No one runs America. That’s the terror and the beauty of American life in a nutshell, the answer to the secret of how 300 million people from many different places can live together between two oceans, sharing a future-oriented outlook that methodically obliterates any ties to the past. All prior lived experience is transformed into science fiction, or else into self-serving evidence of the present-day moral, intellectual, and technological superiority of the brave imagineers who are fortunate enough to live here, in the Now, while all who came before them are cursed. No one can or does control such fantasy-driven machinery, which seems incapable of operating in any other way than it does, i.e., in a space with no beginning and no end, but tending always toward perfection. Learning to accept imperfection and failure may be an emotionally healthy way for adults to negotiate the terrors and absurdities of human existence, but it is not the highway to the perfectibility of man or woman-kind.
Because the large-scale explanations that Americans offer each other about how their country works, or doesn’t work, arise from working backwards from the expectation of some future storybook perfection, they tend to be either childishly conspiratorial or cartoonishly stupid—because those are the types of explanation that tend to win out once you stipulate an ever-more-perfect-and-glorious future as the inevitable outcome of whatever snake oil it is that you are pitching to the suckers. In today’s America, these explanations come in the form of shallow and sweeping identitarian polemics (“white people” or “globalists” run “everything”), indecipherable academese backed by graphed coefficients (people are motivated by “rational self-interest,” as calculated by academics), or as appeals to a glorified and abstracted historical past (“the Founding Fathers,” “the melting pot”) whose promises of future perfection may have seemed real enough to past generations, but must now grow ever more distant with every new iteration of Moore’s law.
Which is not to say that America isn’t governed by an elite class, just like China, or Japan, or France is—only that the ability of that class to actually rule anything is even more constrained by the native culture. The idea that an advanced technologically driven capitalist or socialist society of several hundred million people can be run by something other than an elite is silly or scary—the most obvious present-day alternative being a society run by ever-advancing forms of AI, which will no doubt have only the best interests of their flesh-and-blood creators at heart.
Yet it is possible to accept all of this, and to posit that the reason that the American ruling class seems so indisputably impotent and unmoored in the present is that there is no such thing as America anymore. In place of the America that is described in history books, where Henry Clay forged his compromises, and Walt Whitman wrote poetry, and Herman Melville contemplated the whale, and Ida Tarbell did her muckraking, and Thomas Alva Edison invented movies and the light bulb, and so forth, has arisen something new and vast and yet distinctly un-American that for lack of a better term is often called the American Empire, which in turn calls to mind the division of Roman history (and the Roman character) into two parts: the Republican, and the Imperial.
While containing the ghosts of the American past, the American Empire is clearly a very different kind of entity than the American Republic was—starting with the fact that the vast majority of its inhabitants aren’t Americans. Ancient American ideas about individual rights and liberties, the pursuit of happiness, and so forth, may still be inspiring to mainland American citizens or not, but they are foreign to the peoples that Americans conquered. To those people, America is an empire, or the shadow of an empire, under which seemingly endless wars are fought, a symbol of their own continuing powerlessness and cultural failure. Meanwhile, at home, the American ruling elites prattle on endlessly about their deeply held ideals of whatever that must be applied to Hondurans today, and Kurds tomorrow, in fits of frantic-seeming generosity in between courses of farm-to-table fare. Once the class bond has been firmly established, everyone can relax and exchange notes about their kids, who are off being credentialed at the same “meritocratic” but now hugely more expensive private schools that their parents attended, whose social purpose is no longer to teach basic math or a common history but to indoctrinate teenagers in the cultish mumbo-jumbo that serves as a kind of in-group glue that binds ruling class initiates (she/he/they/ze) together and usefully distinguishes them from townies during summer vacations by the seashore.
The understanding of America as an empire is as foreign to most Americans as is the idea that the specific country that they live in is run by a class of people who may number themselves among the elect but weren’t in fact elected by anyone. Under whatever professional job titles, the people who populate the institutions that exercise direct power over nearly all aspects of American life from birth to death are bureaucrats—university bureaucrats, corporate bureaucrats, local, state and federal bureaucrats, law enforcement bureaucrats, health bureaucrats, knowledge bureaucrats, spy agency bureaucrats. At each layer of specific institutional authority, bureaucrats coordinate their understandings and practices with bureaucrats in parallel institutions through lawyers, in language that is designed to be impenetrable, or nearly so, by outsiders. Their authority is pervasive, undemocratic, and increasingly not susceptible in practice to legal checks and balances. All those people together comprise a class.
Another thing that residents of the broad North American expanse between Canada and Mexico have noticed is that the programs and remedies that this class has promoted, both at home and abroad, have greatly enriched and empowered a small number of people, namely themselves—while the broader American population continues to decline in wealth, health, and education. Meanwhile, the American Empire that the ruling elite administers is collapsing. The popularity of such observations on both the left and the right is what accounts for the rise of Donald Trump, on one hand, and of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the other hand, among an electorate that has not been historically distinguished by its embrace of radicalism. Add those voter bases together, and perhaps 75% of Americans would seem to agree that their country, however you think of it, is in big trouble, and that the fault lies with the country’s self-infatuated and apparently not-so-brilliant elite.
Every student of history has their own theory about how and why empires fall. My theory is this: The wealth of any empire flows disproportionately to the capital, where it nourishes the growth, wealth, and power of the ruling elite. As the elite grows richer and more powerful, the gulf between the rulers and the ruled widens, until the beliefs and manners of the elite bear little connection to those of their countrymen, whom they increasingly think of as their clients or subjects. That distance creates resentment and friction, in response to which the elite takes measures to protect itself. The more wealth and power the elite controls, the more insulation it must purchase. Disastrous mistakes are hailed as victories or are made to appear to have no consequences at all, in order to protect the aura of collective infallibility that protects ruling class power and privilege.
What happens next is pretty much inevitable in every time and place—Spain, France, Great Britain, Moghul India, you name it: Freed from the laws of gravity, the elite turns from the hard work of correct strategizing and wise policymaking to the much less time-consuming and much more pleasant work of perpetuating its own privileges forever, in the course of which endeavor the ruling elite is revealed to be a bunch of idiots and perverts who spend their time prancing around half naked while setting the territories they rule on fire. The few remaining decent and competent people flee this revolting spectacle, while the elite compounds its mistakes in an orgy of failure. The empire then collapses.
In the hopes of confirming or disproving my theory, I recently traveled out to a vineyard in Plymouth, Northern California where I found Angelo Codevilla, who along with Michael Walzer of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, is one of the few American political philosophers who combines a deep sense of the Western moral and philosophical traditions with a hard-nosed sense of how the American political system actually works. While I am naturally more inclined toward Walzer-ism, I thought it would be fair minded to give Codevilla a hearing, despite the fact that he identifies as a conservative Catholic rather than as a liberal Northeastern Jew. As a sometime student of intelligence work, I will also admit to being an attentive reader of Codevilla’s book Informing Statecraft, which together with Norman Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost offers a fair guide to the karmic evolution of the U.S. intelligence community. Codevilla’s former boss in the U.S. Senate, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had this to say about his protégé’s book:
Woodrow Wilson once spoke of the demands that would be made on Presidents in the age to come; demands of a kind that could only be met by “wise and prudent athletes, a small class.” Such is Angelo Codevilla; one of the small class of intelligence analysts who has actually been there. Read him; although I plead: Do not invariably agree!
