A peek at the past — Most people know that Japanese forces attacked the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. The US entered World War II immediately. President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his famous “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress on December 8th. While most Americans recognize the first lines of the speech, it’s time to remind ourselves of Roosevelt’s remarks later in his brief address:
“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.”
At the end of the war in 1945 there wasn’t much public appetite for additional war investigations, but Congress did act. A resolution adopted on September 6, 1945 called for the formation of a joint committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack. One of the results of the investigations and other efforts was the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, which among other things consolidated the military into the Department of Defense and established the Central Intelligence Agency. In other words, after an attack on the US, we were capable of thorough investigations, even when public sentiment was divided on the results, identifying problems, and legislating proposed solutions.
On September 11, 2001 radical terrorists attacked targets in New York City, Washington, DC, and attempted a third attack thwarted by passengers. The 9/11 Commission was established by PL 107-306 on November 2002. The commission was independent, bipartisan, and directed to publish a full and complete account, and mandated to make recommendations to prevent future similar attacks on the US and its citizens.
These are two of the most commonly cited examples of US responses to attacks on the United States as people try to evaluate current attacks on our country and our responses to those assaults. While these are useful markers, and excellent examples of our capacity for both action and self-reflection, they aren’t precisely analogous to present Russian attacks on American institutions. To repeat the obvious, the two major previous attacks were physical and highly visible. They were both ‘mechanical’ in the sense that the main elements of the attacks were either weapons or weaponized aircraft.
Notes about the present — By contrast, the Russian assault on US (and other western nations) is better seen as an extension of the Cold War between the US and the former USSR. Any investigation of Russian activities must, of necessity, be broader than the more focused investigations of December 7th and September 11th. It must also take into consideration the weaponized use of non-mechanical forms of assault. It challenges our ability to reflect on the nature, extent, strategy, and tactics of the current attacks.
We have not responded all that well to this assault. For one thing, the weapons used relied on our own strengths. We have an open and engaged environment with constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and press. This very environment was used to foment discord, and disinformation — and that was the point.
In January 2017 the US intelligence services released a public summary of their findings concerning Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Two of those findings should be especially concerning:
“In unequivocal language, the report pins responsibility for the election attack directly on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, ruling out the possibility that it was ordered by intelligence officials or simply carried out by Kremlin supporters.
United States officials believe Mr. Putin wants to damage the image of American democracy to make it less attractive to Russians and their neighbors.”
In light of these remarkable conclusions, the US response has been equally remarkably tepid, partisan, and confused.
First, the current investigations of the matter are fragmented. Instead of following the precedent of an independent commission (such as the 9/11 commission) or even a bipartisan investigative panel (such as the Pearl Harbor committee) the Congress established a special counsel to investigate possible violations of US statutes, and relied on standard (and partisan) congressional committees to conduct a wider range of inquiries into the wider aspects of the Russian attacks.
Secondly, the partisan nature of the Congress has interfered with the efficient and efficacious collection of evidence and testimony in regard to the nature and scope of the Russian assault on our democracy. Perhaps no committee has been such a signal example of what partisanship can do to an important investigation as the House Intelligence Committee. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s efforts directed by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) are questionable:
“Grassley’s role in the congressional probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has perplexed and concerned members of his own party, Republican staffers on the committee told The Daily Beast.
The probe appears to have already missed one of its own deadlines. And rather than publicly needling potential Russian meddlers, Grassley has primarily used his bully pulpit to rip an opposition-research firm and the FBI.”
In short, Senator Grassley seems at present to be more concerned with casting doubt on a specific dossier and its origins than on conducting an independent investigation. A reasonable person could easily conclude that the current Congress has failed to create an atmosphere in which the conclusions of its various panels will be accepted as credible by the general public. Of all the failures of the 115th Congress, this may well be the one with the most lasting deleterious effect.
The Russians are here, and the 115th Congress has neither demonstrated its interest in focusing on specific problems and solutions as the Congress in 1945 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, nor the interest in exploring the nature, scope, and specifics of the attacks of September 11th. Perhaps this is an example of the greatest danger posed by Putin’s assault on democratic institutions?