Reading Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms is like picking at a scab: I know it’s going to hurt, but I can’t stop doing it. Jack’s blogging output is far greater than mine, so I don’t have time to post a response every time I disagree with something he says. I’ve been leaving comments on his blog, but getting into arguments there uses up time I should probably spend writing for my own blog. So I thought I’d try a scattershot post that responds to several points Jack has made over the past few days.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Jack gets a lot of things right, and much of Jack’s output is routine commentary on ethics in sports and law. But there are some topics where he drives me crazy, as in last Monday’s comments a few days before the coordinated editorials about President Trump’s attacks on the press:
Talk about bad timing! We just had the explosion of the fake racist rally story.
Jack is talking about the fizzled Unite the Right rally in DC, which in his view was an attempt by the media to scare people with imaginary racism that turned out not to exist.
We have the Manafort trial being featured on the front page of most newspapers like it’s the O.J. trial, when the majority of public has no idea who the man is and the trial details have nothing to do with anything newsworthy.
Because Manafort is only the former chairman of President Trump’s election campaign, on trial for federal financial crimes. Why would that be news?
We have the mainstream news media giving the claims of a reality show villain the kind of attention John Dean received for his Watergate testimony while it makes sure nobody knows that a Chinese spy infiltrated the staff of a powerful U.S. Senator for 20 years.
The “reality show villain” is Omarosa Manigault Newman, a reprehensible reality show performer…and also Director of African-American Outreach for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, after which she joined the Trump Administration as Assistant to the President and Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison. So it’s not like the media just picked some totally random reality show jackass. This is someone President Trump hired to work in his administration. And Trump has further justified the public interest in Omarosa by tweeting about her (which Jack rightly condemned).
When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2018
(The spy thing is not so crazy: A guy who drove for Pelosi for many years was found to have contacts with known Chinese intelligence agents, who were likely running him to get political intelligence, which is not considered espionage under the law. That could explain why he was never arrested.)
Jack eventually lands this where he so often does, his hatred of the press:
…journalists are openly abusing their First Amendment privilege, and using it to harm the culture, the public, the political system, our institutions—including their own!— and the nation itself. I think it is obvious that those who are actively inflicting such harm on the nation qualify as enemies of the people.
Yeah. I’ll just leave that there.
On Thursday, Jack attacked Dan Rather for this tweet:
When Trump criticizes "all types of racism" he's using false equivalence to wink at those who peddle in the distortions of white grievance. It makes a mockery of our history and our present. It's not calming and unifying. it's provocative and divisive. And it's intentional.
— Dan Rather (@DanRather) August 12, 2018
I have no love for Dan “Memogate” Rather, but Jack misses the point:
Rather is saying it is “false equivalence” to call all forms of racism equally wrong. The level of ethical obtuseness required to make this statement is high and airless. For one thing, it is based on consequentialism, the fallacious but common misconception that the consequences of an unethical act make it more or less ethical. No one would seriously dispute that anti-black racism has more than lapped the field regarding the pain, harm and death that it has caused. That historical fact does not make anti-white racism any better, or an even-handed condemnation of both a “false equivalence.”
I’m almost positive that Rather is not denying that all forms of racism are equally wrong. What he’s likely saying — based on the fact that lots of other people say it — is that not all forms of racism are equally harmful to society.
Think of it this way: Women raping men is just as reprehensible as men raping women, but one of those things is a much larger problem for society than the other. So, except in certain careful contexts, when someone’s response to complaints about sexual attacks against women is “Women raping men is also bad,” it feels like they’re trying to minimize the problem.
Something similar applies to racism. Anti-white racism isn’t very pretty, but in all honesty, speaking as a white male, it just doesn’t bother me. I can shrug it off. Sarah Jeong tweeting #CancelWhitePeople does nothing to prevent a white guy like me from enjoying life in my nice suburban home. And I honestly don’t remember if anyone has every used racial epithets against me, because they just wouldn’t make in impression. I’m pretty sure most people of color in America can’t say the same.