What follows is an edited record of our conversation, which began when I arrived at the Codevilla vineyard in the evening and then continued the next morning, after the Codevillas invited me to spend the night at their house and then served me a delicious breakfast.
The Ruling Elite
David Samuels: In 2010, you wrote an article, which then became a book, in which you predicted the rise of someone like Donald Trump as well as the political chaos and stripping away of institutional authority that we’ve lived through since. Did you think your prediction would come true so quickly?
Angelo Codevilla: I didn’t predict anything. I described a situation which had already come into existence. Namely, that the United States has developed a ruling class that sees itself as distinct from the raw masses of the rest of America. That the distinction that they saw, and which had come to exist, between these classes, comprised tastes and habits as well as ideas. Above all, that it had to do with the relative attachment, or lack thereof, of each of these classes to government.
One of the things that struck me about your original piece was your portrait of the American elite as a single class that seamlessly spans both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Of course, yes. Not in exactly the same way, though; what I said was that the Democrats were the senior partners in the ruling class. The Republicans are the junior partners.
The reason being that the American ruling class was built by or under the Democratic Party. First, under Woodrow Wilson and then later under Franklin Roosevelt. It was a ruling class that prized above all its intellectual superiority over the ruled. And that saw itself as the natural carriers of scientific knowledge, as the class that was naturally best able to run society and was therefore entitled to run society.
The Republican members of the ruling class aspire to that sort of intellectual status or reputation. And they have shared a taste of this ruling class. But they are not part of the same party, and as such, are constantly trying to get closer to the senior partners. As the junior members of the ruling class, they are not nearly as tied to government as the Democrats are. And therefore, their elite prerogatives are not safe.
As a young person moving through American elite institutions, I was always struck by the marginal status of those other people you mention, Republicans. Clearly, they were not as bright as me and my friends were, which is why they were marginal, even if they had an easier path to some kind of dubious status as pseudo-intellectuals in their second- or third-rate party organs. That hardly mattered, though. The New York Times was the important newspaper, and it was a liberal newspaper. The New Yorker was an important magazine, and so it was a liberal magazine. Right-wing types might look instead to the Conservative Review of Books, published out of Mobile, Alabama, or the Jesuit review of something or another. But nobody was quaking in their boots about how such places might review your work. All the cultural capital was on the Democratic side of the ledger.
What a marvelous recitation of ruling class prejudice.
Of course, you would not have judged them to be nearly as intelligent as you folks were. And you probably didn’t imagine that others would think you less intelligent.
Let them rant and rave about their conspiracy theories and whatnot. They didn’t matter.
Well, they didn’t matter. Because of the power that you wielded, because of the institutions that you controlled.
Now let me give you an alternative. In France, with which you tell me you are acquainted, you have meritocracy in government and institutions. Meritocracy ensured by competitive exams. I, and a bunch of nonliberal democrats as myself, would be absolutely delighted if institutions like The New York Times, The Atlantic, were to open their pages to people who bested others in competitive exams. But of course, they’re not thinking at all of doing that. As a matter of fact, the institutions of liberal America have been moving away from competitive exams as fast as they know how.
In living memory, and I’m an example of that, it was for a time possible for nonliberal Democrats to get into the American foreign service, and if they did as I did, and scored number one in their class, they would have their choice of assignments. But now, you have all sorts of new criteria for admission into the foreign service, which have supposedly ensured greater diversity. In fact, what they had done was to eliminate the possibility that the joint might be invaded by lesser beings of superior intelligence.
There is a curious mélange of dispensations under which people are escorted into the grand ballroom of the good and the great, right? Category one were with high test scores. Then there were the children of people who had gone to these institutions in previous generations, whose parents have money and might be named Cabot or Lowell. Then there were the admissions categories that cover you in the opposite direction—4.8% African Americans plus at least one white person who grew up without shoes in the mountains of West Virginia. These covering cases were useful because they could be trumpeted as proof of how far and wide the net was cast. All of which went to show that the most meritorious people were all gathered together in this place, and were therefore fit to rule everyone else.
Merit as defined by what?
I have no idea.
Merit as defined by the capacity to be attractive to those at the top of the heap. In other words what you have is rightly called not meritocracy, but co-option.
Now it is one of the fundamental truths of our co-option that it results in a negative selection of elites. That each group selects people who are just a smacking below themselves, so that generation after generation, the quality of those at the top deteriorates.
Are you suggesting that the all-white Christian male elites, who largely inherited their status from their parents, were more deserving of their elevated status than their more diverse counterparts, like the people who ran American foreign policy under President Barack Obama?
I don’t know that the statesmen of the 1920s and ’30s were any more meritorious than the folks under Barack Obama, because they themselves were not selected by any meritocratic criteria, as you suggest. However, I do know, having taught college for many years, that the amount of work that was done by college students 50 years ago or more was considerably greater than the amount of work that is done by college graduates today.
As a graduate of two elite American universities, I am entirely willing to grant that point.
Them that don’t work so much don’t learn so much, usually.
There is something funny to me about your description of these people as the “elite” or a “ruling class,” though. I picture grand country homes like in the Masterpiece Theatre production of Brideshead Revisited. But if you look at your American elite, you find earnest bureaucratic types living in collegiate apartments with Ikea furniture.
No. Not Ikea furniture.
You’re talking about a class of people who are academics or lawyer-bureaucrats living on federal government and NGO salaries.
They have far more money than people who don’t have similar government attachments. The fact is that proximity to government power has meant, and does mean, more money and greater possibility.
I think about the tech oligarchs who park their multibillion-dollar fortunes offshore.
I would dispute that.
Really? How many tens of billions of dollars has Apple parked offshore? How much money do Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer and Mark Zuckerberg pay in taxes?
Apple and Bill Gates have secured their money, not so much by relocating, but by having become the biggest lobbyists in the country. That is the source of their financial security.
The point of the ruling class is precisely the confusion of public and private power. This is, in fact, this is becoming in fact a corporate state. Which by the way was pioneered by one of my former countrymen by the name of Benito.
So, when you’re talking about the ruling class, you’re positing a continuum between the Silicon Valley oligarchs with their hundred-billion-dollar fortunes and these public employee and NGO types.
I am indeed. That is the meaning of the word party. The Democratic Party is in fact composed of the very people that you are talking about.
Parties are by nature coalitions, each part of which benefits from the other. But they share certain things in common. One of them is contempt for Americans who are outside of their ranks.
You call those contemptible people the “country party.”
Precisely. Here, I’m borrowing an 18th-century British term.
