Congressman Gaetz and company have substituted trolling for leadership, and their actions will not provide openness in government. All they are offering is spectacle.

First published in October 2019.

The invasion by Matt Gaetz and other Republican members of the House of Representatives into a closed-door hearing with Pentagon official Laura Cooper, who was set to give testimony in the inquiry into impeachment of Donald Trump, in one sense is just the latest illustration of how much the Republican Party has transformed itself into a mob of teenage boys feeling their first rush of hormones.

But coming on the same day that podcaster Joe Rogan interviewed Edward Snowden, the question comes up regarding how much of our government ought to be conducted in public.

Edward Snowden, of course, is the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed the spying that the American government has been doing on its own citizens in the post 9/11 rejection of due process and oversight. He identifies himself as a whistleblower, a role that powerful people despise, as the current agitation over the impeachment hearings illustrates.

The stunt by Gaetz, et al., is particularly childish, since the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has nine Republican members who are entitled to hear the closed-door testimony. The Republicans who are not members may resent being denied an invitation, but they cannot claim that their side is unrepresented.

That being said, I am liberal enough to question the behavior of my own side and the structures of the system that allow such actions to occur.

On a practical level, if we accept that a SCIF — sensitive compartmented information facility — ought to exist, if we agree that some conversations and some information should be contained in a context where unauthorized persons do not have access, then we have to say that storming in with unsecured cellphones closes the air gap between the data inside and the worldwide web. Such devices are designed to make connections, and any foreign intelligence agency with sufficient skill — of which there are many — could implant malware on Gaetz’s iDingus that would merrily sweep up anything in its vicinity without the member of Congress being aware of what is going on.

But should such facilities exist? More broadly, should we allow our government to act in ways that the people will be kept unaware of for years — or potentially forever?

As much as I am sympathetic with the idea of open government, I have to say that yes, there are situations that must be secret for a while. This is not meant to gratify the desire for privilege on the part of insiders. It is instead a recognition that we live in a complex world and that at times, the government will have to do things beyond immediate public scrutiny.

This can only be tolerated, however, so long as there are reliable monitors who sit at the same metaphorical table while such decisions are being made. One example of this is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, made up of judges drawn from the federal district courts. They are chosen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court to perform the service of deciding on warrants issued in the investigations done by our espionage agencies. This institution is good in principle, if only our spies would use it, and curiously enough, Matt Gaetz introduced legislation in 2018 that would have required these judges to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, demonstrating the truth of the cliché about broken clocks being right twice a day. I am presuming an actively progressive president and Senate here to make this work, but perhaps I can be forgiven for being hopeful.

This latter point illustrates one key failing of our system in this century, the legislative branch’s surrender of their oversight duties, whether we are talking about checking on and restraining the work of executive departments or about impeachment of the president. George W. Bush and his administration lied to get us into a disastrous war and suffered no consequences. Congress handed him vast powers and took years to rein them a little of the way back in — this is not a partisan issue, since Obama used the same powers despite having run against them. The current impeachment hearings are a step in the right direction — a much belated step — and the findings will have to go on record soon. But there will need to be a broad reassessment of the degree and kinds of secrets and of the relationship between the branches of government that we will find acceptable going forward.

I do, for example, understand the need for members of Congress to hold hearings with intelligence and military officials in secure settings as they gather evidence against Trump. And those officials do have to conduct some business beyond the contemporary gaze of the public. But our government must recognize that if we are going to have secrets, that makes whistleblowers essential. Such people keep the system within widely spaced limits, holding us back from the worst excesses. A new edition of the Church Committee would be a good way to start, especially as it would remind Congress that they were established as a co-equal branch of government precisely to assure the public that what our leaders do is never entirely hidden from responsible eyes.

But more than that, the voters have to choose legislators whom we can trust to perform oversight duties. Matt Gaetz and company have substituted trolling for leadership, and their actions will not provide openness in government. All they are offering is spectacle, as if to say that their channel gives as much reality television as the president’s station. In some sense, this is to be expected, given how long it has taken the Democratic leadership to admit the obvious, and when the adults do not manage things, the children will run riot.

We have been given the blessing of elected government, however, for as long as it lasts, and while we still possess it, we must collectively decide to make better choices, choices for open government that works for the people.🔷

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in on 30 October 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Gif of GOP members, led by Matt Gaetz, entering the secure hearing room.)