- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Did Russia’s “troll army” steal the 2016 election? Daniel Denvir, host of Jacobin Radio’s The Dig, spoke to the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald about Russiagate, mass surveillance, and “the resistance” to Donald Trump. The following is a condensed version of their conversation.
The Politics of Russiagate
The most recent indictment charges thirteen Russian nationals, individuals and entities, with two things. One, creating fake identities for social-media usage with the intention of sowing discord in the American political landscape by disseminating inflammatory messages — sometimes supporting Bernie Sanders, sometimes supportive of Donald Trump, sometimes encouraging minorities not to vote, maligning Hillary Clinton, those sorts of things. So fake Facebook identities, fake Twitter identities, designed to make people who are actually Russian appear to be American, communicating to fellow Americans about the election with the intent, according to Mueller, of sowing discord.
Secondly, according to Mueller, they organized various political events that were designed to make it look like it was Americans who are orchestrating these events. Some of these events were anti-Hillary, some of them were pro-Trump, but then some of them were anti-Trump, including two that were held once Trump was elected. The big question is: what was the magnitude of this operation? Adrian Chen, who did the earliest work on so-called Russian troll factories, has been very adamant about the limited impact that this kind of activity has because it’s primitive and pales in comparison to the amount of money spent on messaging by political campaigns, let alone US corporations and lobbyists.
So there does seem to be a fairly small quantity of disinformation campaigns — sometimes the information was actually accurate in critiquing certain candidates or supporting others. So if you believe the indictment — and of course it hasn’t been yet proven, they’re just allegations by one prosecutor — but if it turns out to be true, it will establish that at least some Russian citizens, whose connection to the Russian government is at best murky and in some cases appears to be nonexistent, engaged in some relatively limited degree of social-media campaigning that was deceitful in its nature because of the identity of who was doing it, and according to Mueller, was designed to create discontent and discord.
That question of efficacy that you pointed to, and that Chen has been talking about, is key. Reading the New York Times breathlessly report on an Instagram account belonging to a made-up group called “Woke Blacks” posting things about Trump, as though it’s a critical intervention that may have swayed the election — it seems to me that Mueller is doing his job by investigating anyone who may have interfered with the election, and the problem is more what the mainstream media is making of that investigation.
Absolutely. I’ve seen instances where certain Twitter accounts served as the basis for major media stories about Russian interference in the election, but when you go and look at them, they have thirteen Twitter followers. Sometimes it’s that level of absurdity. Other times it’s a little more substantial, but the scope of it, when you put it into the broad context and the fact that Hillary Clinton spent a billion dollars on her campaign — Donald Trump spent, I don’t know, roughly half that, maybe two-thirds of that — is an infinitesimal, barely detectable fraction of the messaging that Americans were inundated with officially by the campaigns. Then when you factor in dark money and super PACs and ongoing nonelection propaganda, I find it extremely difficult to believe that any rational person in good faith would say that it was significant in terms of its impact.
There is a real question about how the media is treating these kinds of claims. We are at the point where there are extreme amounts of group think that the American media has fallen prey to so many times in the past, particularly when it comes to exaggerating the threat posed by whatever foreign villain is the one most in chic. Obviously the New York Times led the way in doing that with Saddam Hussein, although lots of other media outlets participated. So there is a big part of that going on. I do think it’s notable that Chen is one of the people most aggressively trying to tamp down the hyperbole surrounding this reporting since he was the one who did the report, and if anything, has the greatest incentive to be out there pounding the table saying this was the most significant story ever because he’s the one who first broke it. Admirably, he’s doing the opposite. He doesn’t want his reporting misused. He’s been very emphatic about how relatively crude, primitive, and limited this operation is, at least from what we know so far.
Obviously there are political determinants to why the media is covering the troll army in the way that it is. Something we’ve discussed before is that for some journalists and many liberal viewers and readers, this story provides a shortcut both retrospectively and prospectively, in the sense that it offers an explanation that doesn’t involve Hillary Clinton’s failings for why Trump won, and prospectively, it offers a shortcut to getting Trump out of office short of defeating him at the ballot box.
Right, in general I think we under-appreciate the extent to which the Trump victory was a traumatizing and disorienting event for most people, in part because all of us were assured by data experts that the chances were overwhelmingly high that Clinton was going to win and Trump was going to lose.