I thought it was a good term because it brings to mind country music.
That too. Have you ever been to Branson, Missouri? Do you even know what it is?
I gather it’s neither Aspen nor Hollywood.
Branson, Missouri, is an entertainment center, larger in every way than Hollywood. It is located in Branson, Missouri, in the Ozarks. It is one of the homes of country music stars and starlets. It’s a huge complex of every kind of family entertainment, from bass fishing to theater, music, museums, anything you can imagine. Now the fact that you have never heard of it typifies the limitations of the ruling class.
My oligarchical snobbery.
No, no, no. You haven’t even risen to that.
I’m a piker. I bet $5 on the trifecta at the dog track.
It typifies the limitations of the ruling class mind, not even to understand that over which you are lording it.
So, what role do the poor and disadvantaged people of America play in your scheme? As I’m sure you understand, the reason we members of the elite class accumulate so much money and power is to be good allies for those who are less fortunate than we are. At least that’s what they teach my children in these schools that cost $35,000 a year.
You certainly do teach them that. It is a youthful pretense. It is a pretense to which the Roman patricians did not stoop.
But eventually they did, right? Constantine got them. The nobles all made public displays of their Christian charity.
No, no, go back. The Roman patricians call these unfortunates clients. Their relationship with their clients is precisely your relationship with the unfortunate and the poor. They are your pawns, the people whose votes you take.
So, when I express my sincere concern about transgender rights, you would presumably accuse me of manufacturing a new category of clients—and at the same time, a new class of bigots for me to self-righteously oppose.
You are not manufacturing a class, or rather you are exploiting that class’ weakness to turn that class into clients.
Most of all, what you are giving them—which really in a sense they crave more than anything else—is a sense of grievance against the rest of America. Grievance is the handle by which you push these pawns into your cultural wars.
What an ungenerous way to describe my noble instinct to help the less fortunate. Do the less fortunate truly have nothing to be aggrieved about, here in America?
Whatever they have to be aggrieved about, that grievance serves your instrumental purpose. Their grievance is your happiness. If they didn’t have a grievance, you’d try to manufacture it. Their having a grievance is an occasion for you to, to sharpen it, to scratch it, and to make it more relevant to them than it otherwise would be.
So, what exactly does the authority of the beneficent class I am supposedly part of, and which you seem to abhor, rest upon? There is the inherent rightness of my views, of course, which is proven by science—
Well, no. It is founded upon your will to power.
But look at all the wonderful benefits we elitists have to offer, like Davos in the wintertime. Why shiver out in the cold, Angelo?
Let me crib my response to you. Verily, verily I say unto thee, they have their reward. Do people in your class know where that comes from?
I’m a Jew, so I get a mulligan on quotations from the New Testament.
I read the first part of the Bible as well as the second, so you ought to read the second as well as the first.
So people have insisted to the Jews throughout our history.
Now tell me: How does your eccentric description of the American elites square with what we know to be the American democratic system? Congress makes the laws. The president of the United States is in charge of the executive functions of government. And then there’s the Supreme Court, which makes sure everything’s constitutionally kosher.
What you are describing is a kind of semiconspiratorial extraconstitutional elite superstructure whose actions do not accord with American civics textbooks or what I read in the newspaper.
Thank you! Right over the plate.
You are describing, and the textbooks describe, what used to be the American system of government, which has not existed since the late 1930s. The last attempt to revive that system, to make it rise up out of the overlay of administrative agencies that the New Deal built, was the Supreme Court of Schechter Poultry vs. the United States, 1935, the essence of which decision was to say that a legislative power cannot be delegated. Were that maxim to be enforced, the FAA, the FCC, and on and on, all of these agencies would cease to exist because they are, quite literally, unconstitutional. Now the Supreme Court has held them to be constitutional under the fiction that they are in fact merely filling in the interstices of laws. However, your average law passed by Congress these days consists almost exclusively of grants to these agencies to do whatever it is they wish.
Which is why, when Nancy Pelosi said of Obamacare that we would only know what it contained after it was passed, she was entirely correct. She was describing the way the American government works, which is in fact, to use your words, a vast conspiracy between the best lawyers on the outside and the best lawyers on the inside of government. They call each other, both on the inside and the outside, stakeholders. And the rest of us are what, scumbags?
Deplorables, yes. But we’re not stakeholders, we who are neither regulators nor regulated entities, but rather ordinary people. We are not parties to this covenant.
There’s a lecture given by James Wilson, the signer of the Declaration of Independence and the head of the first American law school, about the difference between American law and law everywhere else in the Western world. Elsewhere, law came from power. In America, positive law will be valid only if it was in accordance with the laws of nature and nature’s god.
But that’s not the basis of the revolt of the deplorables, or the country party, as you call it.
The basis of the revolt is simple. We realize that you hate us and therefore we hate you back. And we will take anybody, not that we found this man who fits our description, because Donald Trump didn’t fit anybody’s description of what they wanted. But we will take anybody who’ll take a swing at you.
Which is why I originally wrote at the back of that essay, that this revolution would be for the better or the worse. Because of the urgency that the country class felt. For getting out of all of this.
You seem to have had a marvelous life, though.
Fraught with all manner of difficulties. I had several job offers just as I was finishing my comps, and then I got drafted. By the time I came out of the service, there were no jobs to be had. And so first I worked at a jerkwater college in Pennsylvania. Too awful for words, I got out of there, but I couldn’t find anything else. So I did the only thing that I could do, which is to pass exams. I got into the foreign service. And then from there to the Hill and then to Stanford to the Hoover Institution and then to Boston. While I was on the Hill, I also taught ancient and modern political thought in Georgetown.
I probably would have done better for myself and my family if I stayed in the foreign service. Or, in the depths of my depression I got admitted to Berkeley Law school. But hey, you’re right. I have absolutely nothing to complain about.
You got to write. You got to think. You got to see the kinds of things that were going to feed your writing.
I got to teach a lot of students, several of them are teaching right now. And they’re doing good work. Books, we’ll see. I don’t think I’m going to write another book because the last one I wrote, hell of a good book, didn’t sell very much. But who knows. If I get some time off of the vineyard here, and I don’t get too many irrigation systems going wrong or things like that, I’ll write some more.
The Rise of the Surveillance State
David Samuels: You have some real knowledge of how the American intelligence community thinks and operates, from your days as a staffer working for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Angelo Codevilla: Senate staffer in control of the intelligence budget. My senator was the chairman of the Budget Subcommittee of the Intelligence Committee. Which means that the budgets came through him and therefore through me. And back then we had markups and we could punish those who were not forthright with us, and we did.
How do you understand the seemingly unchecked growth of this globe-spanning American surveillance apparatus, and how do you understand the danger of that apparatus being turned to domestic political purposes?
There’s always danger inherent in secrecy. And you know secrecy of course is central to intelligence operations. Secrecy most often is used not for the good of the operation, but to safeguard the reputations of those who are running the operations.
