Secrets & Lies
From Hunter Biden's laptop to the FBI's recovery of top-secret documents at Mar-a-Lago, coming to terms with dueling realities may be our biggest test yet.
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When I was a kid growing up during the cusp years of Civil Rights, I wanted to be like Greg Morris, the Black guy on the Mission Impossible TV series. He was the quiet electronics expert dispatched to keep the world (or some crucial corner of it) from blowing up, working in tight spaces with his own life on the line while beads of sweat covered his unflappable brow.
When my father wheeled our first TV set into the house, a black-and-white RCA in a wood-grained cabinet, he was proud to chalk up another symbol of the American Dream. Like his Buick and the mortgage, that TV was a sign that he was making it.
We didn’t know then that the images it pushed into our home would not only reveal a world that was mostly closed to us but also tell us who we could be. And to a certain extent who we should be.
It was only natural, under those circumstances,
that at least part of me wanted to be Greg Morris. Like his character Barney Collier I wanted to save the world. I had no interest in electronics, but I wanted to defuse the volatility that defined the era.
Not so much from foreign threats like the strike team on Mission Impossible during those Cold War years. But from police dogs and firehoses. From race riots and the police brutality that sparked them.
Although we didn’t know it at the time,
there was also volatile danger in the form of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which did a lot of bad stuff. It recorded Dr. King’s sex life, infiltrated his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Black Panthers, Vietnam Veterans against the War, and any so-called “left-leaning” group that challenged the official policies of government.
That old FBI also disseminated negative propaganda about these groups. And any others Mr. Hoover suspected of being influenced by communism.
It was Hoover’s FBI, operating under the illegal and secret COINTELPRO unit, which assassinated 21-year-old Black Panther Fred Hampton in an unannounced raid while he was asleep in his bed.
Years later, when the rest of the country learned about all these secret illegal activities, Hampton’s family was paid nearly $2 million by the US government, Cook County, and the City of Chicago, which had all played a part in Hampton’s death.
With all these secret operations
It was hard to know who was telling the truth and who was lying. But as all these misdeeds became known, one thing stood out. The threat to our civil liberties was often domestic. It came from bad actors who decided among themselves what was good for the rest of us—civil liberty and due process be damned.
Foul play at Mar-a-Lago?
So when the FBI executed a legally obtained search warrant on August 8th and seized 20 boxes of classified documents from former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, I could understand why his supporters—especially those with long memories—wondered if maybe the FBI was up to no good. After all, the agency had been tainted before in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Also there were lots of recent bad memories about the origins of the FISA warrant that gave the FBI court-ordered permission to investigate the Trump campaign in 2016.
A former FBI lawyer admitted to doctoring an email the agency relied on to get approval for its surveillance of Trump campaign-aide Carter Page. Two of the four warrants used in that investigation were declared invalid.
Personal text messages between two FBI agents, who were involved in an extramarital affair, gave the impression that their personal feelings about Trump corrupted the agency’s ability to investigate the candidate fairly.
Then after two years of investigations by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, we learned that Trump’s contacts with the Russians did not meet the criminal definition of conspiracy.
All of this made the FBI look bad all over again. And there are certainly reasons to be concerned about overreach. Even though the Supreme Court’s 1967 Katz decision placed restrictions on the agency’s power to conduct surveillance, most of those limitations went away with passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11.
These FBI’s mistakes fueled a separate reality
Ask almost anyone on the Right, and they will tell you The Mueller Report exonerated Mr. Trump, proving that there was no collusion. They will tell you the investigation was politically motivated. That it was based on bogus information in the discredited Steele dossier.
They will tell you these things because the former President says them. And that is what gets repeated on right-wing media.
But it’s a lie
The FBI’s investigation actually began four months before Steele delivered his dossier. And it was actually Trump’s own foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos who signaled the need for further investigation into the campaign’s involvement with Russia when he bragged about it to the Greek Foreign Minister and an Australian diplomat as early as May 2016. The Steele dossier was not delivered until June.
This is just one example. But you can see the difficulty here. A good portion of the nation believes a version of events that is different from fact-based reality. Not only do we have competing narratives. We have dueling realities.
Although Kellyanne Conway was all but pilloried for using the term alternative facts in 2017, it turns out she was right.
In this Meet the Press interview, look how she pivots away from the question and tells a different story using a different set of facts—the alternative facts she wants the audience to pay attention to.
It’s an old trick
Recently, historian Heather Cox Richardson documented a much earlier example of this tactic from 2004.
