Former President Barack Obama, Former Deputy National Security Adviser For Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, Former Ambassador Michael Froman, and Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Susan Rice is not known for her attention to poetry, but I suspect she is familiar with Walter Scott's famous lines (from the poem Marmion):
Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
I wonder if she also knows J. R. Pope's sly addition:
But when we've practiced for a while
How vastly we improve our style.
Pope's amusing title for that opus is "A Word of Encouragement."
To be perfectly frank, I believe that Ms. Rice, Barack Obama's former national security advisor, needs more practice.
Since Monday, when Eli Lake broke the story at Bloomberg News, the nation has been riveted by the report that Rice asked that the identities of various U.S. citizens, "incidentally" swept up by one or more of America's alphabet soup of intelligence services, be "unmasked."
"Incidentally," eh? That is, the spooks were looking for something else and the names of people associated with Donald Trump's campaign or transition just happened to be mentioned along the way, en passant. "White House lawyers," Lake wrote, "last month learned that the former national security adviser Susan Rice requested the identities of U.S. persons in raw intelligence reports on dozens of occasions that connect to the Donald Trump transition and campaign."
We’re told by a source who has seen the unmasked documents that they included political information about the Trump transition team’s meetings and policy intentions. We are also told that none of these documents had anything to do with Russia or the FBI investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. While we don't know if Ms. Rice requested these dozens of reports, we are told that they were only distributed to a select group of recipients—conveniently including Ms. Rice.
A couple of weeks ago, when asked about the "incidental" intelligence sweep on PBS NewsHour, she said, “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”
Rice is not, not yet, speaking under oath, so perhaps it doesn't really matter what she says. Everyone knows by now that she has a habit of economy when it comes to the truth. After the Benghazi massacre, which left four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, dead, Rice was paraded around the TV shows. With a straight face, she explained that the murderous attack by Islamic radicals was in fact a spontaneous uprising in response to a sophomoric Internet video about Mohammed. She knew that was a lie, but it was the story that the Obama administration wanted peddled, so she peddled it.
After the revelations these last couple of days about the "incidental" unmaskings, Rice made another television appearance, this time in an interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. Asked about allegations that she had been been involved in disseminating the names of people swept up by the intelligence investigations, she insisted that they were "absolutely false."
She then wheeled out the Polyphemus gambit. Readers of The Odyssey will recall the scene in which the wily Odysseus tricks the man-eating Cyclops. "What's your name?" Polyphemus asks. "Nobody," Odysseus replies. So when Odysseus blinds the monster with a stick and his fellow Cyclopes asks who perpetrated the outrage, he says: "Nobody." They think he is mad and go away. Maybe this was in the back of Rice's mind when she said "I leaked nothing to nobody and never had and never would."
That certainly reassures me. How about you?
The other day, Michael Goodwin, writing in The New York Post, noted that "if it can be proven that a sitting president used government authorities to spy on a candidate who then became president and orchestrated leaks of classified material, Watergate, by comparison, really would be a second-rate burglary.”
I think this is right. And, since Goodwin mentions "burglary," a crime, it is worth recalling that in the Watergate scandal, actual crimes were incidental. The real issue, the thing that focused the nation's attention and contempt, the thing that ultimately forced Richard Nixon to resign, was the abuse of power.
As Andy McCarthy points out today, it is the same with the Obama administration's skulduggery with respect to Trump's campaign and transition. There may well have been crimes committed — the leaking of classified information, for example — but the real issue is the abuse of power.
Using the powers of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purpose[s] of these agencies.
What sort of conduct? Among other things, using the FBI, CIA, IRS, and other federal agencies to investigate innocent Americans "for purposes unrelated to national security, the enforcement of laws, or any other lawful function of his office." Sound familiar?
Susan Rice's latest wheeze is that her requests for "unmasking" the names of US citizens caught up in intelligence sweeps were perfectly legal. But as Andy points out, that objection is a "straw man." "[T]he technical legality of any particular instance of unmasking is beside the point. The question is abuse of power."
There may well be criminal prosecutions to come in the case of the liberal establishment v. Trump. But in the end, the more serious issue is the perversion of office and dereliction of responsibility that has swaddled this extraordinary controversy like a cocoon. Neither Barack Obama nor Susan Rice can any longer be impeached. But the behavior they appear to have abetted may certainly be impugned. They are part of a great unraveling — the unraveling of trust upon which the metabolism of our democracy depends.
As part of a conspiracy to rob Donald Trump, first, of the election, and — when that failed — of legitimacy, they have called into question in the most patent way the legitimacy of American democracy. For that, they deserve our obloquy and contempt.