Should the FBI Run the Country?

Since the media would doubtless answer that loaded question, “It depends on the president,” let us imagine the following scenario.

Return to 2008, when candidate Barack Obama had served only about three years in the U.S. Senate, his sum total of foreign policy experience. And he was running against the overseas old-hand, decorated veteran, and national icon John McCain—a bipartisan favorite in Washington, D.C.

During the campaign, unfounded rumors had swirled about the rookie Obama that he might ease sanctions on Iran, distance the United States from Israel, and alienate the moderate Arab regimes, such as the Gulf monarchies and Egypt.

Stories also abounded that the Los Angeles Times had suppressed the release of a supposedly explosive “Khalidi tape,” in which Obama purportedly thanked the radical Rashid Khalidi for schooling him on the Middle East and correcting his earlier biases and blind spots, while praising the Palestinian activist for his support for armed resistance against Israel.

Even more gossip circulated that photos existed of a smiling Barack Obama with Louis Farrakhan, the Black Muslim extremist and radical pro-Gaddafi patron, who in the past had praised Adolf Hitler and reminded the Jews again about the finality of being sent to the ovens. (A photo of a smiling Obama and Farrakhan did emerge, but mysteriously only after President Obama left office).

Imagine that all these tales in 2008 might have supposedly “worried” Bush lame-duck and pro-McCain U.S. intelligence officials, who informally met to discuss possible ways of gleaning more information about this still mostly unknown but scary Obama candidacy.

But most importantly, imagine that McCain’s opposition researchers had apprised the FBI of accusations (unproven, of course) that Obama had improperly set up a private back-channel envoy to Iran in 2008. Supposedly, Obama was trying secretly to reassure the theocracy (then the object of Bush Administration and allied efforts to ratchet up pressures to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons) of better treatment to come. The conspiratorial accusation would imply that if Iran held off Bush Administration pressures, Tehran might soon find a more conducive atmosphere from an incoming Obama Administration.

Additional rumors of similar Logan Act “violations” would also swirl about Obama campaign efforts to convince the Iraqis not to seal a forces agreement with the departing Bush Administration.

Changing Status Quo Calls for a Federal Investigation
Further, conceive that at least one top Bush Justice Department deputy had a spouse working on the McCain opposition dossier on Obama, and that the same official had helped to circulate its scandalous anti-Obama contents around government circles.

In this scenario, also picture that the anti-Obama FBI soon might have claimed that the Obama Iran mission story might have been not only an apparent violation of the Logan Act but also part of possible larger “conspiratorial” efforts to undermine current Bush Administration policies. And given Obama’s campaign rhetoric of downplaying the threats posed by Iran to the United States, and the likelihood he would reverse long-standing U.S. opposition to the theocracy, the FBI decided on its own in July 2008 that Obama himself posed a grave threat to national security.

More importantly, the FBI, by its director’s own later admission, would have conjectured that McCain was the likelier stronger candidate and thus would win the election, given his far greater experience than that of the novice Obama. And therefore, the FBI director further assumed he could conduct investigations against a presidential candidate on the theory that a defeated Obama would have no knowledge of its wayward investigatory surveillance, and that a soon-to-be President McCain would have no desire to air such skullduggery.

The Bush FBI would be further alarmed in 2008 that Obama would, in addition, reverse long-standing U.S. foreign policy by restoring relations with Venezuela, Cuba, and “resetting” policy with Russia. In short, the intelligence community might suspect that a President Obama would turn enemies into friends, and friends into enemies—and thus endanger the entire post-war order.

Envision as a result that the Bureau would have notified the CIA of its concerns about a likely Obama radical new change in U.S. foreign policy toward archenemy, theocratic Iran. The CIA director would then also begin tipping off important Republican senators of the dangers Obama posed. He would spice up his warnings with the preliminary “data” gleaned from shared FBI-inspired counterintelligence surveillance operations of the various members of the Obama campaign—specifically, FISA-court ordered surveillance focused on, say, the Iranian-born Valerie Jarrett.

Again, no proof of any collusion, but lots of worries that the outsider Obama would pose a level of danger to the status quo.

At about the same time, in the weeks before the election, the Bush FBI and Justice Department would have presented to the FISA court a dossier paid for by the McCain campaign—produced through the use of both law and opposition research firms that had hidden the improper use of McCain campaign fund payments, as well the fact that the anti-Obama dossier was compiled by a British retired spy, with a long known hostility to the Obama candidacy.

