As President Donald Trump’s administration begins, relations between the United States and Russia make the headlines almost every day. No one seems able to agree on what Russian President Vladimir Putin did or did not do to try to influence the 2016 U.S. elections, much less on what his ultimate aims are. Trump’s own cabinet picks, not to mention the U.S. Congress and Senate, are split on whether the U.S. should try yet another ‘reset’ with Russia, or instead punish Putin further for his actions. Meanwhile European countries allied with the U.S. in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are undergoing their own wrenching debates about Russia, with some leading politicians believing that Russia intends to break NATO or perhaps even invade the Baltics, while other European political parties openly cooperate with Putin. Business interests in both North America and Europe seek an end to the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after its seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014, but human rights groups argue to the contrary that even stronger sanctions are warranted.
From the very beginning of the nation’s history, intelligence has been set aside as a conspicuous exception to James Madison’s advocacy of checks-and-balances, spelled out in his Federalist Paper No. 51. The ‘auxiliary precautions’ that this key participant at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (and later America’s fourth President) — the safeguards he had helped build into the Constitution — were never applied to America’s secret intelligence activities. It has been the norm around the world for nations to treat their intelligence services as something special and apart from the rest of government. These agencies wear a cloak of secrecy, have unique access to decision-makers, and are given considerable leeway to carry out their duties without the usual review (in democracies at least) of programs, personnel, and budgets by overseers in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. A nation’s leaders were expected to avert their eyes as the secret services broke laws overseas (a routine occurrence) and engaged in unsavory activities, even assassinations and coups d’état, that would be deemed highly inappropriate for other government agencies.