(A)n advisor to President George W. Bush told journalist Ron Suskind that people like Suskind were in “the reality-based community”: they believed people could find solutions based on their observations and careful study of discernible reality. But, the aide continued, such a worldview was obsolete. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore…. We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Hunter Biden’s laptop
When we don’t have a shared view of reality, we’re screwed. And the lengthy verification issues surrounding Hunter Biden’s laptop, which a recent piece in the Atlantic has called the story that will never go away, is emblematic of that disconnect. It’s a harrowing example of the wedge that divides us.
As Kaitlyn Tiffany observed in the Atlantic:
It’s no longer possible for journalists to do their work in front of an audience that is receptive to the idea that knowledge shifts. Coherent drama that blazes forth all at once is rare.
By the time reporters put in the work to verify parts of the Biden laptop story, it was too late to convince anyone who already believes big government, big tech, and the mainstream media are the enemy.
For many people on the Right, that laptop is all the proof they need that Joe Biden’s son used his father’s name to earn millions. And although nothing on the laptop implicates the current President in corrupt dealings with China and Ukraine, they’re convinced it does.
For them, the FBI and mainstream media failed to act on the 11th-hour “laptop bombshell story,” first released by the New York Post, the way they did when candidate Trump was accused of “colluding” with the Russians.
So naturally Mr. Trump’s supporters cried foul
when the FBI seized documents from the former President’s home on August 8th. On Twitter, #FBICorruption has been trending almost every day since the search. Some have threatened violence against the agency, and one man lost his life in Cincinnati because he tried to carry out that threat.
But until this week, when the Department of Justice released a 36-page filing in federal court, almost no one on the Right expressed concern that the former President held top-secret documents for over a year-and-a-half at an insecure location after receiving a subpoena to return them to the National Archives.
Instead, they pulled out their alternative facts.
Obama kept his documents. What about Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails? What about Hunter Biden’s laptop?
Jesse Watters of Fox News said the FBI probably planted evidence at Mar-a-Lago and lied to get the search warrant. You can understand why his audience would believe him, even though he provided no proof. Just look at the doctored email I’ve already mentioned, which led to the Trump FISA warrant.
Here’s what I don’t understand
Why did the FBI wait so long to retrieve those top-secret documents?
The child in me wants ‘The Secretary’ to send a self-destructing message to Mr. Phelps. So he could get Greg Morris and the rest of the Mission Impossible team into that garish Florida resort by the sea?
But I’m not a child any longer.
You can’t rely on a fictional strike team to save the nation, just as you can’t rely on dual realities and alternative facts. Sooner or later, you have to accept fact-based reality. Which may be what Steve Doocy tried to do on Fox and Friends after the FBI released a photo of the secret documents found in Trump’s desk.
Why didn’t anyone realize
that The Mueller Report did not exonerate Donald Trump but thoroughly documented ten instances in which the former President might have obstructed justice. Ten!
Why didn’t they realize that the man who put his name to The Art of the Deal might see the bargaining value of top-secret documents with the names of human intelligence sources? And be tempted. Sorely tempted to cut a deal. With someone, somewhere, sometime.
We don’t know if Donald Trump did anything wrong.
We don’t know if he will be indicted. Or found guilty if he is. All we know is that the former President’s handling of these highly classified materials was sloppy at best. It’s not the way someone entrusted with our national security should behave, whether in office or not.
The Justice Department’s investigation into this case is not likely to go away soon. It will last at least as long as Hunter Biden’s laptop—with its questionable chain of custody— remains a talking point on the Right. It will not be tied up in a neat bow and resolved in an hour like Mission Impossible.
That show was fiction.
This is real life. No tape will self-destruct in five seconds. There is only a pressing need to get to the bottom of what happened at Mar-a-Lago. And to ensure that our country is not less safe because of what happened there.
This is not a question of whether you’re on the political left or right. It’s more like the question I asked myself when I watched Greg Morris on TV. The question is not merely who we can be or should be—but who we must be in the face of this clear and present danger.
©2022 Andrew ‘Jazprose’ Hill
PS: If you’ve managed to stay with me for this long essay, please enjoy this song composed by the late Abbey Lincoln (shown in the photo above). Depending on your point of view, it may or may not apply to this piece. But it’s a wise and beautiful song just the same. (PPS: I love Abbey Lincoln!)
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It seems every time I read an essay of yours I think it's the best thing you've written and then you come up with something like this. I wish this was a featured article in The Atlantic. Excellent.
Thank you for the excellent article. Clear insight as always. And Abbey Lincoln! Wow. Deeply felt.🙏