Can efforts to protect American democracy end up threatening it? In the ongoing investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the answer may well be yes—especially if the media fail to scrutinize the intelligence and security agencies pursuing the matter. The investigations may actually help Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand his influence and reach too, even as they deny the United States the ability to pursue vital national security interests. The present moment deserves reflection and judicious action, not the frenzy currently taking place.
Notwithstanding President Trump’s apparently politically motivated denials, Russia did interfere in the election and Americans need to understand what happened and why to protect against future interference from Russia or other nations. No less important, Washington needs to find a way to communicate to Moscow that such interference is intolerable and that it will carry a steep price. But Washington won’t be able to conduct any of this effectively if key governmental and social institutions fail to function properly.
The central problem rests in the triangular relationship between the U.S. Congress, intelligence and counterintelligence agencies and the media. In theory, each should be investigating what happened so that the Congress and administration policy-makers can develop appropriate responses. At the same time, the Congress and the media should be exercising oversight of the intelligence and counterintelligence investigations and the media should watch the Congress too. Yet none of these three political and social institutions fares well under scrutiny.
Consider the case of George Papadopoulos, who recently pleaded guilty to misleading the FBI. Beyond Papadopoulos’ energetic attempts to create a role for himself in the Trump campaign, which seem founded upon amateurish efforts to shade the truth in communicating with people on both ends of the bridge he was trying to build—hardly unusual in Washington, though rarely exposed to the light of day—what is striking about the affair is an FBI preoccupation with “Russian contacts” that may contravene fundamental American values if it is broadly implemented across Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and in U.S. counterintelligence policy.
In the October 5, 2017 plea document signed by Papadopoulos, his attorney, and Mueller’s aides on his behalf, the investigators disclose that Papadopoulos failed to reveal his contacts with the Russian think tank expert “despite being asked if he had met with Russian nationals or ‘anyone with a Russian accent’ during the Campaign.”
It is understandable that investigators may have wanted to ask Papadopoulos about his contacts in the broadest possible manner to ensure that he could not avoid answering based on a technicality (e.g., how would he know whether someone he met was a Russian national) or, alternatively, to trap him. That said, the question is a troubling one on many levels. First, and most obviously, this phrasing doesn’t really solve the technicality problem; after all, who other than a linguist could reliably tell the difference between a Russian accent, a Ukrainian accent, a Belarusian accent, and a Bulgarian accent? What if Papadopoulos said he didn’t know someone’s accent was Russian? Second, if Russia’s intelligence services were trying to co-opt or exploit the Trump campaign, couldn’t they find someone without a Russian accent to undertake this most sensitive of missions? Third, and most peculiar, is the suggestion that the Special Counsel and the FBI have broadened their investigation to include “anyone with a Russian accent”—a standard that goes far beyond even the wild overreach displayed in Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communist sympathizers.
Some may be inclined to write off the FBI question to Papadopoulos as isolated and inconsequential. That would be much easier if we did not have the prior example of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who described “the Russians” as “almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor” in a May 2017 interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd. “The Russians”? Perhaps Todd could invite Clapper back to Meet the Press to ask what he thinks other ethnic groups are “almost genetically driven” to do. Since he didn’t object to Clapper’s answer, one assumes Todd found it entirely appropriate and wouldn’t mind Clapper sharing these thoughts. Clapper’s responses could be quite revealing. At a minimum, statements like Clapper’s suggest that the FBI question to Papadopoulos might reflect the climate inside America’s national security agencies and that it is not a unique event. This is especially significant because Clapper explicitly stated that this “genetic” factor contributed to his alarm about Jared Kushner’s interaction with “Russians.”
Clapper’s exchange with Todd goes a long way in explaining the feverish speculation that continues to surround Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. On one hand, intelligence and counterintelligence officials whose principal job is to look for evidence of malign activities have created an environment in which being Russian or Russian-American, or even having a Russian accent, is apparently enough to make someone a “person of interest,” if not a suspect. On the other hand, journalists who would recoil from such stereotyping in covering any other issue absorb it uncritically from investigators and intelligence professionals pursuing the interference issue and themselves breathlessly publicize any encounter or dealings between a Trump campaign official and “a Russian,” no matter who or when, why, or how the interaction occurred.