It’s also obvious that Trump, in terms of how he comports himself, is at odds with the way the American presidency has been constructed in terms of image, and the way Americans have been taught to think about their presidents. So those two factors combined to make this an extremely confusing, disorienting event that dislodged people from the certainty that they feel about how the world works and their ability to understand it. And when events like that happen, you crave an explanation that makes sense and that lets you feel like the world is safe and understandable again. And that’s what religions, for centuries, have most successfully exploited — the desire for a hard to understand complicated world that lacks explanations that are digestible … to provide those.
And why bad things happen to good people.
Exactly. It needs to make sense so people can understand the world they’re living in. We all need that, right? When we wake up in the morning, we have certainties about how the world works, I’m going to step onto the floor and the floor is going to support me and gravity is going to be in operation. So, that’s part of it — saying, “Oh, what happened here is Putin caused this to happen” gives people this kind of unifying theory to understand it.
Then there’s the scapegoating, factor — we’re all tempted to blame bad things always on other people because we evade responsibility ourselves. That’s a natural human tendency. So, if you’re a Democrat in particular, being able to say, “Oh, the reason we lost isn’t because we have fundamental flaws in our messaging or we’re totally corrupt, or we nominated a shitty candidate that everyone hated who nonetheless reflects the core values of our terrible party. It’s because Trump cheated and this autocratic villain manipulated everything.” It relieves Democrats from responsibility and guilt.
One of the strangest ironies here is Jim Comey becoming a resistance hero. A clear-headed, calm assessment of what surprise interventions impacted the 2016 election would lead with, one, Comey having that utterly inappropriate press conference smearing Hillary Clinton while announcing he wasn’t charging her and then, two, his needlessly telling Congress he was reopening investigation that went nowhere. Everyone at the time seemed to understand that both of those things were entirely inappropriate and had a negative impact. What do you make of the lionization of Comey?
If you go and look at what Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, Roby Mook, and all those people were saying in the immediate aftermath of the election about why they lost, especially Clinton, their number-one villain was not Putin or Wikileaks or the New York Times; it was Jim Comey. They were absolutely convinced that they were on their way to winning and would have won if he had not written that letter to Congress saying that the investigation had been reopened ten days or whatever it was prior to the election. Plus, Nate Silver did what he reported to be an empirical analysis in which he essentially said that was the key event that caused her defeat.
But Comey does not make a very good villain. He became a Justice Department official under George Bush but then was appointed as FBI Director by Barack Obama. He’s long been lionized in Washington as is this highly ethical FBI agent and beyond reproach in terms of his integrity.
And he has a reputation of intentionally cultivating that image.
Yeah, he’s a very shrewd operator. So he didn’t make an effective villain for the Clintons and the Democrats, even though I do think the evidence is strongest if you’re looking for an actual culprit that he played the biggest role. But by contrast, Americans have been trained for decades by a steady diet of entertainment and political propaganda to view Moscow and the Kremlin and the Russians as these incredibly threatening, nefarious enemies. So it became more effective, more attractive, and easier to shift the emphasis away from Comey onto the KGB as it were —which I know doesn’t exist, but lots of Democrats don’t know that— and that became the dominant story line.
Something in particular among liberals is this quixotic desire to believe that they can out-tough on Russia, out-natsec, out-law and order, the Right. Then all of a sudden there’ll be a “gotcha moment” and the Republican Party will collapse
There was one of the most amoral, sociopathic, and reckless articles I have ever read since I’ve been doing journalism published recently in the Washington Monthly in which the author explicitly said exactly that. He argued essentially that Democrats should fully lean into the position that we’re in a new Cold War, that the Russians are enemies, and tie the Republicans to our enemies and tell the American public over and over again that the Republicans are traitors and treasonous because they’re on the side of our enemies instead of on the side of good patriotism. His conclusion was that by tying Republicans to what the Democrats, he says, should depict as our existential grave enemy — Russia in the middle of a new Cold War — the Democrats can convince Americans that Republicans are traitors and guilty of treason and not on the side of good patriotism the way Democrats are. And through that tactic, the Democrats can regain political dominion over Republicans. That was his argument. That’s a fairly common argument now among Democrats and liberals, maybe not usually said quite so explicitly, but that is the belief. It represents the actual belief of many partisan Democrats. And it’s bad for so many reasons. It’s strategically idiotic, but beyond that, it’s incredibly immoral given the grave dangers thinking about the world that way purely to gain political advantage poses for everyone who lives on this planet.