The agencies, like all bureaucracies, have always tried to aggrandize themselves, build their reputations, in order to make and spend more money. Get more high-ranking positions. Get more post-retirement positions for their people in the industries that support them. They’ve done exactly what bureaucrats in other agencies have done, neither more nor less.
But the business they’re in, which involves surveillance, is uniquely dangerous, because surveillance is inherently a political weapon. Inherently so. And there is never any lack of appetite for increasing the power of surveillance, and for increasing the reach of surveillance.
Fortunately, especially in my time on the Hill, we had pretty good resistance against bureaucratic attempts to increase the reach of government surveillance over the rest of the country.
Then along came 9/11, and congressmen, senators, who didn’t know any better, were rather easily persuaded, and for that matter Presidents—George W. Bush being exhibit number one—were very easily persuaded, that giving the agencies something close to carte blanche for electronic surveillance would help to keep the country safe. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was amended in 2008 to accommodate the practices which had evolved extralegally under George Bush, which essentially allowed the agencies to wiretap at will, so long as they claimed that this was for foreign intelligence purposes. In this regard, they claimed that what they were doing was within the spirit, if not the letter, of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which stated that any warrantless collection of electronic intelligence, bugging and other means of collection in finding intelligence, could capture the communications of U.S. persons, only incidentally in the course of capturing the communications of foreign targets.
The 2008 amendments legalized this practice, and added the capacity of the agencies to compel communications companies to help upstream collection of emails etcetera, which would then be recorded. The act, rather the amendment, contains an even longer list of apparent restrictions on how these intercepts of Americans may be used. But these restrictions are basically for show because, essentially, once the foreign intelligence surveillance court authorized a particular operation the practical means of judicial review of what has happened, of how it is being carried out, are so complicated as to be unworkable. And besides, what the hell do judges know about the substance of these things?
Therefore, to get to the point of your question, this increased power and lax attitude conserving it posed a temptation to use these tools for the convenience of the administration in power, which was made much more likely by the increasing identification of the senior ranks of the intelligence community with your ruling class. To the point that these people, being ordinary sentient human beings, believe what the people at the top of their class are saying about the opposition.
We are good, and they are bad.
We are good and these opponents of ours, which mean to take over our positions, are bad people, they are dangerous to the country, and therefore why not look for every possible means of keeping them out of office?
You were directly involved in the drafting of the original FISA law in 1978.
In the aftermath of the Church Committee revelations, yes?
Right. Now you use that term “the Church Committee” in the context that it was something that was antagonistic to the intelligence business. It was not. The Church Committee was a joint operation between, let’s call it “the left” inside the intelligence community, specifically the CIA, and their friends on the Hill. The result of it was that the left component of that bureaucracy has control of the CIA now.
The drafting of FISA was a cooperative enterprise between the Democratic majority, at that point, of Congress, the staffers being all Church Committee staffers, every one of them. And the ACLU. What I’m calling the establishment left. They were the drafters.
But the impetus of the drafting came from the FBI, primarily, and secondarily from the CIA, the NSA. The reason for their pressure was that the left had sued individual members of the FBI for having wiretapped them during the Vietnam War, in their communications with North Vietnam, communist Czechoslovakia, the KGB, and so on. Now they didn’t like that, and they wanted to make sure that nothing like that ever happened again.
So the point of FISA from the standpoint of the left was to keep that from happening again. The point of FISA from the standpoint of the FBI etcetera was never to be in a position to be sued again.
Right. A judge signed it. So now it’s legal.
Right. What the FBI etcetera demanded was preauthorization. We will not do any wiretapping unless it is preauthorized. Unless we are ipso facto clean.
Now the objections to FISA were primarily of a constitutional kind, mainly that wiretapping for national security was an inherent part of presidential power. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. And that was a true objection.
I however made a different objection, although I agreed with the constitutional objection. I said that pre-authorization, pre-clearance of wiretapping, would be an unendurable temptation for people in the agencies to do whatever the hell they wanted. They would be exempt from the prudence that the fear of being sued would impose.
My objection caught the eye of the American Bar Association at the time, which organized a debate on that subject at the University of Chicago Law School, with me on one side, and a local law professor by the name of Antonin Scalia on the other.
Scalia took the position that the danger, which I described, which he found real, was minor compared to the need to get the agencies doing their job vigorously. We see how the future turned out.
I must note that Scalia is a southern Italian. And I am a northerner.
When you saw the Snowden revelations about Stellar Wind and these other collection programs which then were retroactively legalized—what was your response?
“What else is new?”
Along with the impetus of 9/11, do you feel that the technology itself fundamentally—
Sure. Technology itself increased the possibilities. And it would have taken real self-restraint for people to say, “No. We could do this, but we won’t.”
We fear the future threat to the constitutional order.
We ought not to have such powers.
Please remove me from temptation, said no one, ever.
Well as a matter of fact, Christians do “lead us not into temptation” all the time.
You do say “lead us not into temptation,” but I am not aware of the Christian prayer that says “please take away the chocolate cake while I’m in the middle of eating it.”
Well, St. Augustine said exactly that, you know, “Lord make me pure, but not yet.”
Are Assange and Snowden heroes or villains?
David Samuels: I was an early and avid supporter of Julian Assange, who is now the devil for both the Democratic and Republican elite factions and appears to have vanished into a dark hole. But I have always defended him, because I felt that at the heart of his project, and no one else’s project, was a fundamental insight into how information was controlled and moves in the modern surveillance state, and how to confront it using the actual tools that are now in play.
When people said, that’s not journalism, I have always looked at them and said, “Yeah, it is. Or at least, it’s more like journalism than most of what passes now for journalism. It is a method for making public the fundaments of how the country is actually being governed.” I don’t know how you’re supposed to have a democratic society without that kind of transparency into the bureaucracies that spy on us and lie about it—and have turned a supine press into these pathetic hand puppets.
If you look at the universe of government bureaucrats and contractors and all the rest, there are now well more than a million Americans with some form of top secret or higher security clearance. Now I can accept that something is properly a secret if only five people know it, or if 40 people know it, or even 400 people. But there is no such thing as a secret that is shared by 1 million people. That is an anti-democratic exercise of power by a bureaucracy.
Angelo Codevilla: I agree with everything you said, up until the time you got to numbers. Because military operations involve a lot of people. Some intelligence operations are essentially military operations which put people’s lives at risk. The line must be drawn where the military is involved.
However, every word you said concerning Julian Assange, I agree with. Every last word.
Did you understand Edward Snowden to be a knowing Russian agent? As someone who was used and manipulated by the Russians?
I do not know. What is fairly clear is that Snowden entered government service with the idea of doing something like what he did, which certainly removes him from the category of whistleblower. He is certainly no innocent.
But regardless of his motivation, I am glad that he existed. And I’m glad that he did what he did.
The United States does not suffer, and has never suffered, from a lack of knowledge about the rest of the world on the basis of which to make foreign and defense policy. OK? And that is a fundamental fact. And because of that, all the fancy arguments that you must sacrifice this and that for the sake of intelligence, I think are false.
