David Harsanyi / Jan. 22, 2021

It's John Brennan's Authoritarianism That Threatens Democracy

I'd rather have a bunch of nuts ranting on podcasts all day than one John Brennan deciding what we can say.

Every time former CIA Director John Brennan appears on cable news to warn America about some new “insidious threat to democracy,” I am reminded again that he deserves to be in federal prison. In this corrupt media environment, however, the official who oversaw an illegal domestic-spying operation on the legislative branch of the United States government, who tried to cover it up and blame innocent Senate staffers when discovered, and who then brazenly lied about it to legislators and the American people — this man is held up as a paragon of civic virtue.

We still don’t even know what role Brennan played in spying on his political opponents during the 2016 campaign. We do know he went on TV for years after, alleging to have insider knowledge of an unprecedented seditious criminal conspiracy against the United States. Never once was he challenged by his hosts. And when an independent multimillion-dollar investigation couldn’t pull together a single indictment related to those claims, Brennan shrugged it off by saying that he may have “received bad information.”

Brennan was back on MSNBC yesterday, contending that American intelligence agencies “are moving in laser-like fashion to try to uncover as much as they can about” the pro-Trump “insurgency” that harbors “religious extremists, authoritarians, fascists, bigots, racists, nativists, even libertarians.”

Even a former Communist such as Brennan surely understands that there is nothing prohibiting Americans from being religious extremists, fascists, bigots, racists, nativists or even libertarians. It’s definitely none of his business, or that of intelligence agencies, to define what those terms mean. (And the idea that libertarians, who can’t get a minyan to agree on anything libertarian, are marshaling forces for a national insurgency is nonsensical.)

As Brennan is a congenital liar, this may well be another one of his convenient fictions. Yet, considering his history of abusing power — Samantha Power, no lightweight on this front herself, once warned that it wasn’t a “good idea to piss off John Brennan” — we shouldn’t entirely dismiss the idea that his allies are ferreting out thoughtcrimes.

Finding those who illegally threaten others with violence is well within the bailiwick of the government. But the Capitol riot has given authoritarians such as Brennan the pretext to advocate the chilling of speech and censorship. It has become normalized, even celebrated. Networks such as CNN employ full-time anti-speech advocates who pump out cynical content meant to shame tech carriers into taking their competition off the air.

“Extremists exploit a loophole in social moderation: Podcasts on Apple, Google,” reports Tali Arbel at the Associated Press. Are Americans who express their political views on the internet really abusing a “loophole,” or are Big Tech companies who censor them at the behest of the powerful abusing a “loophole” in the First Amendment? Only in the kicker of the fearmongering piece does Arbel quote Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who warns that the tide of censorship “is against the speech of right-wing extremists … but tomorrow the tide might be against opposition activists.” The problem is that censors never believe they’ll lose power, and maybe this time they’re right.

Those who rationalize state censorship almost always expand their definition of “extremist” to include their political opponents. The Washington Post’s columnist Max Boot, for instance, welcomed regime change by imploring the Biden administration to regulate those who supposedly incite radicalism, including Fox News.

Yesterday, Nicolle Wallace, Brennan’s MSNBC colleague, called for forcing Republicans to offer “the truth” before they are “allowed” to say anything else. As we protect people from “counterfeit bills,” she explained, we can protect them against “fake news.” What made Wallace’s comment especially surreal — aside from the fact that’s she apparently never read the Constitution — was that her guest was Ben Rhodes, the former Obama administration official who once bragged to The New York Times that he’d duped a bunch of dimwitted reporters into becoming his disinformation operation. Now Rhodes, too, seems interested in importing Iranian-style censorship with a “firm and brutal” “detox” of bad ideas, achieved through the “national security” and “Homeland Security” officials.

I’m old-fashioned. I’d rather have a bunch of nuts ranting on podcasts all day than one John Brennan deciding what we can say. To my ears, Rhodes, Brennan, Wallace and Boot are the ones who sound like a threat to “democracy.”

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