By ERIC FELTEN The Weekly Standard · February 20, 2017
To hear New York Times correspondent Eric Schmitt tell it, his FBI sources are dishing confidential information from their investigations of Donald Trump’s team out of selfless concern for the country. “Many of them are taking risks in order to confirm information that they feel is important for the American public to know,” Schmitt told BBC Newshour host Julian Marshall this morning.
“Are they alarmed, the intelligence agencies,” Marshall asked in response, “because they believe that Mr. Trump is possibly putting the security of the United States at risk?”
“To be blunt,” Schmitt said ominously, “yes.”
There are other possibilities, among them to be blunt) that intelligence bureaucrats are looking out for their own interests against a president who has not only announced his opposition to all Washington bureaucrats, but has something of a row going with the intelligence agencies. Could it be their motives are less selfless than self-serving?
We seem to have forgotten the bad old days when J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was untouchable because of the threat the Bureau posed to politicos who fell afoul of the director. There were the many filing cabinets—no one quite knows how many (one moving man who had to lug them down stairs later testified they were some three dozen cabinets stuffed with file-foldered documents)—full of material of a compromising nature about politicians and political leaders.
When he was deputy attorney general in the Ford White House, Laurence Silberman (now a federal judge) was sent to go through what was left of Hoover’s “Official & Confidential” files. “It was the single worst experience of my long governmental service,” Silberman later wrote. “Hoover had indeed tasked his agents with reporting privately to him any bits of dirt on figures such as Martin Luther King, or their families. Hoover sometimes used that information for subtle blackmail to ensure his and the bureau’s power.”
Then again, the blackmail wasn’t all that subtle. William Sullivan was ultimately the number three man at the Bureau. In the 1960s, he was in charge of domestic intelligence operations (and would have been responsible for collecting the very dirt that so appalled Silberman). Sullivan had a falling out with J. Edgar in the early 70s and, once he was no longer at the Bureau, talked out of school: “The moment [Hoover] would get something on a senator,” Sullivan said, “he’d send one of the errand boys up and advise the senator that ‘we’re in the course of an investigation, and we by chance happened to come up with this data on your daughter. But we wanted you to know this. We realize you’d want to know it.’ Well, Jesus, what does that tell the senator? From that time on, the senator’s right in his pocket.” (In 1977, Sullivan was killed in a hunting accident, having been “mistaken for a deer.”)
Such things could never happen again, of course. It’s quite inconceivable that domestic intelligence agencies would ever seek to protect their prerogatives by leaking against politicians deemed unfriendly to the security bureaucracy. It’s quite inconceivable that modern politicos would be put on notice that they might be the objects of surveillance—and that the surveillance could be used against them by the agencies they supposedly oversee. It’s quite inconceivable that the FBI would ever again have anyone in their pocket.
Yes, inconceivable—in the Princess Bride usage.
Those now so eager to use, and be used by, the FBI against President Trump might want to consider the damage done to democratic institutions when domestic intelligence agencies start to freelance. As Judge Silberman said of Hoover’s Bureau and its accomplices (some of them presidents, no less), “I have always thought that the most heinous act in which a democratic government can engage is to use its law enforcement machinery for political ends.