One of the minor scandals that startled me in the late Obama/early Trump interregnum was the unmasking scandal, which struck me as much more significant than people seemed willing to credit at the time. I mean, the fact that someone leaked an intercept to David Ignatius may be a crime, but it was hardly news to me. I mean, people leak stuff all the time. That’s how Washington works.
What struck me as much more significant was the defense that “oh, actually most of these unmasking requests came from Samantha Power, in her job as U.N. ambassador.” And then it turned out it wasn’t her sitting at her desk all day long unmasking hundreds of names of U.S. citizens. It was someone she deputized in her office. She didn’t even know about these requests, or most of them, or so she claimed.
It was news to me that ordinary low-level bureaucrats and political appointees now sit at their desks all day reading raw intercepts targeting American civilians, collected under the pretext of gathering foreign intelligence. A 26-year-old assistant can sit there all day long reading your email, based on the three-hop rule. I don’t think that’s what—
What the authors of the FISA had in mind.
Authors of FISA, authors of the U.S. Constitution, you can pick your authors. Yet that has became normative reality, right?
Look. Most people who have a title in Washington don’t do their work. There’s always the chief assistant to the assistant chief, they’re the ones who do the work. And so yeah, they get deputized.
So now we have this surveillance apparatus that Snowden, James Risen, and others have detailed, which provides daytime reading material for bored 26-year-old assistants, which means that material can easily be repurposed for—
Any purpose under the sun.
That is a very powerful weapon for this bureaucracy to have.
That’s the point.
When Jeff Bezos Has Dinner With the CIA
David Samuels: The guys working in the White House whether under Obama or Trump aren’t writing the code for their surveillance systems. Neither are the nice people at the CIA. They’re all writing checks to Silicon Valley.
I saw the other day that Jeff Bezos, who’s one of the most dedicated champions of democracy and the free press in America, the guy who says that democracy dies in darkness, I saw that his company, Amazon, provides all the data storage for the CIA. Now as a reporter and as a citizen, that makes me confident—
Angelo Codevilla: Ha, ha.
—that Jeff Bezos’ newspaper, The Washington Post, is reporting without fear or favor every day on Jeff Bezos and all these CIA and DoD contracts with Amazon, because they have such a strong incentive to make sure that everything’s on the up and up. And by the way, Amazon is definitely not listening in on your private conversations through the listening devices—in the form of digital assistants like Alexa, Echo speakers, and doorbells with spy cameras in them—that it is installing by the millions in American homes.
May I give you a quick answer to your larger question?
It depends on who goes to dinner with whom. That’s how Washington works.
That can’t be your answer, so let’s take it from the top. There is a company called Amazon, which now has monopolistic position A, in the field of books and all printed material distributed in America, and B, in a whole host of other industries ranging from diapers to blow-up pool toys. It looks like a classic monopoly trust. You have Google, which has a near-monopoly over the search function, the leading portal to most information on the internet, and holds a monopoly on search advertising. You have Facebook, which controls 78% of entries onto the internet now through their platform. So, you have these three monopolistic companies, right, one of which also owns the only major newspaper in Washington, D.C., and which control the movement of information throughout the entire society.
Now, another arm of Silicon Valley controls storage and access to the information that the government agencies gather on the society. And all of the money earned from both these pursuits flows back to these people, who are richer than any class of people in America since the robber barons. They got so rich by sucking out the life’s blood from five dozen different industries that employ people and destroying the 20th-century press, which played a key role in maintaining our democracy.
Now I look at that, and I say the power is out there. You look at it and you say no, my lad. It’s about who has dinner with who in Washington.
Oh no, no, no. You misunderstand me. The ruling class transcends Washington. Part of it is in Silicon Valley, it’s in every major university town in America. It’s in Sacramento. And then you ask, what is it that ties it together?
Right, the poor associate professor of gender studies with his or her little espresso machine.
The poor associate professor of gender studies, number one is not so poor. Number two, she gets her living from the same partisan connection that Jeff Bezos does. She is part of the same party as Jeff Bezos, who has God knows how many billions.
A large fortune.
But his power as you have pointed out substantially consists of his connection with government. Although I must say one thing contrary to an absolutist view of the ruling class. That the four major trusts that you mentioned are in large part—have in large part grown naturally, organically. They’re securing themselves by government power. But the government did not force anybody to shop with Amazon.
Ah! As a matter of fact, Google and Facebook secured their monopolies and their ability to commit massive and ongoing copyright violations thanks to a little-known provision of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed by Congress in 1996 in response to a series of moral panics that engulfed America at around that time. Those included the McMartin nursery school witchcraft case—
Oh ho ho ho ho. I remember that.
There was a generalized hysteria about pedophiles running nursery schools and satanic rituals involving small children. And this became part of a hysteria so significant that Congress had to pass a law. And the law specifically targeted this phenomenon which was almost entirely imaginary, even if in a few specific instances it might have also been real, as is always the case. Except for the Jews baking matzo with the blood of Christian children, of course. We didn’t actually do that.
No. Matzo tastes bad enough as it is.
So the Communications Decency Act was set up to prevent pedophiles from sharing pictures of child sexual abuse over the newfangled internet. In response to which, two farsighted members of congress, Ron Wyden and Christopher Cox, who fancied themselves experts on the digital frontier, wrote into the Communications Decency Act a section stating that internet providers shall not be considered to be publishers and that if you provide internet service or platforms or hosting you are not subject to any of the liabilities that traditionally attach to publishing information.
Now, all of a sudden, thanks to the wisdom of the U.S. Congress, two classes of publishers were created. One class, traditional publishers, had to spend a lot of money on fact checkers, editors, lawyers, and other people because they could be held legally responsible for the information that they published in their newspapers. Another class of publishers, internet publishers, like Google at the time and Facebook as it emerged, were free from all of these potential torts. So Facebook or Google could put up any damn thing they wanted—
Yeah, except the fact that Google and Facebook supposedly exercise no control.
That’s clearly a lie, especially now. They are obviously not the telephone company.
Very interesting. At which point, one can challenge that exemption.
Except it’s now too late. They ate the 20th-century American press.
Let me give you the tiniest, tiniest glimmer from the margins, the very, very remote margins, of all of this, so you can understand my perspective.
Q: There is a dream that unites progressives and bureaucrats and wealthy technologists. And where does that dream come from?
A: It’s a dream peculiar to this class. Other classes have been united by different dreams.
Q: Is it a substitute for religion?
When I started working for the Senate, some folks at the agency figured out that I wasn’t a run-of-the-mill staffer. So I was visited by one of the old boys who took me up to the director’s office—the director wasn’t there at the time. He took me up via the director’s elevator, he had a key. And showed me all around and was very, very clubby with me. Then they took me to his house, which is overlooking the Potomac, with these large wolfhounds sitting about. And essentially, he said the equivalent of “all this could be yours.”