One thing you’re pointing to is how cynical it is because it was only six years ago that a lot of these same people were cheering on Obama for chiding Mitt Romney, who called Russia the greatest threat to the United States, and Obama responded that the ‘80s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for twenty years.
As Obama put it at the time,
Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognized that al-Qaeda is a threat because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said, Russia, not al-Qaeda, you said Russia, and the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War has been over for twenty years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.
I recently debated my colleague Jim Risen, who for twenty years was a reporter for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize, and now is at the Intercept — about an article he wrote entitled “Is Donald Trump a Traitor?” We debated that article because I found it highly objectionable in many ways. One of the points I made was what you just alluded to, but it’s even beyond that: If you’re going to say the Republican Party are traitors and committed treason because they partnered with our enemies, it means that Russia by definition has to be an enemy of the United States. That’s what the Constitution requires in order for treason to be demonstrated. It’s also the colloquial definition of what a traitor is — that you help our enemies.
The problem with that is that it wasn’t just in 2012 when the leader of the Democratic Party and the President of the United States was mocking the notion that Russia is our enemy. They produced this film with like Madeline Albright and other Democratic foreign-policy luminaries saying that this is Cold War-thinking to think of Russians as our enemy, that they actually are our partner, even after everything that happened in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, including Crimea, Obama mocked the idea that Russia poses a threat to the US and was our enemy. He aggressively tried to partner with the Russians in Syria. He refused to arm anti-Russian Ukrainians on the grounds that he didn’t want to provoke conflict with Putin because it would undermine the ability of the US and the Russians to work together in areas that were of greater interest to the US, such as ISIS, terrorism, Syria, and the Iran deal. So how can you cogently accuse your political opponents of being guilty of treason for working with a country that is an enemy of the US when the leader of your party and the person who was President at the time was dismissing the idea that this country is our enemy? That’s the irony to me, that through 2016, Obama himself fought with people in both parties who were trying to get him to be more aggressive when it came to confronting Russia, on the grounds that the Russians are not our enemies and shouldn’t be thought about that way.
A lot of the criticism of your position on Russia is premised on a misrepresentation of that position. What is your position, what has it been, and what do people tend to represent it as?
This was a major part of my discussion with James Risen. He echoed this common view, which is utterly false, that I began my writing about and discussions of this Russia question by affirmatively stating that the view that Russia interfered in the election was a hoax. That’s what he called it, that I said that it was a hoax, that I believe it was a hoax, that I deny that it happened, and now over time I’ve changed my position to essentially throw up my hands and say, “I don’t really know if that happened. We just have to wait and see.”
What I have said from the very beginning was exactly the same as what I say now, which is that of course it’s possible, and even plausible, that Russia engaged in disinformation campaigns or hacked with the intention of undermining or destabilizing the US, because this is something that the Russians and the US have done to one another and to everybody else for many decades. Nobody would ever say, “Oh, this isn’t something that Vladimir Putin would do, he’s too ethical, he’s too cautious.” This is minor in the scope of what the Russians and the Americans do to one another, and have long done to one another.
Nobody rational would ever say “Oh, I don’t believe this happened.” My argument has been very simple and consistent, which is the lesson that I thought we learned from Iraq is that we shouldn’t accept inflammatory claims from the US government unless accompanied by convincing evidence that those claims are true. We shouldn’t accept them on faith, especially when they’re being laundered anonymously through media outlets, but even when they’re being issued in terms of government reports in the name of the Department of Homeland Security, that doesn’t have evidence to let us determine whether or not the claims are true. We ought to have high levels of skepticism about the truth of those claims unless evidence is available for us to look at that convinces us that those claims are true. And we just haven’t had that evidence when it comes to the core claim that Vladimir Putin ordered Russian government agents to hack the email inboxes of the DNC and John Podesta. Maybe the Mueller investigation will one day reveal that’s true, maybe it will one day reveal that Donald Trump worked with the Russians to make that happen, but thus far there’s very little evidence to no evidence that those things are true. Therefore I’m saying, and I’ve always said, not that it didn’t happen, but that we shouldn’t accept the view that we did.
The State of Surveillance
This is an exceptionally surreal moment for the politics of surveillance, which is saying a lot given the history of surveillance politics. We have Republicans complaining about the national security state violating civil liberties and Democrats defending what conservatives like to call “the deep state” as the saviors of democracy. And this just weeks after members of both parties came together to reauthorize warrantless spying and pushed back proposals for very modest safeguards. Can you explain this debate over surveillance?
