Donald Trump’s refusal to recognize the high probability that the Russian government acted to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential Election to his benefit erodes the new President’s credibility. Although Mr. Trump sees accusations against Russia as a political threat to the legitimacy of his Presidential, his unapologetic criticism of the CIA’s findings is driving the GOP and the intelligence community to join those questioning his competency, i.e. his ability to understand the threat of Vladimir Putin and cyber warfare.
Seizing upon his very public dissent from the conclusions of the America’s Intelligence Apparatus, Trump is also pushing for reforms to America’s top spy agency. In turn, this actually helps discredit the very real need for reforms to America's national security apparatus. Due to the often secretive nature of national security, critical mistakes, e.g. nuclear weapons in Iraq, wrongdoings, and overreach, America’ national security apparatus has spent years undermining its own credibility, but its conclusion that Russia tried to hack the 2016 Election is reasonable.
The Russian government has been known to interfere in the elections of other countries and use various media platforms to fabricate its own versions of reality, which ignore key facts and basic logic. Unlike China, which Mr. Trump has accused, Russia stood to benefit from Trump’s pro-Moscow stance. The Obama Administration’s confrontation with the Putin government, starting with the theft of Crimea, provides a strong motive. As such, the Russia government is a “bad guy,” but America’s intelligence community is also a “bad guy” on other issues.
In 2013, the Edward Snowden NSA Revelations helped bring the issue of national security overreach and the abuse of power to the forefront. Unfortunately, the Ukraine Crisis pushed a much-needed conversation on limiting the powers of America’s national security apparatus to the backburner. Thanks to the rise of terrorist threats like the Islamic State and numerous terrorist attacks in the West, reigning in the American national security apparatus has all but disappeared from the public agenda. Instead of abandoning the highly controversial USA Patriot Act of 2001 and replacing it with a national security bill that offered greater transparency and accountability, for example, the USA Freedom Act of 2015 was simply a tweaked version. Under Trump, the potential for US-sponsored torture has also returned.
Furthermore, the challenge is suppressing the hardliner influence in our super secret spy organizations. Aside from seeking legal justification for completely ignoring the human and civil rights of anyone they suspect to be a threat, hardliners do not seem to be answerable to the Executive Branch, which is understandable given their nature and the nature of the bureaucracy overseeing their operations. Politically, Democrats will not take on our national security apparatus, because doing so makes them look weak, while Republicans will not because they have little to gain by doing so. As such, meaningful reforms to Congressional and Executive oversight of these organizations need to be put in place as soon as possible.
Under this mode of thinking, any potential threat to US security is a valid reason to ignore someone's civil liberties. Under such a perspective, the US Constitution has value, because it provides structure to society, i.e. people adhere to the Law when they feel it protects their rights and their lives. On the other hand, an individual sharing such a view does not necessarily see the broader value of the principles behind the Constitution, thus they believe their conduct outside of US borders does not have to adhere to the values set forth in the US Constitution. In other words, hardliners in the NSA and CIA do not view civil liberties as their concern whenever they are operating outside of the jurisdiction of the US Constitution.
Organizations like the NSA and CIA are tasked with ensuring national security interests through the gathering and securing of information. Unfortunately, the need for secrecy makes these organizations a magnet for individuals who view national security as a national interest that must be pursued by any means necessary. Although the spokespersons of these organizations have learned over the last few years to express a need to balance national security with civil liberties, such as privacy rights, hardliners view rights more as privileges to be waived whenever national security interests are at stake. The reason the American People do not trust their own national security apparatus is because officials do not respect their rights.
It might be said that hardliners within the NSA and CIA continue to operate under well-entrenched Cold War thinking. On the other hand, it is probably more correct to say hardliners used the Cold War to entrench themselves into organizations like the NSA and CIA then expanded their ability to operate freely by taking advantage of events like the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. In essence, the singular motivation of these individuals is to suppress any potential threat to our national security and secure the power to do that. This can make them very effective protectors; however, it also makes them very dangerous.
Unfortunately, the best option at this point for wrangling in our spies is to create official private and public channels for insiders to anonymously, securely, and responsibly submit material for review. People like Edward Snowden are the only effective tools we have when it comes to oversight of organizations like the NSA and CIA. Quite frankly, such individuals are the only means of stopping the larger problems at the NSA and CIA at this time, yet we are prosecuting them instead of helping them leak information in a more responsible manner. On the other hand, the threat of Russian cyber warfare cannot be overlooked to tackle issues within America’s national security apparatus.
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