Unverified Claims, Anonymous Sources
In this continuing thought experiment, the FBI would not verify 
any of the dossier’s salacious accusations, which covered lurid accusations concerning Obama’s personal life, his college years, his real estate deals with Tony Rezko, contacts with the felon Bill Ayers and the firebrand Father Michael Pfleger, his full relations with the anti-Semitic and anti-American Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity church, his mysterious college-era trip to Pakistan and his Pakistani friends, his own references to prior drug use, and additional and assorted quite sensational and inflammatory rumors that had come up during the 2008 campaign.

Many of the dossier’s details had been earlier leaked to conservative journalists by the deputy director and general counsel of the FBI, with the intent of damaging the Obama campaign. The conservative media would legitimize its gossip and anti-Obama smears by using terminology such as “two unidentified FBI sources” and “an anonymous source at the DOJ.” During the closing stretch of the campaign, suddenly lurid details from the dossier would be published to suggest that Obama was either a foreign stooge or unfit personally for the nation’s highest office.

Nonetheless, the Bureau would still believe that the dossier was important enough to support further investigation into Obama’s radical and suspicious behavior during the campaign—including the possibility of conducting federal surveillance on his staffers through the FISA courts. Such warrants would be obtained and used to reverse-target Obama campaign officials through the excuse of focusing on Valerie Jarrett and her supposed Iranian ties.

In addition, imagine that in talks with the CIA, the FBI director decided to insert a government informant into the Obama campaign to ascertain whether his outreach to Iranian officials or his ideas about resetting the Middle East comprised a national security threat—and, given some of the salacious material in the McCain bought dossier, whether Obama himself might be compromised as some sort of Manchurian candidate by blackmailers working for Iranian or Russian intelligence.

Finally, after the stunning defeat of John McCain, both the CIA and FBI would have been worried that the incoming Obama Administration might soon learn that the intelligence services had warped the FISA process by not apprising the court that the dossier was unverified, much less that it was paid for by the McCain campaign and its author severed from FBI contact. And they were further anxious that members of the Bush Administration had deliberately unmasked names of surveilled Obama aides and advisors, and leaked them illegally to the press.

Suspicious Activities, Thickening Plots
As a result of partial disclosures of such intelligence community misbehavior, President Obama would have fired the FBI director, who in retaliation would have leaked confidential memos of his private talks that he had with President Obama himself—in hopes of creating enough outrage to lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor to review Obama campaign and administration suspicious activity abroad. The FBI would attempt to create such hysteria over the firing of the director and charges of Obama collusion that the rogue behavior of government agencies would be largely ignored.
Meanwhile, imagine also that the FBI secretly continued with its prior counterintelligence investigations of the new president. The Bureau based its persistent surveillance on grounds of new worries during the transition and early months of Obama’s presidency that tended to fuel old suspicious of radical and dangerous new foreign policies.

The FBI noted that Obama’s first interview as president was with the Arab language Al-Arabiya, in which he sharply criticized past U.S. policies toward the Middle East; his June 2009 Cairo speech, in which he seemed to fault the West for much of the chaos in the Middle East while parroting Islamic “talking points” about Islam’s key contributions to Western culture; his silence when 1 million Iranians protested the theocracy during the so-called “Green Revolution”; and assorted loose gossip that he might be willing soon to trade billions of dollars for hostages and ease sanctions to conclude a so-called Iran deal.

Finally, also imagine that by 2012 under increasing pressure due to endless leaks, and Republican hostility, President Obama had relented and allowed the appointment of a special counsel, who turned out to be a friend of the fired FBI anti-Obama director. The counsel was charged with investigating whether Iran and radical Islamic groups had played an inordinate role in the 2008 campaign, and whether other foreign entities had exercised undue influence on the Obama campaign and administration.

Almost immediately, more leaks from the new special counsel’s team suggested that Obama himself might be also compromised by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Accordingly, the counsel’s team quite expansively was suddenly also investigating the laxity shown the Russian government after its annexations of Crimea and eastern Ukraine; the administration’s unwillingness to provide arms to Ukrainian forces; the open mic quid pro quo pre-reelection promise to consider ending completely the U.S.-led efforts to install missile defense in Eastern Europe, should Putin stay quiet during the 2012 election campaign and thus give Obama space and flexibility and a boost in the elections; the strange decision to block U.S. oil companies from federal lands rich in natural gas and oil that enhanced Putin’s pivotal role in adjudicating world energy prices; and serial laxity in replying to continued Russian cyber attacks against private American companies and U.S. government institutions. Again, the effort would be to rebrand Obama’s legitimate but radical shifts in policy as criminal activity in a fashion designed to abort the Obama presidency or at least to shield public scrutiny from past FBI and CIA misdeeds.

