Last January, the Washington Post carried an interesting article by a person named Asha Rangappa, who is a former FBI agent. The article explored what would happen if a U.S. president became a threat to national security. She wrote her article in the context of suspicions that President Trump might be acting as a covert agent for Russia. She began her article as follows:
When President Trump fired then-FBI Director James B. Comey in 2017, the bureau opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia. As a former FBI agent who conducted investigations against foreign intelligence services, I know that the bureau would have had to possess strong evidence that Trump posed a national security threat to meet the threshold for opening such an investigation.”
Rangappa pointed out that the FBI has methods that address a suspected threat to national security within the federal bureaucracy, such as cutting off a person’s access to secret information. But she observed, “Unfortunately, none of these are feasible options if the national security threat is the president of the United States.”
She concludes that the only feasible option for a president who becomes a threat to national security is “exposure,” followed by impeachment, conviction, and removal from office.
While Rangappa raises an important issue, unfortunately she fails to understand that under our system of government, there is another way to deal with a president who becomes a threat to national security. It isn’t a method that is outlined in the Constitution. Nonetheless, owing to the governmental structure under which we live, it is a de facto means of dealing with any president, both foreign and domestic, who becomes a threat to national security.
Our country was founded on a type of governmental structure called a limited-government republic. While there was a relatively small army, there was no vast military establishment, CIA, NSA, and FBI. Governmental operations were for the most part transparent. For more than 150 years, there was no concept of “national security.”
All that changed after World War II. The U.S. government was converted into a governmental structure known a “national-security state.” It consists of a gigantic, permanent, powerful, and ever-growing military-intelligence establishment. America’s national-security state is composed of the Pentagon, the vast military-industrial complex, the CIA, the NSA and, to a certain extent, the FBI.
A national-security state is a type of totalitarian governmental structure. North Korea is a national-security state. So is China. Egypt. Russia. And post-WW2 United States.
Why did U.S. officials convert the federal government to a national-security state? After World War II, they said that America now faced an enemy that was an even bigger threat than Nazi Germany. That enemy was the Soviet Union, which, ironically, had been America’s wartime partner and ally.
U.S. officials maintained that there was an international communist conspiracy based in Moscow, Russia. The aim of the conspiracy, they said, was to take over the world, including the United States.
America’s limited-government structure, they believed, was insufficient to prevent the communists from taking over America. To prevail in this new Cold War, it would be necessary, they believed, to have a governmental structure similar to that of communist regimes, one that could wield the same totalitarian-like powers wielded by communist regimes, including assassination.
The overriding principle of a national-security state is, needless to say, “national security.” The idea is that anything can and should be done to eradicate threats to “national security.”
Who decides what constitutes a threat to national security? The Constitution doesn’t answer that question because the Constitution never called a national-security state type of governmental structure into existence. Moreover, the Constitution was never amended to provide for that type of governmental structure.
By default and sheer force of power, the national-security branch of the federal government became the final arbiter for determining threats to national security and taking the necessary measures to eradicate them.
The assumption of such power was acceded to early on by both Congress and the Supreme Court, both of which decided that they would defer to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA on matters relating to “national security.” These other two branches had the perfect justification for making that decision: it is the national-security branch that naturally possesses the particular expertise for ascertaining threats to national security.
Ordinarily, the president, who represents the executive branch, and the national-security branch work together to protect national security and to eradicate threats to national security. If we consider, for example, the regime-change operations in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Congo, and Chile in the 1960s and ’70s, we see both the executive branch and the national security branch working together to oust foreign leaders, including democratically elected presidents, from office through coup, invasion, or assassination because they were considered to be threats to U.S. national security. We also find a steadfast policy in the federal judiciary to not interfere with those operations.
But the question naturally arises, the one that Rangappa raises in her Washington Post article: What happens if the national-security branch concludes that the president himself is a threat to national security?
There is no question about the answer: Even though the Constitution doesn’t provide for it, the fact is that, as a practical matter, the national-security branch is the final arbiter of the issue. That is not only because of its particular expertise on matters relating to national security, it’s also because, as a practical matter, the other branches of the government lack the power to interfere with operations to protect national security carried out by the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA.
Rangappa raises the prospect of a president who becomes a conscious agent of a foreign power. Unfortunately, she fails to recognize another possibility: a president whose philosophy and policies take America in a direction that the national-security branch considers a threat to national security.
Suppose, for example, that a U.S. president at the height of the Cold War decided that the Cold War was a bunch of baloney. What if he decided that the national-security state type of governmental structure was itself a bigger threat to America than international communism? What if he entered into secret negotiations with the leaders of the Soviet Union and Cuba to bring an end to hostilities and to establish friendly and peaceful relations, just as the ousted leaders of Guatemala, Cuba, and Chile did?
What if the national-security branch concluded that this different direction would spell the end of the United States as an independent, sovereign, and free country? What if the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA were absolutely certain that such policies would bring about a communist takeover of the United States?
What then? Rangappa’s solution of exposure, followed by impeachment and conviction obviously wouldn’t work because the president wouldn’t be doing anything illegal that would justify impeachment and removal from office. Moreover, waiting for the next election would be too late to prevent the catastrophe. Following the Constitution by simply letting the president lead the nation into disaster would be national suicide.
What would the national-security branch do? There is no question about it. It would do what it is charged with doing. It would do what was necessary to protect national security. And the nation would be exhorted to move on.