Paul Pillar

The Importance of Apolitical Security and Law Enforcement Services

Many of the essential underpinnings of the liberal democracies that Americans enjoy go underappreciated by Americans themselves.  Among the most essential of these are law enforcement and security services that are genuinely apolitical.  They perform necessary functions in service of the entire nation’s interest in safety and order, without being used to promote the narrower interests of parties, movements, or leaders.  They constitute one of the biggest differences between the American political system—to the extent to which it is functioning properly—and politics in many more authoritarian countries where security services are used to sustain the power of incumbent rulers.  In Russia today, for example, the Federal Security Service or FSB, whose formal functions include such tasks as internal and border security and counterterrorism, has been—as The Economist describes it in a recent profile of Russia—“emerging as the main mechanism for exercising power” as Vladimir Putin’s rule is becoming increasingly personal.

The lack of appreciation among Americans for such differences takes two forms.  One consists of simply taking this blessing of liberty, like many other such blessings, for granted.  The other is insufficient care by those who are in position to compromise the apolitical character of a service and don’t realize, or simply don’t care, how fragile that character can be and how easily it can be lost.

It can be lost at three levels.  One involves top political leaders corrupting a service for their own purposes, which is part of what is going on in Russia with Putin’s use of the FSB.  Another level is that of a service head making his service a state within a state and using it to exercise wider power.  To stick with Russian comparisons, it was fear of this that led the post-Stalin collective leadership of the USSR to get rid of secret police head Lavrenti Beria.  A third level involves the rank and file of a service, along with the culture and ethical code that defines the service.

Damage in the United States to the standard of remaining apolitical has occurred at times in the past.  At the level of a service head, it occurred with some of the practices (and priorities for picking targets for collecting information) of longtime FBI head J. Edgar Hoover.  Top political leadership has gotten involved at times by getting hooked on tidbits provided by Hoover, or as with Richard Nixon, making their own misuse of sensitive government services.

The culture and ethical code of the rank and file has been less of a problem in the United States.  Apolitical performance of a mission is part of the defining characteristic and raison d’être of the services in question, and are taken quite seriously by the great majority of officers within them.  How strong the sentiments along this line can get is demonstrated by military officers who abstain from voting for this reason.  It is not necessary to go that far to perform official duties in an apolitical manner, but this posture shows the depth of the underlying ethic.

It therefore is especially disturbing to see press reporting that, as background to current FBI Director James Comey’s latest handling of the Hillary Clinton email matter, there has been “grumbling within FBI ranks, with a largely conservative investigative corps complaining privately” that Comey should have made more of an effort to make a criminal case against Clinton.  The immediate compromise of apolitical practice is at the level of Director Comey, who will sustain well-deserved damage to what had been a personal reputation of integrity and independence.  Surely he is smart enough to realize that his detail-free letter to Congress about having more emails to look at would only feed partisan innuendo, as it in fact has.  It is not a mark of independence to cave to pressure to come up with something more against Clinton, whether the pressure comes from inside the Bureau or outside it.  And insofar as there was pressure from inside in the form of FBI special agents making recommendations to their director that are colored by personal leanings toward one end or another of the political spectrum, then we have much more to worry about than somebody’s emails.

Any compromise to the important and fragile apolitical character of a national security service is all the more unfortunate in revolving around an “issue” that never should have gotten even a tenth of the attention that it has.  Once one gets beyond the matter of a private server, which Mrs. Clinton admits was a mistake and was actually more a problem of preserving official records than of safeguarding classified information, the question is one of how to finesse the tension that people in the State Department in particular face almost every day between doing one’s job effectively and efficiently and protecting classified information.  People can disagree about the best way to finesse that tension, but it is hardly the stuff of scandal.

The focus on this detail of communication habits in effect penalizes those who have had responsibilities that include use of classified information and gives a pass to anyone lacking that experience.  Donald Trump, who has had no public service experience, let alone any involving national security matters, might not recognize classified information if he tripped over it.