My son, if you play the game.
If you play the game. I said to myself, “Hmmmm, what did the Lord say to all this?”
But it really is a matter of who has dinner with whom. I have worked in Washington long enough to know that people would sell their souls for invitations to be at certain tables. To be allowed to speak with this person or that. In the end, it’s all social.
And how do you become social? You express the same thoughts, you have the same tastes. You vacation in the same places. You love the same loves, you hate the same hates.
This is a very Italianate explanation.
No, it’s not. You have the wrong idea about Italy. I’m from Northern Italy. I believe this is a hardheaded explanation of a soft but powerful reality.
These are all people who are connected to the power of government.
Either physically, i.e. economically, or emotionally—power. The dream of sharing power. The gender studies professor not only gets her money eventually from government, but she dreams of being part of a world-transforming enterprise.
Here, I agree with you. There is a dream that unites progressives and bureaucrats and wealthy technologists. And where does that dream come from?
It’s a dream peculiar to this class. Other classes have been united by different dreams.
Is it a substitute for religion?
Is that its primary emotional charge?
Well, I don’t know about primary. Look, the primary element is, as we Christians were taught, pride. That is the sin of sins. There is nothing that moves human beings quite so much as the desire to be on top of other human beings.
It’s interesting. I’m a Jew. But there are things that are lacking in our tradition, just as there are things that are very well developed in our tradition. You know, decent food can be lacking in our traditions.
However, not in Italy.
Oh, my God. The Jewish food in Italy is fantastic.
The Jewish food in Italy is fabulous.
I see that more as a reflection on Italy than the Jews.
Henry Kissinger Meets the Demon Emperor
David Samuels: Judaism as it has existed for the last 2,000 years is an exilic tradition. The religion took the place of both the rituals in the Temple and the state itself. It was all ritualized. So for a 2,000-year-old tradition that’s remarkably elaborated and rich and subtle in so many areas, you have remarkably little discussion of political power—including the sins related to power, the proper ways to exercise power, all that was outside the experience of these people because they were politically powerless. Religion took the place of statecraft.
Israel hasn’t necessarily helped. Why do Jews want political power? To keep themselves from being exterminated. Why does a Jewish state want a strong army? Because if you don’t have one, people are going to wipe you out. In the Middle East, that’s a pretty ironclad rule. These are not very subtle or complicated ideas.
Angelo Codevilla: But there are plenty of Jews in Europe who are very well acquainted with the theory and practice of exercising power.
Of course, but—
But these Jews were not real Jews. I mean, they were not religious Jews. They happened to be Jewish but they were primarily socialists or whatever.
Or Henry Kissinger.
What a fraud.
He is an egomaniac and he is highly manipulative and he is a flatterer and a courtier. But Henry Kissinger sure ain’t dumb.
Oh no. He’s very smart. Very smart.
And one has the sense, that if he had really spent the time working on a biography of Metternich, that it would have been fantastic, too.
Yes! Look, the man never had time to be a scholar. He was taken up immediately into the world of conferences and power. And he navigated it masterfully.
Plus, he had the emotional capacity to get down on his knees and pray to Jesus with Richard Nixon after five whiskeys. And you look at Trump and you’re like, that’s what’s needed here too. Right?
What would Kissinger do with Trump? Who knows. This man Trump is something else.
I have a name for Trump: The demon emperor. Because I feel like he’s like a figure that you’d find in some Chinese chronicle, right? There was a time of terrible chaos, social disintegration, and then a Mongol invasion. They breeched the Great Wall and did this and that. And in those moments, the Demon Emperor would arise and take power. He had the head of a pig and the body of man, and he was known for his vile excesses and the terrible rampages that he’d go on, and his desecrations of ancient scrolls. Everyone bemoaned him.
But there was a certain virtue, at times, in certain moments, to having the demon emperor around. Yes, he raped 150 virgins in surrounding villages and all their families were very upset and there’s no reason he should have done that, and he defiles the very ground he stands on, and indeed, no one of noble birth would consent to marry his daughter. At the same time, he defeated the Mongols.
So, the real question isn’t whether Trump is vile, but rather what has he actually done, aside from being vile?
Putting a parenthesis in the conversation, talking about Chinese epics. Are you familiar with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms?
You should be. This is a book that describes the tradition between—or rather I should say the end of the Han Dynasty around 200 A.D. The book was written over maybe 200 years. And it is partly prose, partly poetry. And it’s considered one of the great classics of Chinese literature. The Chinese government a couple years ago did a—condensed it into 95, 45-minute TV episodes. Beautifully acted, with gorgeous costume. With English translations that read something between Shakespeare and Thucydides. Captivating.
I started watching it, I couldn’t stop. I mean my poor wife was left alone. And it conveyed as deep an insight into Chinese character as I’ve ever seen. To get Westerners to empathize with Chinese characters takes some doing. And you can download it, it’s free. The Chinese government has made sure you can download it for free.
The Progressive High Church Mass
David Samuels: Where does the ethos of a class come from?
Angelo Codevilla: Here I speak with the prejudices of an academician. Because the ethos of the academy changed, evolved. And what drove the change was the growing contempt of professors for our civilization. And you Jews ought not to feel that you are any less the enemy of these people than we Christians.
I should say the defining feature of the ruling class is a certain attitude. And that attitude developed in the academy, and that attitude became uniform throughout the country because of the uniform academy. The uniformity of the academy transformed itself into the uniformity of the ruling class.
Because that was the institution that credentialed the otherwise uncultured American masses?
It credentialed the mind and the habits. The habits of the heart. It credentialed the habits of the heart. The habits of conversation. The habits of work. The habits of logic. The habits period.
Can you imagine a bright kid coming in contact with that kind of intellectual fraud? The smartest ones will say, “hey, I don’t want to be part of this.” He’ll do something else. He won’t be taken in. Which means that this class will continue to degrade itself.
Just as it would be wrong to understate the importance of who has dinner with whom in Washington, it would be wrong to understate the extent to which the class you dislike is moved by an idea: The rational scientific functioning of the bureaucratic state. That’s their God. I may find this attachment emotionally bizarre, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
You’re saying the same thing in two different ways. Why is it that they have dinner together? It is that they believe that they share something terribly important. And that is precisely what they believe to be their stewardship of all things good.
Once upon a time, thus moved, they believed that they were holier than thou. Now they simply believe that they’re trendier than thou. In other words, they share the most valuable thing, which is not devotion to God but devotion to their own corporate mission. Their own corporate status. Status and mission. Status being the priests of the salvific religion of science and progress.
Yeah, that’s right. There is a monkish sense of devotion.
You’re going far too far with using the word “monkish.”
They exist! These people exist.
Oh no, no, no. They exist but they’re very few.
I taught in Boston for many years. And believe it or not, I put my kids in the highest-ranking schools in Boston, and I had to go to a parent meetings and school celebrations. And these were, in fact, secular masses. With, including, believe it or not, the breaking of bread.