In order to do that, it’s important to go back to what happened in the aftermath of the Snowden reporting and the controversies it caused, particularly over domestic spying in the United States. In the months following the original reporting we did on the metadata program and the collection of huge amounts of data on Americans’ communication activities, there was a bill proposed in the House, jointly sponsored on the one hand by Justin Amash, the libertarian Republican from Michigan, and on the other hand by John Conyers, the liberal Democrat from Detroit, that was designed to overhaul and seriously reform domestic spying activities in the US.
At first when they introduced it, nobody took it seriously because there have been no bills passed by the US Congress since 9/11 that significantly reined in government powers — every bill passed in the name of the war on terror has expanded and increased government powers. So nobody took seriously the idea that the US Congress was going to rein in powers granted in the name of terrorism. But because of the controversy being created by the Snowden story and the nature of the factions in the House, they quickly started to attract support and got enough at first to force John Boehner to agree to let them bring it to the floor and have a House vote. Then they got enough support that it made it look like it was going to pass. The only reason it ended up not passing was because the White House summoned Nancy Pelosi and said, “We need you to whip votes against this bill.” She got enough Democrats in her caucus who had originally intended to vote for it to vote against it and make sure that it failed, protecting the ability of the NSA to spy on Americans en masse.
It was Nancy Pelosi who was overwhelmingly responsible for its defeat. There were lots of Republicans who joined with her — she actually worked with Boehner, who was also against it, but it was Pelosi who saved the day. But at least there you can say, OK, it’s kind of hypocritical for the Democrats, especially liberals like Pelosi, who are supposed to be proponents of reeling in these intelligence agencies, to be the one to save the NSA, but at least she’s doing the bidding of a Democratic president. It’s normal that politicians, as gross as it is, defend government power when their own party’s in control of it and only oppose it when the other party is. So at least she had that excuse. Fast forward four years later and now we don’t have Barack Obama running the NSA and the other executive-branch agencies that have so much power. We have somebody who, according to Pelosi herself, is an authoritarian, if not a fascist, who is also unprecedentedly corrupt, who will do anything to destroy his political enemies, and is probably a traitor, or at least an agent of an enemy power, which in her mind is Russia. These are all things Democrats believe about the person who’s now running these agencies.
So, there was another movement in the House to again rein in the NSA, because this bill that she helped pass in 2013 was expiring and there was an attempt from liberals and libertarians to try and rein it in again. This time, not only do you have the Democrats like Nancy Pelosi saying the person in charge of this spying power is a fascist, authoritarian, a liar, and corrupt, and an agent of an enemy power; you have Republicans who have spent the last year saying what they call the “deep state” now, which certainly includes the NSA and the CIA, are radically corrupt and abusing their spying powers for political ends to go after Trump and his allies who these agencies hate, in their view. So you have this perfect political moment where both parties have very compelling reasons to rein in these spying powers: the Democrats because they’re afraid of how Trump is going to abuse them, the Republicans because they think these agencies are abusing their powers for political reasons.
What happened was, again, there were enough Republicans who were opposed to the bill sponsored by Devin Nunes to simply extend the bill without any reforms, and even increase the NSA’s power to spy in certain instances in the domestic context, there were all these people, enough Republicans opposed to it that if Democrats had stayed unified against that bill, it would have failed and there would have been reform. Instead, what happened was Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, who has spent the last year accusing Trump of being a traitor, joined with Paul Ryan and the majority of the Republican caucus and voted for Devin Nunes’s bill to block all reforms of NSA domestic spying and even increase the powers that Trump now has to spy on the American citizenry. It is mind-boggling that Nancy Pelosi, Devin Nunes, and Adam Schiff got away with helping the Republicans increase Donald Trump’s domestic spying power, and it’s equally mind-boggling that Devin Nunes, Paul Ryan, and all those people who have spent the last year accusing the deep state of being corrupt, did the same thing and got away with it.
It’s the height of cynicism, but the actually existing surveillance state really disappears amidst the current political debate. Can you lay out briefly what the state of surveillance is; what the current capabilities and allowances are for the US national security state to spy on an ordinary people?
The capabilities technologically are unlimited. The NSA, as Edward Snowden said in his first interview, has the technological power to spy on anybody’s emails or telephone communications at any time. It’s as easy as sitting at your desk and if you have the email, even of the President of United States, you can type it in and access all of his emails. They have that technological ability.
