Spooks, spooks everywhere. The US political landscape has been so overrun with spies and other denizens of the evermore sprawling national security state that most people have scarcely noticed.
The most recent reminder of the spookification of politics came just last week, when the New York Times offered new reporting on the hijinks of Trump ally Erik Prince, brother of the former president’s education secretary and the former chief executive of abusive private military firm Blackwater (now named Xe). According to the paper, interviews and documents it obtained show that Richard Seddon, a former British spy, had recruited Prince as a fundraiser for an undercover operation aiming to gather dirt on Democrats, RINOs (those Republicans viewed as being too liberal), and “radical left networks” — in Wyoming to start with, then expanding beyond.
This isn’t the first time Prince and Seddon have conspired to use the tools and techniques of spycraft for nakedly political, partisan ends. Back in 2017, Prince recruited Seddon and other former US and British spies for private intelligence-gathering operations run by Project Veritas, the conservative dirt-dumping organization run by right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe known for its (often dishonest) “stings.” The idea was to infiltrate Democratic congressional campaigns, unions, and other groups working against then-president Donald Trump’s agenda, and to train Project Veritas employees in the basics of spycraft: recruiting sources, surreptitious recordings, and so forth.
The first thing to say about all this is that this is what happens when a political economy allows people to endlessly and unproductively hoard wealth. Project Veritas, like the entire galaxy of right-wing think tanks, organizations, media outlets, and advocacy groups out there, largely exists by the grace of piles and piles of oligarchic cash sitting around, as the Times’ reporting makes clear. It’s hard to conceptualize, but when so many people have quantities of money so far in excess of what they need to meet their basic needs and lead a comfortable, carefree life, they’ll find other outlets to throw all this idle cash into — organizations like Project Vertitas being one of them.
Note, too, that political corruption is also part of the reason why Project Veritas was able to succeed with this scheme. In a separate report last year, the Times detailed how the group’s operatives were able to infiltrate Democratic Party circles and work to sabotage what they considered threats to Trump’s agenda by using campaign donations as a lever. The undercover operatives gave hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to candidates, state parties, and other Democratic entities, and as a result gained access to exclusive party events, the candidates themselves, as well as a pro-Democratic initiative run by wealthy liberal donors meant to back moderate Republicans in Wyoming, gathering valuable information all the while. The parties’ reliance on big donors directly opens them up to such shenanigans.
But beyond this, the whole episode is one more instance of the national security state’s growing meddling in politics. Ever since 2016, former spies and other national security bureaucrats — people whose literal life’s work is deception and subterfuge — have found a second home on cable news, where they became regular talking heads. It’s become so bad that in 2019, veteran reporter William Arkin quit the network, complaining that it had been effectively captured by the very national security interests the press is meant to scrutinize.
Former high-ranking intelligence officials like ex–CIA director John Brennan, ex–director of national intelligence James Clapper, and Michael Hayden (who has the distinct honor of having headed the NSA and CIA, as well as serving as deputy director of national intelligence) used these cable news perches to endlessly spread lies about Trump in an effort to discredit him. One can oppose the extreme corporatist, anti-worker agenda of Trump while also acknowledging how alarming it is that a group of ex-spies used their public platform to undermine a sitting president they (wrongly) felt was challenging the power of intelligence agencies.
The lies they were peddling — effectively the direct involvement of barely former national security agents in domestic politics — grew out of the fraudulent Steele dossier, a document full of damning but made-up details about Trump, named for its author: Christopher Steele, the former MI6 spy who departed the British spy agency and started his own private intelligence-gathering firm. Steele’s spy background became a tool of partisan political interests in the United States when, first, a Republican hired his firm to dig up dirt on the man they felt at the time was an existential threat to their party, before the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee (DNC) picked up the tab for the operation.
This continued into 2020. When the New York Post reported on details from Hunter Biden’s laptop that were embarrassing to the Joe Biden presidential campaign on the eve of the election that year, more than fifty former spies signed a letter labeling the disclosures “a Russian information operation” without evidence, delegitimizing the reporting and leading numerous news outlets to call it “Russian disinformation.” One of the signatories later revealed it was former CIA director Michael Morell, considered a top prospect for the post under Biden, who “basically wrote” the letter alongside him. Unsurprisingly, the contents of the laptop was proven legitimate many months later, and the story had nothing to do with Russia.
This was far from the first time intelligence officials intervened in elections that year. As Bernie Sanders prepared to win the third of three Democratic primary contests in early 2020, “people familiar with the matter” leaked to the press that they’d briefed Sanders about Russia supposedly attempting to help his campaign. Congress had been briefed about it a week before, but it was only on the day before the Nevada primary — which Sanders ended up winning in a landslide anyway — that this information was given to the press.
At the same time, we’ve seen the Democratic Party increasingly recruit from the ranks of the armed forces and intelligence agencies in an attempt to appeal to Republican voters and nationalist sentiment. We can see the traces of national security interests in politics elsewhere, too: a private intelligence firm made up of former Israeli spies hired to discredit the sexual assault accusers of a Hollywood mogul; a mysterious billionaire who allegedly “belonged to intelligence” and seemed to have the justice system and vast swathes of the US elite in his pocket; and now, former intelligence and law enforcement personnel playing a leading role in a massive, right-leaning protest north of the border.
But then it’s always been this way. For decades, the CIA had a stable of hundreds of mainstream journalists it used as operatives to feed its preferred message to an unwitting public. There is more than a hint that one of the country’s most prominent politicians, a former president and vice president, started his career as an agency asset, at the very least. Former CIA personnel loyal to him gathered intelligence on a rival presidential campaign, allowing his ticket to win the election. And we still don’t know what exactly the agency’s murky role was in the assassination of a different president who challenged its preferred foreign policy.
So what’s changed might not be the involvement of the national security state in domestic politics, but that it’s now entirely explicit. What was once covert, agencies like the CIA and MI6 no longer feel the need to disguise, and with good reason: filtered through the polarized culture war that now shapes all political discourse in the United States, the outrage about the involvement of former spies in politics depends almost entirely on which partisan side is affected in any particular case.
What was once taboo has reached a point of soft, tacit acceptance. And maybe that’s the biggest scandal of all.