Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Abolishing Meaning

"Theseus and the Minotaur", with the Athenian hero unspooling the thread from Princess Ariadne, tile design by Edward Burne-Jones, 1861, via Wikipedia.

OK, so as you probably know or at least won't be surprised to hear, after the end of his time as vice president Joe Biden got a gig—all right, Joe Biden got a sinecure—as a something-or-other professor, I think they call it "professor of practice", meaning not in fact an academic, at the University of Pennsylvania, though in fact not in Philadelphia but D.C., where he maintained an office (officially his own think tank, the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement) from mid-2017 until he launched his presidential campaign in late April 2019, but it wasn't until early November 2022 that anybody thought to clean up the office and move his stuff out, and when they did (I'm vague about the "they", but they were working for the White House, not Penn, and included a couple of lawyers) they found a locked closet full of files, inspection of which revealed about 10 documents marked as classified; so they immediately called up the National Archives and Records Administration and made arrangements to have them picked up and taken where they belonged.

It sounds like they shouldn't have been there, but it also sounds like Biden didn't particularly know they were there. Classified documents do, apparently, get misplaced from time to time, as WaPo reports—

Legal experts say that it is not uncommon for some people who have security clearances to mishandle classified documents. But these situations are typically handled administratively, not criminally, because the criteria for prosecuting people who mishandle classified documents include proving that the person deliberately flouted rules for how to secure the materials.

—and it's normally not a very serious situation; one reason Donald Trump is under criminal investigation in the Mar-a-Lago case is that there is tons of evidence that he deliberately flouted the rules. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene is one of a number of people who have not understood that:

NARA never asked for the Biden documents—they didn't know they were missing—and obviously Biden didn't refuse to give them back. He didn't stonewall for a year, blowing off requests, he didn't send them a fraction of what he had and pretend it was the whole thing, he didn't blow off the Department of Justice when they found out it wasn't the whole thing, he didn't try to bamboozle the FBI by giving them another partial batch, he didn't try to intimidate them by screaming that they had "raided" his "beautiful home", and he's not still holding onto some as he sends out his own "team" like O.J. Simpson hiring private detectives to nail Nicole's "real" killers. 

This is why Trump must be charged with obstruction of justice, at the most basic and transparent level: he has spent two years literally obstructing the Department of Justice in its efforts to get the government's stuff back, regardless of the classification status (imagining, for the sake of argument, that he really did declassify it, he still doesn't own it). And this obstruction is in turn proof of his mens rea or criminal intention, his open refusal to comply with the law.

But there's another thing I've been wanting to figure out a way of saying for a long time, and Margie there has given me an idea for how to say it:

It's a tidy little example, too, of the destruction of truth I've been talking about. 

As we've all learned, US presidents really do have power to move things out of the officially classified sphere into the officially unclassified sphere, as Trump in February 2018 did with a 4-page memo Devin Nunes had written, accusing the FBI of omitting context from its FISA request for a surveillance warrant on Carter Page; it failed to note that it was using information compiled by Christopher Steele, whose work was funded by Democrats and who was "desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president". I think it was classified because it said more about the process of getting a FISA warrant than the intelligence community was comfortable letting out to the public. It might have been nice if they'd classified it because it grossly mischaracterized the way (and degree to which) the FBI worked with Steele, but that's not how they think.

Arguably this is one of those cases where the intelligence community really was overdoing it. We've learned a lot about FISC in the intervening years, and I don't have a feeling it's done us a lot of harm. I really feel it's a legitimate function of the president's declassification power to permit him to say, "I think the voters should know about this and I don't think it will do any harm," and work out a way of putting it out without frightening the intelligence community too much.

But that, of course, is not what Trump was doing. What he was doing was what he and Nunes had been doing for the past year, using Nunes's position as chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to float ideas about the FBI's mad Marxist persecution of Trump and its Russia-Russia-Russia hoax into the Fox News and out to the American consciousness, with the authority of the HPSCI and the magical aura of secrecy (most comically illustrated in that time Devin made his dramatic delivery of documents to the White House that he'd gotten from the White House). And indeed that single thing, which ends up being a fudge in the third renewal application for the Page order, is the Ariadne's thread that leads us from Nunes's moment through the Horowitz and Durham investigations to (I believe we'll learn) the 2020 document thefts.

Now, though, as Trump seeks to avoid prison, we've come to a different phase where the aim is to eliminate discussion of why a president might want to declassify something in favor of his absolute right to declassify anything he wants. You're not supposed to question it. He doesn't need a reason.And in this way the whole meaning of the classification concept is exploded, so that Trump and Greene and their followers don't even know how to reattach it to the phenomenon (president consults with the intelligence community as to how to make some information public), because that's just one of those "norms" Trump breaks. Maybe there oughta be a law, but there isn't one, so you can't even talk about it. Even though it's the only relevant question. And while I'm watching the discussion, literally nobody is bringing this up. It's really been disappeared from the discourse, leaving us talking about Trump's declassifications as if they were a totally random, natural event that just happens and we must accommodate ourselves to. 

That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. It's beyond "we have always been at war with Eastasia" to "I guess we've always been at war, probably, but you'll have to check."

I do doubt that the re-Republican HPSCI (to be led now by Mike Turner, R-OH, who I don't know much of anything about yet) is going to do a series of hearings on the Biden Penn Center scandal—I'm pretty sure this move is a leak from Trumpies burrowed into the DOJ who learned about the find in November and saved it to release now, but the purpose seems to be basically as a whatabout—"How can you charge Trump when Biden did the same thing?" I'm really frightened that it might work because of what the shitty quality of this debate has done to our minds.

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