Bread! Simple bread, passing it around. There’s a kind of faux simplicity. You have fake Puritans too.
Now the idea of the worship of the corporate bureaucratic state, right? You have a religion that is capable of attracting, if not the adherence of the majority of the country, then maybe 40% of them.
No, no, no, no, no. Not 40%. This is an elite attraction. Which attracts people who naturally, very naturally, want to rise above others.
Again, as a kind of professor, I came across hundreds of young people who very naturally ask the question, how can I rise in life?
That is my job. I am young, I am supposed to rise.
I am supposed to rise in my life, how can I do that? And I in good conscience explain to them that the paths are there and the ladders are being provided. And they will take you to these places. You will, however, have to adapt yourself to the mindset of these folks.
Now, if you insist on being independent minded, don’t bother. But if you do insist on being independent minded, also realize that these ladders will not be available to you.
A lot of kids will come and tell me how much they enjoy my classes and how much they like the ancients, the way I taught the ancients. And I said to them: “Look. There is no future for you in following the likes of me. I cannot give you the kinds of internships and prospects for employment and writing that others can.”
But they also were successful it seems to me, in inculcating parts of their faith in what you would describe as their client base. Right?
No, no, no, no, no. Clients, certainly not.
They win elections in some places.
Sure, they win elections. Not through faith but through pure clientelism. And don’t forget, especially nowadays, more and more nowadays, by fostering hate, by fostering resentment against others. If you are on our side, you’re on the side of the good. But more important than that, on the other side are people who hate you.
This is especially true with regard to blacks. They want to put you back in chains! What utter nonsense.
Jews are subjected to the same kinds of disciplinary activity. Don’t you understand that the right wingers are all secret neo-Nazis who are planning to pack you off to the gas chambers? I’m an FDR-type liberal, but I find those attempts to trigger some fearful reflex to be incredibly demeaning and offensive.
People believe mistakenly that Jews are especially smart. American Jews have proven to be dumb, politically. What is political stupidity? Political stupidity means not knowing which side your bread is buttered on.
Jews have taken to believing the leftist propaganda that the Christians are somehow their enemies. Where in fact, there is no group that is friendlier to Jews in America.
The more Christian you are, the more let us say pro-Jewish we tend to be. And why? Well for this very simple reason. That if you read the Bible, you don’t grow up rooting for the Philistines.
American Jews come primarily from Poland and from Russia, where the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches often played a very nasty political role and also preached a pretty harsh supersessionist doctrine. They were not friendly to Jews. Now that’s very different from American Protestantism, and also American Catholicism.
The Christian faith has always been an outgrowth of Judaism. That’s not contention, that is a fact.
Any group that has a scar, you can press on the scar and profit.
Well, yeah. But Jews are supposed to be smart.
It’s embarrassing to be the object of this kind of primitive manipulation. And both sides do it. You know how they really talk about you, you know what they say behind your back. They’re gonna make your kids bow down to Jesus! Now vote for me.
Working on the Hill, I would see these Jewish lobbyists breaking their heads against the left. Whereas if they’d gone to conservatives, they would have been greeted with open arms and gotten exactly what they wanted.
The Crucifixion of Jonathan Pollard
David Samuels: You were working on the Hill when Jonathan Pollard was thrown in jail for life to cover up the crimes of Aldrich Ames and others.
Angelo Codevilla: Oh, that’s a really big subject.
Would you say that the treatment of Pollard happened independently of the fact that he was a Jew?
Oh heavens, no. No, no, no. Since you’re asking this question to me, you obviously have read that I did what I could to champion his release. Having nothing to do with the fact that he was a Jew, and everything with the obvious falsehood of the accusations on the basis of which he was sentenced.
He certainly committed espionage. And rightly merited prison for a couple of years. Instead he got a life sentence. Which ended up to be 30-something years. Why? Certainly not on the basis of the indictment. I mean, he was accused and pleaded guilty to precisely what he did.
What I know, which a lot of other people did not know, is that given his clearances, he could not possibly have done the things on the basis of which he was sentenced. It was simply impossible for him to do that. And every time I pointed that out to people in intelligence, they would make an argument which was untenable. Mainly that the revelation of facts in reports is tantamount or can easily lead to the revelation of sources and methods.
Nonsense! The compartmentation of American intelligence is premised precisely on the notion that this is not possible. Or extremely difficult. And although it is theoretically possible, one would have to show precisely how it did happen. And nobody even tried to do that.
Furthermore, Pollard was sentenced on the basis of a memorandum, which is yet secret. For our judicial system, to sentence anyone on the basis of any secret proceeding is about as un-American as anything yet.
Have you read that memorandum?
Did anyone ever offer you a summary of its contents?
Well, sure! But it had been only in the most general terms, to which I would say, oh? Show me how that’s possible.
You know, if somebody says, well and by the way, the snowballs in hell were not melting. I’d say, what? How is that happening?
How do you understand his treatment?
Oh horrible, horrible.
No, I’m asking why.
Why? Well, OK. The CIA has all kinds of social-political prejudices. The first thing I learned that I did not expect to learn when I went to my job on the Hill was just how controlled and defined by certain social norms the CIA is. That it is a kind of club that secures itself through co-option. And that co-option involves the furtherance of a whole bunch of prejudices.
So, the straightforward political prejudices are, in no particular order: liberalism, prejudice in favor of the Arabs. You probably are not aware of the corporate prejudices that existed in the favor of the Soviet Union. And they were very, very powerful at CIA, as opposed to DIA or NSA.
To give you an example of these political, pro-Arab prejudices and how they work, when specifically relevant to the Pollard case: When Israel bombed Iraq, the CIA came to us and they formed this committee, and railed at the Israelis for having spoiled this wonderful relationship we had with this wonderful man, Saddam Hussein. I remember at the time sitting next to Pat Moynihan who gave me the elbow and chuckle.
I would say that the majority, by far, of the intelligence committee, laughed at—this is Bobby Ray Inman. And they were cheering on Israel. Hey, bomb more!
But CIA was coming to notify us that in fact they were cutting off the flow of certain intelligence to Israel. And they were doing so in great anger. Now these items of intelligence which were being cut off were precisely the items of intelligence that Jonathan Pollard supplied to them.
They were hurt!
They were hurt! They were hurt and they took it out on Pollard. How far did this attitude which I just described blend over into anti-Semitism? I don’t know.
But if I were a Jew, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to think that it did. And even though I’m not, I sure would have my suspicions.
So that’s the essence of my attitude, attitude and subsequent involvement, such as it was, in the Pollard case. I mean I saw number one, that the reason for the CIA’s anger was wrong. And in fact, the United States had every reason to cheer what the Israelis did. And most Americans did, as a matter of fact. And later on, the subsequent administration thanked the Israelis for having done precisely what they did.
So the CIA was wrong in that regard. And they were doubly wrong in convincing that imbecile, Caspar Weinberger, to write that un-American memorandum. And that judge should be damned by his profession for having paid attention to it. You don’t sentence people on the basis of a secret memorandum. You just don’t do that in America.
