“Russiagaters” versus “Skeptics”

(tl;dr: read 1st and last paragraphs)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the debater over the “Russiagate” scandal. I’ve been particularly intrigued as to why some very intelligent, well-informed people who broadly share the same politics in most issues, are fundamentally divided between the “Russiagaters” and the “Skeptics”?

This divide is perfectly embodied by the Intercepted debate between James Risen and Glenn Greenwald — two excellent journalists on their own merits, with impressive CVs and indisputable journalistic credentials. And yet, they fundamentally disagree over this whole Russiagate mess: Risen is a Russiagater whereas Greenwald is a Skeptic.

There are many reasons that explain this chasm, many of them discussed either by themselves in the debate or by countless takes in the media. But after musing over their debate, I came away with the conclusion that Russiagate tells us something about people that has nothing to do with Russia nor Trump, nor anything like that. On a fundamental level, it reveals one’s trust on American institutions (the CIA, the FBI, Congress, Mainstream Media, the Military, the Defense Industry and so on).

Risen is an insider. He went into journalism, covered business in the 90s (“My first job was in 1978 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, just as a local reporter. And then I went to the Miami Herald, and the Detroit Free Press, and then the LA Times. And throughout most of that time, I was covering either business or economics. And, I covered the auto industry, and then I came to Washington for the LA Times, and I was covering economic policy: the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. It was interesting for a while, but I started getting bored and I wanted to do something different.”). By accident ended up covering the CIA for the LA Times (“I kind of fell into the perfect time to start covering intelligence because the Cold War had just ended and the year before I started covering the CIA, Aldrich Ames had been arrested as a Soviet spy and that just caused enormous turmoil and turnover at the CIA. And all the top people who had been reprimanded for failing to recognize that Ames was a spy for all those years were getting out of the CIA and they were all really bitter.”) before moving to the NYT. He was never one to rock the boat, and again sort of by accident (as in, he didn’t seek out to confront the powers that be), as is clear in his long and interesting interview to Jeremy Scahill on the Intercepted. In this interview, in fact, he recounts how he came to investigate intelligence affairs not out of a confrontational impulse against the powerful (for example, in this passage here: “I also am in contact with people that I think would never talk to me in a different setting, but because there was this common thing that both of us were interested in investigating, it brought us together in a marriage of convenience.”).

Later, he found himself at the crosshairs of a major dispute within the center of political power regarding the surveillance policy of the W. Bush administration. He got caught up in it, despite his many efforts to acquiesce with the NYT editorial board and the White House (“I kept pushing for ways to get some of it into the paper. I got a little bit of it into the paper about a year later, but I don’t think anybody noticed. And so, by the time the Washington Post broke the secret prison story, I kind of felt like I had had that story but, I guess you could make the case that I didn’t, so.”) Only after his stories got systematically killed (“So, by 2004, I had gone through this process several times, and I also had stories, before the war in Iraq, about the pre-war intelligence where I talked to people who said that they were skeptical of the intelligence. And those stories had been held or killed or cut”), with some getting to be published later on in other outlets, did he decide to fight to get his stories through and later, when he became the target of judicial persecution by the Bush and Obama administrations, he fought hard to protect his sources. For Risen, he was let down by the system — but justice ultimately prevailed (in his case), and fundamentally he believes, he trusts, American institutions.

Greenwald, on the other hand, is the quintessential outsider (he has even spoken about this in interviews). Reason defined him as an “anti-establishment journalist” and that, “Central to Greenwald’s ethos is his status as an outsider”. This Guardian review of Greenwald’s No Place to Hide thusly defines him: “a smart, unyielding, fundamentalist liberal outsider”. This excellent FT profile of him says that Greenwald champions “outsider journalism”. And this was always the case, he’s not in this to make friends, as this from Out magazine makes clear: “Greenwald ran for city council in South Lake, Fla. at age 17, then again at 19: “I came to believe if you’re smart, skilled, and have the resources, you should use those things to fuck with the powerful.” He officially entered the race at age 17 but would turn 18 by the day of the vote, making his candidacy legal. “Those incumbent pigs went to court to try to get me off the ballot,” Greenwald snorts.” He trusted American institutions, as he himself has written: “while I had no interest in the fights between Democrats and Republicans, I had a basic trust in the American political system and its institutions, such that I devoted my attention and energies to preventing constitutional violations rather than political debates”. That trust was shattered by the Bush/Cheney abuses. He abandoned his career as a lawyer, came into journalism via blogging (first independently, then at Salon, finally Guardian, before launching his own outlet, The Intercept), and started to build an audience by denouncing Bush’s War on Terror and its domestic abuses. He never aspired to work for the NYT nor to be a member of the DC establishment inner circle. The WMDs lies in the run up to the invasion of Iraq was a formative experience that led him to a profound sense of betrayal and to a re-examination of what he thought US power was about. In fact, his journalistic career, as it were, begun by confronting the powerful.

So, all this is a preamble to come to my conclusion: Russiagate is a proxy through which one reveals their attitude towards U.S. institutions. If you BELIEVE in the fundamental goodness of US regime (or system or whatever you want to call the network of institutions of economic and political power that rule American society), you tend to be a Russiagater, as it explains away the election of Trump as an exogenous problem, as something of an outlier that is not rooted in structural aspects of American society. If you DISTRUST the US regime, then you’re more likely to be a Skeptic, because you understand that Trump is a symptom of essentially internal, structural problems of American society, and that Trump personifies a range of problems that are sufficiently explained by endogenous factors.

Research Associate & PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin’s Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood

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