The inner workings of our democratic republic were brought into my awareness a couple of days ago as I was listening on NPR to Congressional hearings while mixing concrete for a deck stairway addition to my home.
They say that multi-tasking is not something you can effectively do. I have never believed that, so I try to do it all the time.
On that particular day, which happened to be the first day of spring, it felt good to be outside on a sunny morning in the slowly warming upper-40's fahrenheit air, doing a constructive work in the yard while at the same time tuning into the hearing being conducted by Chairman Devin Nunes of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
While trying to learn about the delicate and bullysome governance of our great nation while getting some work done, I make mental note to self: good luck with that.
So there I was in the morning sunshine mixing concrete and it felt great in our cool early morning Blue Ridge mountain air.
And there was something about the experience that I would like to convey to you because I feel it is important that citizens make themselves aware of some of the issues that confront those men and women whose job it is to govern, and to work productively within in an immense, arcane federal bureaucracy the purpose of which is to keep our nation going.
Maybe its because I'm an old guy now, 65, that the first thing that jumps out in my mind is a deja vu of the Watergate hearings in 1973. As I was hearing our Representatives speak about Mr. Flynn, President-elect Trump, the Russians, FISA, unmasking this or that person, and possible unauthorized dissemination of classified information about a US person, etcetera etcetera blah blah blah . . .
My mind was flashing on the summer of 1973 when I was watching the Senate Judiciary Committee as they gathered info about the White House "plumbers" who broke into an office in the Watergate hotel in Washington. During those hearings there was talk of Mr. McCord, Mr. Mitchell, and John Dean, and there was administrative finesse being displayed by Chairman Sam Ervin.
That was the last time, you see, that I listened attentively to a Congressional hearing.
Of course there is no real relationship between that Watergate fiasco 44 years ago and whatever is going on now with this present wiretapping allegation brouhaha as it relates to presidential politics.
But there was a connection in my mind between these two situations that are so far apart in time.
Perhaps what triggered the memory in my mind was the repetitive mentions of certain phrases being spoken by FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers. I kept hearing certain answers:
"I can't comment on that." "I'm not going to comment on hypotheticals."
. . . can't comment on individual persons, US persons. . ., can't answer; it would depend on. . ., not going to comment on a news article . . . , not at liberty to talk about communication within the executive branch . . ., I'm not going to answer. . . same answer . . . "same answer."
At one point, Director Comey allowed this personal admission:
"That's not something I can comment on. I'm trying very hard to not talk about anything that relates to a US person."
My first thought was that these two Intelligence Directors were perhaps not as forthcoming as they should be, because, you know, their inquisitors were members of Congress who represent We the People, etc.
But then I realized that these guys are doing their jobs by not just spouting information about the US persons whom they are striving to protect.
My second thought was about how much grace the Congressional questioners were extending to these reticent public officials, by tolerating, without objection, such a continuous string of those "I cannot answer that" responses from Directors Comey and Rogers.
Reflecting on it now, two days later, the conundrum is best represented in this statement by Representative Terri Sewell:
"So Director Comey, I know you cannot discuss whether any investigations are ongoing with 'U.S. persons,' and I respect that. I think it's important, though, that the American people understand the scope and breadth of public, open source reporting of Mr. Flynn's actions that led to his resignation. And while we can't talk about . . . an investigation, I believe that we here at HIPSI, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, must put those facts into the public domain."
As the hours wore on, I came to understand that there is a very delicate balance going on here, in a very complicated world. Irresponsible exposure of information that has been gathered about US citizens would be a violation of (Director Comey's and Director Rogers') sworn duty. At the same time they are duty-bound to protect US citizens, they are duty-bound to investigate people, both native and foreign, respectively.
This is no simple task.
Even though I managed, in the several hours I listened to all this, to mix 1360 pounds of concrete and place it strategically it in the ground in my yard, this labor that I did was far easier, I concluded, than the task that has been appointed to Directors Comey and Rogers.
To those two public servants, I am moved to say: Thank you, gentlemen, for your service.
I did, nevertheless, notice a pattern developing in all this Congressional enquiry that flooded my earbuds as I labored through the day.
The Directors' hesitant refusals to answer all questions were frequently preceded and/or followed up by lengthy statements from the Representatives who were questioning them.
At first, I thought this was just the politicians grandstanding, running their mouths to convince the public of their eloquence in the grave matters of national security.
By the end of the day, however, I had figured out that the Representatives were using the public forum to inject information from their own research into the public record. This too, is important.
I see it as public education, much more important than, say, how bathroom assignments are administered in public schools.
Rep. Andre Carson says "There's a lot at stake here for Russia."
I'm paraphrasing Rep. Carson's message here. He went on to explain . . . This is big money, lots of implications. If they (the Russians) can legitimate their annexation of Crimea, what's next? Are we looking at a new 'iron curtain'? . the United States, as leader of the free world, is the only check on Russian expansion. . . At the Republican convention in July, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Trump himself changed the Republican party platform to no longer arm Ukraine. So, the same month that Trump denied Putin's role in Ukraine, Trump's team weakened the party platform on Ukraine, and . . . this was the same month that certain individuals in the Trump orbit held secret meetings with Russian officials, some of which may have been on the topic of sanctions . . . this is no coincidence in my opinion. . .
Now is there something to this, does it even matter, does this amount to a hill of beans in all the gigabytes of data streaming across cyberworld . . . I'm wondering? while mixing my concrete.
And here's another sample of the Committee's exchange:
Rep Frank Lobiando: . . .if you can describe the use of Russia's active measures during the campaign. . .
Rogers: So we saw cyber used, we saw the use of external media, we saw the use of disinformation, we saw the use of leaking of information, much of which was not altered, . . . release of cyber-information
And yet another random snippet:
Rep. Jackie Speier:
"You know, I think it's really important, as we sit here, that we explain this to the American people in a way that they can understand it. Why are we talking about all of this?"
Thanks for asking, Jackie. I understand a little more than I did five hours ago, but I'm just one sand grain on the shores of America.
Meanwhile, I got something done today on the old homestead.
And I must conclude that we've made some progress in our relations with the Ruskies since I was a kid in the early 1960's. Back then, the big question was whether they were going to blow us to smithereens with nuclear bombs!
It seems we've come a long way since then. Maybe our peace-seeking has something to do with demolishing that infamous wall over in Berlin, the one where President Kennedy said "Let them come to Berlin. Ich bin ein Berliner," and later President Reagan said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
In this life, there is a time for tearing down, and there is a time for building, and there is a time for listening, and a time for trying to figure a few things out while while listening and while building or tearing down, as the case may be . . .
This has been going on a long time, but now, in modern times, the stakes are higher with all them nukes in the ground somewhere.
Be careful, gentlemen.