The basis for his sentencing is still classified. So who can say for sure if his sentence was unjust.
Well, no. We can say. It doesn’t matter that it’s classified, because it alleges something that couldn’t possibly have happened. You can classify it, but that doesn’t make it any truer or any likelier to be true. In fact, it makes it less likely to be so.
Secrecy and the Rule of Law
David Samuels: Now this opens up the last subject that I wanted to talk about at some length. Which is, what happens when secret intelligence becomes the basis for actions within the domestic sphere. This seems to me like a gathering storm cloud over this country and the freedoms that most of us still believe are ours.
Angelo Codevilla: Right, quite so. Two things happen. The first bad, the second worse.
The first is that policy or action made on the basis of information that is not generally available tends to be bad policy. Secret policy doesn’t get the kind of scrutiny that ordinary policy does. And the people who make it do not themselves feel the necessity to be as careful at all that they do as they otherwise would be. So you get sloppy policymaking. You get people riding hobby horses. Not thinking through what they’re doing. And you end up with unintended consequences.
The second is that policymaking on the basis of information not generally available allows one to cut out one’s opponent, allows one to make policy partisan. More partisan than it would otherwise be.
Would you say that the Iraq War was an example of that?
Yes, in the following way. And we’re talking of course about two Iraq wars and then the criticism applies to both in a different way.
The first Iraq War, that is the original invasion of Iraq, happened because the president was under entirely reasonable pressure to do something serious, something definitive, about terrorism. And he concluded in his heart of hearts that overthrowing the regime would have been most vocal in its advocacy of anti-Americanism, and anti-American terrorism, would eliminate one of the major sources of terrorism, and also send a healthy message to other regimes that were in their own ways fostering terrorism.
But, when the subject was moving about inside the highest levels of government, great resistance was encountered to this. And the Bush administration found itself searching for a rationale for that invasion that would minimize opposition from within the government and the ruling class in general. And they sent up a whole bunch of trial balloons in that regard, and the trial balloon that got the least resistance was the trope about the weapons of mass destruction. About which the evidence was always terribly sketchy. But they found that to be the most bureaucratically tenable explanation, and so they went ahead with it. That was a mistake made intramurally, which compromised the eventual support of the larger population.
So much for the first Iraq War. The second one, being the occupation, that was decided in an even less transparent manner. We know that there was intense lobbying on the part of CIA and State for the occupation. And lobbying by the Saudis for that same course. How all that interacted and how George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice and friends soldiered all of that out and came to that particular decision, we still do not know. And they ain’t about to tell us.
And so, we ended up with an occupation which would ostensibly be for the purpose of democratization, but which number one, shied away from democracy because everyone involved realized that democracy meant that the Shia ruled. So as a fact, the day-to-day effort of the occupation, the one that cost so many American lives, had nothing to do with democratization. It had everything to do with preserving a role for the Sunnis.
The U.S. government never fought that war with the intention of crushing the Sunni opposition. They never fought that war with the intention of crushing the people who were shooting at Americans. And then ended up, in fact giving up on that war and paying those very people, in what was otherwise known as the Surge.
A whole bunch of idiots, Fox News conservatives count the Surge, the so-called Surge, as a great success. Great success in what?
Again here, this is as good an example as you will find of the wages of making policy in a nontransparent manner.
There was one quote, I forget who it came from, but it came out of an interaction of one of the reasonably high-up war planners in the Defense Department and a journalist for, I think it was, The Atlantic. And the quote was that power creates its own reality. So it doesn’t matter what we say, because even if it’s not true now, by the time we’re finished we will make it true. And therefore there is no real difference between statements that are true or false, as long as we make them.
Do you have the sense that a similar attempt to manufacture reality was at play in what at this point are the still-unknown interactions between the CIA, the FBI, and the Obama White House with regard to the surveillance of Donald Trump’s associates, and the attempt to suggest some vast Putin-Trump conspiracy to game American elections, and whatnot?
I don’t think that it went that far. Or I should say, I don’t think the people involved thought about it that deeply.
I would agree.
I think what you had was a small pooling of resources to tweak the news cycle with regard to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, which then turned into something very major.
After the election.
After the election. It was, like Watergate, a minor attempt to gain marginal advantage. Which then, unintended by the people involved at the time, became something very big, which escaped everyone’s control.
I believe that there are a whole bunch of people in Washington right now who are quaking in their boots because the House Intelligence Committee has shaken loose some of the documents involved. Because in the long run there are no secrets in Washington. And one can then wonder about the quality of the people who imagined that the things they did could remain secret.
It really was a marvel. The idea was that if we all say it together long enough and we shout it loud so nothing else can be heard, then it will become the effective truth, Machiavelli’s verita effettuale. But I mean, there is a limit to this. I have some close personal friends who are more on the left, and I said to them: OK. Where’s the evidence? Who did what when to whom? Where are the quids and where are the quos? What’s going on here? And all they could say is, “Well, the investigation is going on.”
What is not clear is just how much of the reality will come into the public’s consciousness.
Whose fault is this?
The fault here is not of Democrats on the left. The fault here is of Donald Trump and his friends who have refused to enforce the most basic laws here. The most obvious one is Section 798, (18 U.S. Code), the simple comment statute. Now anybody in the intelligence business knows that this is the live wire of security law. It is a strict liability statute. It states that any revelation, regardless of circumstance or intent, any revelation period, of anything having to do with U.S. communications intelligence is punishable by the 10 and 10. Ten years in the slammer, and $10,000 fine. Per count.
Now the folks who went to The Washington Post and The New York Times in November and December of 2016 and peddled this story of the intelligence community’s conclusion that Trump and the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia, these people ipso facto violated §798.
Considering these matters are highly classified, and that the number of the people involved is necessarily very small, identifying them is child’s play. But no effort to do that has been made.
But doesn’t that failure in turn point to what is, to some extent, the root of this entire drama, which is that Donald Trump seems unfamiliar with and temperamentally at odds with the executive function that he has now assumed?
That’s certainly true. But you have to go beyond Donald Trump, to Republican power holders in general. These people far more than Donald Trump would be inclined to forbear for the sake of comity with the ruling class. And what kind of comity are we talking about? We’re talking about social comity. Because if you follow the law in this case, you end up putting former directors of CIA, FBI etcetera behind bars. They, and a whole bunch of their subordinates. Maybe a dozen people here would end up behind bars.
We’ve come to accept that certain classes of people are in fact above the law.
We have come to accept that.
The election of 2016 was precisely about whether anyone in America is above the law. The reason why so many people did not vote for Hillary Clinton is the feeling that she and her ilk were above the law, were acting as if they were above the law, which happened to be entirely true. Now the fact that the Trump administration is acting according to the same premise, i.e., that some people are above the law, is evidence that the revolution that the voters wanted in 2016 has only just begun.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.