Watch our latest episode of SYSTEM UPDATE exploring this topic here or on The Intercept’s YouTube channel.
Gen. Michael Flynn, President Obama’s former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty on December 1, 2017, to a single count of lying to the FBI about two conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while Flynn served as a Trump transition team official (Flynn was never charged for any matters relating to his relationship with the Turkish government). As part of the plea deal, special counsel Robert Mueller recommended no jail time for Flynn, and the plea agreement also seemingly put an end to threats from the Mueller team to prosecute Flynn’s son.
Last Thursday, the Justice Department filed a motion seeking to dismiss the prosecution of Flynn based, in part, on newly discovered documents revealing that the conduct of the FBI, under the leadership of Director James Comey and his now-disgraced Deputy Andrew McCabe (who himself was forced to leave the Bureau after being caught lying to agents), was improper and motivated by corrupt objectives. That motion prompted histrionic howls of outrage from the same political officials and their media allies who have spent the last three years pushing maximalist Russiagate conspiracy theories.
But the prosecution of Flynn — for allegedly lying to the FBI when he denied in a January 24 interrogation that he had discussed with Kislyak on December 29 the new sanctions and expulsions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration — was always odd for a number of reasons. To begin with, the FBI agents who questioned Flynn said afterward that they did not believe he was lying (as CNN reported in February 2017: “the FBI interviewers believed Flynn was cooperative and provided truthful answers. Although Flynn didn’t remember all of what he talked about, they don’t believe he was intentionally misleading them, the officials say”). For that reason, CNN said, “the FBI is not expected to pursue any charges against” him.
More importantly, there was no valid reason for the FBI to have interrogated Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak in the first place. There is nothing remotely untoward or unusual — let alone criminal — about an incoming senior national security official, three weeks away from taking over, reaching out to a counterpart in a foreign government to try to tamp down tensions. As the Washington Post put it, “it would not be uncommon for incoming administrations to interface with foreign governments with whom they will soon have to work.”
What newly released documents over the last month reveal is what has been generally evident for the last three years: The powers of the security state agencies — particularly the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the DOJ — were systematically abused as part of the 2016 election and then afterward for political rather than legal ends. While there was obviously deceit and corruption on the part of some Trump officials in lying to Russiagate investigators and otherwise engaging in depressingly common D.C. lobbyist corruption, there was also massive corruption on the part of the investigators themselves, exploiting and abusing their vast and invasive investigative and prosecutorial powers for ideological goals, political subterfuge, election manipulation, and personal vendettas. The former category (corruption by Trump officials) has received a tidal wave of endless media attention, while the latter (corruption and abuse of power by those investigating them) has received almost none.
For numerous reasons, it is vital to fully examine with as much clarity as possible the abuse of power that drove the prosecution of Flynn. To begin with, cable and other news outlets that employed former Obama-era intelligence operatives, generals, and prosecutors to disseminate every Russiagate conspiracy theory they could find — virtually always without any dissent or even questioning — have barely acknowledged these explosive new documents.
More disturbingly, liberals and Democrats — as part of their movement toward venerating these security state agencies — have completely jettisoned long-standing, core principles about the criminal justice system, including questioning whether lying to the FBI should be a crime at all and recognizing that innocent people are often forced to plead guilty — in order to justify both the Flynn prosecution and the broader Mueller probe.
But the most critical reason to delve deeply into this case is that it reveals one the most dangerous abuses of power a democracy can suffer: The powers of the CIA, FBI, and NSA were blatantly and repeatedly abused to manipulate election outcomes and achieve political advantage. In other words, we know now that these agencies did exactly what Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned they would do to Trump when he appeared on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program shortly before Trump’s inauguration:
This turned out to be one of the most prescient and important (and creepy) statements of the Trump presidency: from Chuck Schumer to Rachel Maddow – in early January, 2017, before Trump was even inaugurated: pic.twitter.com/TUaYkksILG
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) April 8, 2019
Because U.S. politics is now discussed far more as tests of tribal loyalty (“Whose side are you on?”) than actual ideological or even political beliefs (“Which policies do you favor or oppose?”), it is very difficult to persuade people to separate their personal or political views of Flynn (“Do you like him or not?”) from the question of whether the U.S. government abused its power in gravely dangerous ways to prosecute him.
Flynn is a right-wing, hawkish general whose views on the so-called war on terror are ones utterly anathema to my own beliefs. That does not make his prosecution justified. One’s views of Flynn personally or his politics (or those of the Trump administration generally) should have absolutely no bearing on one’s assessment of the justifiability of what the U.S. government did to him here — any more than one has to like the political views of the detainees at Guantanamo to find their treatment abusive and illegal, or any more than one has to agree with the views of people who are being censured in order to defend their right of free expression.
The ability to distinguish between ideological questions from evidentiary questions is vital for rational discourse to be possible, yet has been all but eliminated at the altar of tribal fealty. That is why evidentiary questions completely devoid of ideological belief — such as whether one found the Russiagate conspiracy theories supported by convincing evidence — have been treated not as evidentiary matters but as tribal ones: to be affiliated with the left (an ideological characterization), one must affirm belief in those conspiracy theories even if one does not find the evidence in support of them actually compelling. The conflation of ideological and evidentiary questions, and the substitution of substantive political debates with tests of tribal loyalty, are indescribably corrosive to our public discourse.
As a result, whether one is now deemed on the right or left has almost nothing to do with actual political beliefs about policy questions and everything to do with one’s willingness to serve the interests of one team or another. With the warped formula in place, U.S. politics has been depoliticized, stripped of any meaningful ideological debates in lieu of mindless team loyalty oaths on non-ideological questions.
Our newest SYSTEM UPDATE episode, debuting today, is devoted to enabling as clear and objective an examination as possible of the abuses that drove the Flynn prosecution — including these critical, newly declassified documents — as well the broader Russiagate investigations of which it was a part. These abuses have received far too little attention from the vast majority of the U.S. media that simply excludes any questioning or dissent of their prevailing narratives about all of these matters.
Notably, we invited several of the cable stars and security state agents who have been pushing these conspiracy theories for years to appear on the program for a civil discussion, but none were willing to do so — because they are so accustomed to being able to spout these theories on MSNBC, CNN, and in newspapers without ever being meaningfully challenged. Regardless of one’s views on these scandals, it is unhealthy in the extreme for any media to insulate themselves from a diversity of views.
As the journalist Aaron Maté demonstrated when he brilliantly challenged The Guardian’s Luke Harding about his bestselling book claiming to prove collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — one of the few times a Russiagate conspiracy advocate was forced to confront a knowledgeable critic — those claims often cannot survive even minimal critical scrutiny. That’s why media outlets have insulated these conspiracy theory advocates, as well as their audiences, from any dissent or even critical questioning.
Today’s SYSTEM UPDATE episode, which we believe provides the most comprehensive examination to date of these new documents relating to the Flynn prosecution and how this case relates to the broader Russiagate investigative abuses, can be viewed above or on The Intercept’s YouTube channel.