There are legal limitations on how they can use that technological ability when it comes to targeting Americans for spying, and this is an important concept to understand, when the NSA says “we need a warrant from the FISA court in order to target you as an American citizen.” So let’s say they say, “I want to be able to read all the emails of Carter Page and listen to all of Carter Page’s telephone calls.” The NSA has to go into the FISA court and convince a FISA judge that there’s ample grounds for believing that Carter Page is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist organization in order to get a warrant and be able to do that. Now, that process is a joke. In its thirty-year history, the FISA court is approved something like 99.8 percent of all requests that the Department of Justice has made in order to spy on Americans. So, the oversight is purely symbolic, but at least they do have to go through that process. The problem is that much of the spying that they do on Americans is done without warrants because they claim they’re not really targeting Americans.
Right. They claim they’re targeting foreigners. So instead of targeting Carter Page, they’ll target people in the Russian government they believe Carter Page is talking to. They’ll sit there and they’ll listen to tons of Carter Page’s calls, an American citizen, and they’ll read Carter Page’s emails without a warrant, and then claim that they’re allowed to do that, which under the law they are allowed to do, because they’re not targeting Carter Page, they’re just listening incidentally to his communications because the real targets are foreigners.
When this bill was first passed in 2008, called the FISA Amendments Act that authorizes them to spy on Americans communications as long as they claim the target isn’t the American, they admitted during the debate over this bill that a big part of their goal was that they would be able to end up hearing what Americans are saying to foreigners without having to go through the warrant process. This was because there were so many Americans whose calls and emails they wanted to spy on that they didn’t have enough information to justify a warrant for, and therefore, by being freed entirely to spy to target whatever foreigners they want and then “incidentally” listening to them talking to Americans, they would have the ability to spy on the communication of American citizens without having to bother to go through the joke of the FISA court warrant process. And those are the reforms that the liberals and libertarians in both houses of Congress were so eager to restrict. Because if there’s anything that’s elemental to the framework of our Constitution, number one on the list is the fact that the government can’t spy on American citizens without getting a warrant. That was one of the primary grievances against the British crown, and it’s explicit in the Constitution. Yet the entire framework of mass surveillance allows the US government to do exactly that. And thanks to Adam Schiff and Nancy Pelosi joining hands with Paul Ryan, Devin Nunes, and Dianne Feinstein, and all of those Republicans in the Senate, the NSA can continue to do that under Donald Trump.
How do you resist pessimism around the issue of the politics of surveillance? The FISA Amendments Act was initially passed in 2008 to retroactively legalize Bush’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program after James Risen exposed it in the New York Times. The response to the exposure of this illegal program was to retroactively legalize it. In the Snowden case, you and your team won a Pulitzer for your role in bringing Snowden’s revelations to the public, but everything stayed the same. How do you not just fall into a pit of cynicism, pessimism, and despair?
If your view of the world is that the only way changes can come are through the political and legislative process in the US, then there is no way to avoid cynicism, despair, and even resignation. When I first started writing about politics, I had much more naive views about how the US political process worked. I began with very conventional views about how politics works and thought that the Democrats really did oppose Bush’s war and terror, that they weren’t just pretending that, that the Republicans who would occasionally raised their voice against some of the more extreme measures, like Arlen Specter and John McCain, would join with the Democrats and defeat it.
Then I watched over and over again as things like the Military Commissions Act got passed and the Protect America Act got passed, and torturers protected and then of course in the wake of the Snowden reporting watched what I just described with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats blocking everything other than the most minor reforms. So, if my conception of how change occurs was confined to what the US Congress votes on and what Democrats and Republicans do, I wouldn’t have a way out of despair. But that’s a cramped way of looking at political change, and there have been some significant changes in the wake of the Snowden reporting. It just didn’t happen in the halls of the US Congress.
Individuals radically changed their behavior about how they use the internet. Millions of people around the world are using encryption, whereas before they didn’t, and that makes it much more difficult for government agencies to engage in mass surveillance. Social-media companies like Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, and Google were freely collaborating with the NSA before the reporting because no one knew they were doing it, so there was no cost. Once we exposed it, they got scared that the perception that they were collaborators with the NSA was going to allow German or Korean or Brazilian social-media companies to successfully convince a generation of internet users not to use Facebook and Google because they will give your data to the NSA. So these social-media companies didn’t just pretend, but in many cases really did cut off huge amounts of collaboration with the surveillance state. There’s still a lot of collaboration that goes on, but wedges have been driven between those two as well.
