The Great Spy Swap is a done deal. Attorney General Eric Holder told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the 10 Russian spies U.S. officials netted last month had learned no state secrets and were exchanged for “four people in whom we have a great deal of interest” – Russians caught spying for our side. So there’s nothing to see here, move along, folks.
But wait: Should we have made this trade? My mind, programmed as it is to almost write “Soviet” whenever I mean “Russian,” is also programmed to worry about “national security.” We released Russian spies! They’ll tell their controllers everything, and Russia will attack us!
The deal sounds too good to be true. It seems more likely that our leaders just wanted to avoid trials for the 10 spies, because trials would reveal just how badly the Russians had duped U.S. officials – perhaps, after all, these “sleeper agents” did gain classified information. “National security” be damned.
Shocked? Don’t be. This spy exchange isn’t the first time we’ve seen our politicians put their own interests ahead of “national security.” Recall these recent events:
CIA’s destroying videotapes of their interrogations of suspected terrorists (2005): These tapes were destroyed to prevent prosecution of the interrogators for torture. But look what was lost. Guantanamo interrogations were based on a “mosaic theory” (as explained here by Joe Margulies in his excellent Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power (2006)), meaning that prisoners (assuming they’re terrorists) might have only bits of information, including bits that neither they nor investigators know are valuable. The value might come to light only as other pieces of the “mosaic” appear. Reviewing these tapes, even years later, could yield “new” information. Protecting torturers was more important than protecting national security.
Releasing terrorist suspect Yaser Hamdi from Guantanamo (2004): This U.S.-Saudi citizen challenged his imprisonment without charge, and the United States Supreme Court ruled that he had to be given a hearing. In response, the government simply released him, deported him to Saudi Arabia, and forced him to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Why the release? Did it turn out, after all, that Hamdi wasn’t dangerous? Or were officials simply avoiding the Court-ordered evidentiary hearing, which probably would have revealed that our politicos had lied about Hamdi’s guilt – and that Guantanamo is a farce, an overreaction based on officials’ cowardice and sadism? Since then, hundreds of prisoners have been released, and hearings for others have shown that the government lacked evidence against them.
Leaking that Valerie Plame was a covert CIA agent (2003): After former Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote a New York Times op ed debunking President Bush’s claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger – an important fact in the president’s casus belli – the White House revealed that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative focusing on WMD. The revelation was a retaliation that not only endangered Plame’s life but also, and more importantly from the perspective of national security, likely impeded U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of WMD.
What should we take away from all this? That “national security” matters only when it aligns with our officials’ personal or political interests.
So I’ve stopped worrying about “national security.” Our government’s behavior makes sense only if none of these “dangers” was really a danger. There’s no “Russian threat,” and we now know there was never a meaningful “Soviet threat.” There’s no meaningful “terrorist threat.” (Either our officials are brilliant superheroes who’ve prevented attacks on the homeland since 9/11, or they’re exaggerating a minor threat to increase their own power – which makes more sense to you?) There’s no “WMD threat”: Any country trying to get WMD is doubtless just defending against the U.S., which regularly violates international and U.S. law by threatening war – to wit, Iran and North Korea. (See UN Charter Article 2(4) – a treaty the Constitution makes “the supreme Law of the Land” (U.S. Const. Art. 6)).
The next time U.S. officials claim “national security” to justify war (murder) or Guantanamo (kidnapping and torture) or secrecy (cover ups, lies), we should just laugh – and ask about the Russian spies, destroyed CIA tapes, Yaser Hamdi, and Valerie Plame.
BRIAN J. FOLEY is a law professor and comedian. He’s not related to the swapped Russian spy who used the alias “Tracey Foley.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org