The New McCarthyites

Watching former acting attorney general Sally Yates and James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, sliming away at General Mike Flynn took me back to reminiscences of Wisconsin’s infamous Senator Joe McCarthy and his lists of Communists. He used to brandish sheafs of paper, on which he claimed to have the names of enemy agents operating within the government. We rarely got any real names, but we were assured there were hundreds of them. Finally a brave Massachusetts attorney asked the senator “have you no shame?” -- and the air went out of the balloon.

No such brave soul was in action Monday as Yates and Clapper ruminated on the deeds of Mike Flynn, arguably the most creative and effective intelligence officer of his generation. Anyone who knows Flynn well will tell you that he is a rare man, a straight talker who tells his superiors exactly what he thinks, a 3-star general who has often preferred the input of junior officers and/or enlisted men and women to that of senior officers. These habits unsurprisingly annoyed his superiors, who were taken out of the decision-making loop. And, with the success of his methods, Flynn became a pariah to the intelligence establishment, perhaps above all to the CIA.

In short, as so often in life, his very success generated powerful enemies. You can safely assume that several of them first engineered Flynn’s purge as chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, then participated eagerly in his elimination as national security adviser.

The testimony of Yates and Clapper comes right out of the intelligence community’s primers, including the preposterous claim that Flynn had made himself super-vulnerable to recruitment by the Russians. How? In the period following his purge from DIA, Flynn had been paid for speeches, including one in Moscow. This is common among retired officials, yet in Flynn’s case it became inflated to a presumed matter of great significance. Maybe even some sort of crime. Maybe even treason. That was the implication of remarks from Yates and Clapper. Yet, when asked for any empirical reason why anyone should believe any of it, they retreated to McCarthy’s methods: sorry, cannot tell you ‘cause it’s classified.

That’s when some committee member was supposed to ask, “Have you no shame?” But none of them was up to it.

McCarthy would have loved it, since the demon of the piece was Russia. But there is at least one difference. McCarthy’s targets could always demand that they be permitted to testify to his committee, to refute charges made there. But Flynn is trapped in the “Scooter Libby trap.” If he were to make an error in his testimony, no matter how trivial, he could be prosecuted for the error. No decent lawyer would advise his client to step forward under such circumstances. Ergo, Flynn is locked in a Catch 22 box. He must stay silent while he’s slandered by his McCarthyite attackers, who have no evidence for their slimy accusations. No matter that the FBI has said it has no basis to move against Flynn, but Yates and Clapper—yes, the same Clapper who spoke falsely to Congress within our memory—ask us to take their word for it.