Discrimination against white people is not a historic, wide-spread, pervasive problem in America, and implying otherwise feels like an attempt to score points. It also doesn’t help that every white supremacist organization ever claims that they are the true victims.
On Friday, Jack returned to the issue of Trump revoking people’s security clearances out of spite:
In the history of the nation, no former national security figure has issued such sweeping and partisan personal attacks on a President of the united States while wielding his prior position and current security clearance as credentials. We discussed this in some detail here.
That “wielding his…security clearance as credentials” trope is pure misdirection, because (1) nobody is all that impressed by a security clearance and (2) criticizing the President is not a good reason to revoke a security clearance.
The link in the quote above goes to Jack’s previous post on this issue, where he asserted that people who lost their government job should lose their security clearance too. But as many people who’ve actually held a national security position tried to explain in the comments, a security clearance is like an aircraft pilot certification: Pilots don’t lose their certificate just because they lost their job at an airline. They just aren’t allowed to fly that airline’s planes anymore. Similarly, when you leave a national security position, you no longer have access to that organization’s classified data, but you retain your clearance until it expires, so you can use it if you get another job that requires access to classified data.
(Technically, that’s not quite accurate. In order to be eligible to receive a security clearance, you have to pass a Personnel Security Investigation at the appropriate level — Confidential, Secret, or Top Secret — which allows you to receive a clearance at that level. If you leave the job that required the clearance, you technically will lose that clearance, but that doesn’t change the result of your investigation: You’re still qualified for the clearance until the investigation report expires, so you can get one immediately without another investigation if you take another job that requires one. Because of this, it’s common in the national security community to refer to out-of-work people who have had recent investigations as having a clearance that is “current” but not “active,” even though that is not quite how in shows up in the paperwork.)
Ongoing security clearance is a privilege, and indicates that the individual is still regarded as a trustworthy member of an elite group of trustworthy potential pubic servants. If they have demonstrated that they are not trustworthy, as not only Brennan but also Clapper, Comey, McCabe and others have beyond a reasonable doubt, then they are no longer worthy of that privilege.
A security clearance is not about being “trustworthy” in the vague sense that Jack is using the word here. The trust involved in a security clearance is not a synonym for loyalty, and it’s certainly not about loyalty to a particular person. A security clearance is about whether you can be trusted not to reveal classified information to people who may harm the United States, and that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with other aspects of job performance, or whether you issue “sweeping and partisan personal attacks” against the President.
Security clearances are normally revoked, or denied in the first place, when an investigation uncovers a reason to believe the subject cannot be trusted with secrets. Common reasons include recent use of illegal drugs, alcohol abuse, mental health problems, or a felony conviction. You can also lose a clearance if you have unreported contacts with people from suspect countries, or a habit of breaking rules (indicating you may be unwilling to follow security requirements), or if you commit adultery (making you vulnerable to blackmail by foreign agents), or if you have serious financial problems (which may give you an incentive to sell information). And of course, actually causing a security breach, even if not in an act of espionage, can get your clearance revoked.
Is personal animus also part of Trump’s motivations. perhaps even the decisive part? Sure it is, but we just discussed this, too. Bad motives for doing the right thing do not change the fact that an action is still right.
Look, folks like Brennan, Clapper, Comey, and McCabe may be various types of political scumbags, but where’s the proof that they are actually likely to reveal classified information? Were any of these guys caught selling secrets? Having an affair? Burglarizing homes? Are any of them facing bankruptcy? Did one of them leave a classified document in a taxi? Was there even an investigation at all?
I doubt it. This is just Trump doing what he does best: Being mean to people he doesn’t like. These people aren’t being punished for breaking the rules concerning a security clearance. They’re being punished because they angered Trump. This is yet another way that authoritarian-minded people like Trump try to control others. This is yet another erosion of the rule of law.