There have also been diplomatic changes in terms of how governments around the world perceive the United States and efforts to construct internet systems that no longer depend on US infrastructure. So, there have been a lot of changes in terms of how people think about journalism and secrecy and the US role in the world as well. But the NSA is still up and operating and the US Congress isn’t active.
Let me offer you another pessimistic take that I’d like to hear your response to, which is that I have a sense that at least in the US, the exposure of mass surveillance is quickly co-opted by a process of the normalization of that very mass surveillance, which is also part of us being habituated by mass commercial surveillance to the notion that we are just exposed to these watchers whether in the public or private sphere.
There has been a concerted campaign by social-media companies, led by Facebook and Google, to persuade people to devalue and repudiate the need for their own privacy. They do this for an obvious reason: the business models of both companies depend upon people’s willingness to take private data and make it publicly available, or at least exploitable. So the value of personal privacy is directly at odds with the business interests of that industry, and therefore there has been a very successful campaign to convince people, especially younger people, that privacy is essentially obsolete.
Mark Zuckerberg famously said that privacy is no longer a social norm. Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, in an interview in 2009 said very scornfully, “Well, if there’s things that you want to hide, that’s probably a good indication that you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” So this anti-privacy theme has pervaded Silicon Valley, and it has spilled over into views of how government spies on us. There has been this acceptance of this idea that as long as you’re not a bad person, as long as you’re not a terrorist, there’s no reason you should mind having the government read your emails.
Is there any way to instrumentally seize on Republican hypocrisy around the NSA’s wiretapping of Carter Page and use that to advance a broader skepticism of the national security state? Or is this debate trapped within its political instrumentality?
Part of why I have found this whole Russia focus so damaging over the last year is because I do think, and actually this is something that David Frum said as well and I agree with him on this, is that the Russia story has retrained an entire generation of liberals to be grateful for the role that the CIA and the NSA and other intelligence agencies play in keeping Americans safe. It has revitalized faith in and support for the intelligence community and the military agencies among liberals who for the last few decades have been taught to be skeptical of them. If you look at the language of the “resistance,” it’s what you referred to earlier about the attempt of Democrats or the belief on the part of Democrats that they can kind of out-patriotize and out-jingoize and depict Republicans as traitors and Democrats as the strong militaristic defenders of American greatness.
And it never works. Recall 2004 “John Kerry reporting to duty.”
In 2004 they ran a decorated war hero against a draft dodger and they got killed, even though the President was incredibly unpopular for all kinds of economic and military reasons. Then, as a different example, in 2008 Republicans ran a decorated war hero against someone trying to be the first African American president in American history, whose name is Barack Hussein Obama, who grew up in Indonesia, and who never served in the US military, and Obama crushed him. So, it’s an incredibly outdated way of thinking that the Democrats are doing.
It’s completely ineffective, but it’s also dangerous because if you look at who their heroes, it’s John Brennan, the former head of the CIA who advocated for torture and rendition under George Bush. It’s James Clapper, the former national intelligence director who got caught lying to the Senate and denying mass surveillance even existed before the Snowden reporting happened. It’s prosecutors like Sally Yates, who put people in prison throughout her career at the Justice Department. It’s Jim Comey, the head of one of the most corrupt and destructive agencies in American history, the FBI.
This is why accountability matters because this is what happens when people aren’t charged for war crimes they commit. The impunity distorts our collective memory and allows these people to be recuperated as “resistance” heroes.
The favorite figures of liberals, the ones they cite the most, the ones for whom they cheer most enthusiastically, are either people who have worked inside the savage, American penal state — putting people into prison, arguing for case law that is highly, highly pro-prosecutor and pro-state and anti-defendant makes it easy to grow the prison population — or worse, people who are guilty of the worst abuses of the war on terror, the people who were kidnapping innocent people off the streets and sending them to Egypt and Syria to be tortured, people who ran the torture camps, people who invaded Iraq.
These are all the heroes of the resistance. It’s a weird resistance: generally speaking, the resistance does not revere the heads of the agencies of the security state. That’s not normally how resistance works. But that’s the nature of it and it is reshaping the actual political values of an entire generation of Democrats and even liberals in a way that will endure long after Trump is gone.