During the 2012 Obama reelection campaign, Republican activists, former administration officials, and members of the Romney campaign would find access to some of the Bush-era surveillance dating back to 2008 and began leaking transcripts to the press. At the same time, the special counsel’s “dream team” (inordinately stocked with McCain and Romney contributors) would be rocked by scandal, once it was disclosed that in a series of texts two members of the investigatory team had expressed hatred for Obama, claimed that one could “smell” the presence of his supporters, and had hoped to derail his 2012 campaign. Some of their embarrassing texts would later mysteriously be proved to be unrecoverable, apparently erased or lost by the special counsel’s team.

Where Does It All Lead?
An exasperated Obama himself would have threatened to dismiss the special counsel as he serially complained that he had been an earlier victim of “wiretapping,” based on purchased smears by the McCain campaign, the use of a foreign former national intelligence officer to subvert his campaign, and the serial misconduct of the FBI that had illicitly surveilled his campaign and presidency on the bogus notion that his recalibrations in the Middle East either amounted to treason, or were the result of blackmail by foreign powers who had evidence of the  sort of behavior documented in the opposition-research dossier. Why, Obama would complain, was the special counsel team stocked inordinately with Bush conservatives, McCain donors, and even a few lawyers who had at times been McCain subordinates?

Obama was especially infuriated that Bush Administration officials in the FBI, Justice Department, CIA, State Department, and the National Security Council had worked with McCain campaign operatives to circulate the dossier on his prior friends and activities to media outlets. And why were former Bush CIA and FBI officials going on television to charge Obama with veritable treason?

The president was even more incensed that after his inauguration, the FBI had continued its FISA court surveillance of former campaign operatives, and persisted with surveillance of his own national security advisor.

For most of his presidency, an exasperated and harried President Obama tweeted incessantly that the FBI surveillance and special counsel investigation were constantly marked by leaks to Fox News and the conservative press on irrelevant issues and unproven stale gossip—such as old 2008 Obama campaign finance violations; ancient allegations that Michelle Obama had received favorable treatment at her University of Chicago hospital job once Obama had been elected senator; fossilized stories that Obama had still not paid taxes on the Rezko discounted gift of tangential property; tired narratives that in Obama’s prior senate campaign the sealed divorce records of both his primary and general election opponents had been mysteriously and unlawfully been leaked and published; new revelations that Obama’s own autobiography was little more than a mythography of composite sketches and made up narratives; and insinuations that ongoing scandals at the General Services Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, IRS, and the Environmental Protection Agency might have cross-fertilizations with the special counsel investigations. Racy elements within the fabricated so-called McCain dossier such as unproven drug use, alleged manic chain-smoking, and libelous, unproven personal liaisons, would be favorite gossip of journalists.

A number of former Obama associates—Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, David Axelrod—were reportedly being leveraged by special counsel attorneys in exchange for limiting their own legal exposure in a variety of areas. A sleepless Obama often railed that both the FBI and the special counsel were conducting “witch hunts” and “fishing expeditions,” and that there had been no “collusion” with either Middle East or Russian interests.

Obama, in our thought experiment, would have charged that the role of the Bush-era FBI, CIA, DOJ, and special counsel’s team had become part of a “resistance” to delegitimize his presidency. Indeed, Obama charged that conservative interests had long wanted to abort his presidency by fueling past efforts to subvert the Electoral College in 2008, to invoke the Logan Act, the 25th Amendment, and the Emoluments Clause (based on rumors of negotiating lucrative post-presidential book and media contracts by leveraging his presidential tenure), as well as introducing articles of impeachment.

Celebrity talk of injuring Obama and his family would be daily events. Actor Robert De Niro talked of smashing Obama’s face, while Peter Fonda dreamed of caging his children. Johnny Depp alluded to assassination. It soon became a sick celebrity game to discover whether the president should be blown up, whipped, shot, burned, punched, or hanged.

Imagine that if all that had happened. Would the FBI, CIA, or FISA courts still exist in their current form? Would the media have any credibility? Would celebrities still be celebrities? Would there ever again be a special counsel? Would we still have a country?

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Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.