CIA director John Brennan. Photo via Wikipedia

The CIA-FBI Election Feud Feels a Lot Like Prelude to a Coup

Crazier things have happened


The U.S. electoral college has made its decision — despite high-level allegations of foreign interference in the election and a president-elect who is uniquely exposed to conflicts of interest and foreign influence, electors have put Donald Trump into the same office once held by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

This is disturbing enough, but perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that both the CIA and FBI appear to be playing politics … on opposite sides.

There have always been turf wars between the agencies, but now these particular agencies are actively picking sides in a political conflict that includes questioning the legitimacy of national elections.

In any other country, we’d be anticipating a coup.

It’s true that the FBI fell in line on the Russian-election-meddling allegations, but earlier the bureau sandbagged these very claims. FBI director James Comey’s infamous October 2016 memo — in which he hinted that the bureau might reopen its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails — was reportedly the result of internal mobilization within the bureau to tilt the election Trump’s direction.

These agencies are sprawling, internally contradictory and heterogeneous bureaucracies, but it certainly appears that there is an influential sect within the FBI that favors Trump — and a corresponding group in the CIA that opposes him.

Personally, I believe that this rivalry is rooted in distinct allegiances among different sectors of the ruling class. The CIA group is hostile to Trump because of his sympathy for Russia, a regime that has entered into a major global rivalry with Saudi Arabia, which itself has close ties to the CIA and to reactionary U.S. business interests.

The FBI is, at this point, hostile to Saudi Arabia and international ideological networks that the agency has been charged with combating. This expresses itself in a cultural hostility to the regime and in at least latent Islamophobia, both of which led to an opposition to Clinton and an openness to Trump.

The CIA represents technocratic imperial realism, the FBI nationalist conservatism.

U.S. imperialism is reaching a crucial inflection point. The chaos of its competing international alliances has expressed itself in the security state itself and is now being played out in domestic statecraft. This is an exceedingly volatile contradiction.

And the Trump administration is not a unified and neutral playing field on which this rivalry can play out. It suffers its own divisions and differing loyalties. Most significant among these is that in the campaign for all of Trump’s obvious affinity for Russia, vice president-elect Mike Pence was hostile to Putin & company.

Recall that there was a flat contradiction in the positions the candidates took in their respective debates. Trump explicitly said that he disagreed with Pence on the whole Russia issue.

This contradiction has only two possible resolutions. Either the FBI-based pro-Trump forces and the new president suppress Pence’s position — along with the CIA and its allies throughout the security state — or the CIA removes Trump and puts Pence into power. Pence then suppresses pro-Trump elements of the FBI.

One of these is much more easily accomplished than the other.

At the same time the rest of the regime is a dream for the CIA. The CIA’s base is U.S. corporate power. It exists to extend and protect global U.S. business interests. This cabinet is a collection of the most reactionary, unbridled advocates of corporate rule — and the CIA could have its dream state … if only one element were removed.

Right now the CIA is signalling its hostility to Trump by working to undermine his election — and also by declining to brief the president-elect. Trump has refused briefings, the story goes — and that’s probably true.

At right, FBI director James Comey. Photo via Wikipedia

But why? Trump says it’s because he’s too smart for the CIA. Could it be because his briefers refuse to show him the sycophancy he demands? His refusal implies an insult to the CIA — you can’t tell me anything I don’t know, you don’t know anything, you’re a waste of my time. The CIA also doesn’t seem to be fighting too hard to make Trump listen. Where does such an unprecedented rivalry end?

The main thing that would stop the CIA from solving the problem directly would be that the agency doesn’t think that it can get away with it. One point of failure would be operational — consider the failed Valkyrie plot in Germany. A failed coup can empower the target.

The other point is political. Say the CIA pulls off regime-change but then faces a powerful public backlash — one that could threaten the existence and legitimacy of the U.S. state as a whole.

The politics, however, suggest that Trump is wildly unpopular and enjoys the flimsiest of mandates. By perpetuating stories that he is a puppet of a foreign state, the CIA can further erode that mandate and unite a significant segment of the political class behind a rejection of Trump’s legitimacy.

Note that the closest and most respected allies of the national security state in Congress — senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham — have been extremely vocal in validating the Russian influence story. It may be just a coincidence, but it looks more or less exactly like it would if the CIA were actively working U.S. politics to undermine the legitimacy of an incoming presidential administration.

Republicans’ fealty to Trump, on the other hand, is a significant obstacle to any action of this sort. Their devotion is such that they not only reject the Russian interference hypothesis, but a majority of Republicans apparently also believe — falsely — that Trump won the popular vote. In fact, Clinton got nearly three million more votes than Trump did.

Such heedless loyalty is a key ingredient in a major civil breakdown were Trump’s presidency to come to a premature end. It would be difficult to work around — even for the CIA.

Nonetheless, if this were any other country and there were a strong rivalry within the security apparatus, the regime would be anticipating a coup d’etat. If we have learned nothing else in this election, it ought to be that there is no American exceptionalism, and the things we used to assign to third-world countries are the order of the day here, now.

Look, this is all just conjecture. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility. And it’s worth reflecting on.

What happens after a coup is crucial. If the CIA were to overthrow Trump, Pence could be compelled to lock down the state. He will have good reason to remove FBI-aligned elements. If the American people allow Pence to assume power — if liberals decide to give him a chance — we will be in for a time of unprecedented reactionary power.

This would resemble the arch reactionary regimes in Asia and Latin America in the past, and we must prepare to resist this imposition now.

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