold War. Only a few of the party’s leaders, notably presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, demur from this dangerous folly. (Might Democratic reticence also be due to the circumstance that the intelligence chiefs now under investigation were appointees of former President Obama, who has been remarkably silent about the entire Russiagate saga? What, as I have asked previously, did Obama know, when did he know it, and what did he do?)
Everyone who cares about the quality of American political life, no matter what they think about Trump, should encourage Barr’s probe. To resort to a familiar cliché, Russiagate allegations have become a spreading cancer in American politics, with Democratic congressional candidates raising funds by promising, despite the exculpatory findings of Robert Mueller regarding “collusion,” to fight evil “Trump-Putin” forces in Washington. Meanwhile, some Republicans, despite ample contrary evidence, preposterously blame Russia itself—for the infamous Steele Dossier, for example. (By the way, for more irony, Trump is regularly accused in the above-cited news accounts of “siding with” Russian President Vladimir Putin in denying that any “collusion” determined the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, a conclusion also reached by Mueller, thereby putting Trump, Putin, and Mueller on the same “side.”)
Ideally, we would have an investigation of the intelligence agencies entirely independent of the White House and headed by an eminent political figure who is not a presidential appointee, as was the 1975 Senate Church Committee. For now, we have only Trump’s attorney general, William Barr. Nonetheless, we should support him, however conditionally. Rogue intelligence agencies subvert democracy, and the next candidate they target—as they did Trump—may be yours.