Appointments, Confirmations & Budgets

On the Sliming of Susan Hennessey

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, June 10, 2021, 10:40 AM

I have made a point of staying quiet as the Trumpist right has gone after Lawfare’s former executive editor, Susan Hennessey, following her appointment to a position in the Justice Department’s National Security Division. 

I have stayed quiet because Susan is a dear friend and colleague and has been my business partner in the development of this site, and also because I haven’t wanted to dignify the attacks on her with responses. There is literally nothing intellectually interesting or constructive about the criticisms Susan is weathering. And responding to the attacks only plays the game of reiterating and propagating them. 

I’ve also been mindful that the attacks on Susan are attacks on me, insofar as much of the work that gives rise to them was co-authored with me, and they are also attacks on Lawfare and Brookings—which have been Susan’s professional homes since she left the National Security Agency (NSA). 

I have therefore tried to keep a dignified silence as attacks on Twitter—including from sitting U.S. senators—have proliferated, as they spread to supposedly respectable conservative publications, as they made it onto Fox News and the other influence centers of the right-wing media ecosystem, and as that ecosystem has tried to transform a careful legal analyst into a figure akin to the mirror image of Matthew Whitaker. (So as not to further propagate the lies and ad hominem nastiness directed at Susan, to the extent possible I avoid linking to or quoting or even characterizing any of these pieces or tweets in what follows.)

Unfortunately, continuing to rope-a-dope the sliming of Susan on her and Lawfare’s behalf is no longer tenable. The other day, three Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee—including Ranking Member Jim Jordan and two ranking members of subcommittees—penned a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland seeking “information about the recent appointment of Susan Hennessey to a senior position in the Justice Department’s National Security Division (NSD).” 

As you’ll see if you read the letter, it is almost entirely devoid of substance. It accuses Susan of conspiracy theorizing and partisan bias while quoting a combination of statements by her that are either unambiguously true or perfectly reasonable opinions. The footnotes show virtually no engagement with Susan’s actual work or statements; the letter merely parrots the right-wing media ecosystem’s own denunciations of Susan’s work.

But a formal congressional letter to the attorney general is not just a dumb op-ed or tweet; it requires a formal response. And the letter almost certainly also presages an effort to sandbag Matt Olsen—the administration’s nominee to head NSD—with questions about Susan at his as-yet-unscheduled confirmation hearing. Both the Justice Department, in whatever formal response it gives, and Olsen in his testimony will be constrained in what they can say by the need not to needlessly antagonize the minority party in Congress.

I, however, am not so constrained and do not want whatever measured and appropriately nonconfrontational statement that officialdom produces to constitute the sum total of what gets said in response to these attacks. So, with the handicap that I do not wish to repeat any of the allegations against Susan, here are some points I would like to make about her.

First, the House Republican letter asks Garland to “[e]xplain whether the Justice Department or any component of the Biden-Harris Administration requested, directed, or suggested that Ms. Hennessey delete her tweets.” The demand for information responds to the very silly accusation that Susan deleted her tweets in some kind of effort to hide evidence of her partisan bias.

The answer is that the premise of the question is incorrect. Once upon a time, in 2018, the journalist Glenn Greenwald deleted a bunch of his back tweets. This inspired a fair bit of criticism. Susan, though by no means a defender of Greenwald, tweeted that she thought regularly deleting one’s tweets was good practice. And from that point forward, her tweets have auto-deleted on a regular basis by one means or another. At first, this regular auto-deletion appears to have involved only her new tweets, not her backlog of older ones. Later, she began auto-deleting both new and old tweets. I cannot document her announcement in 2018 or 2019 that she was adopting this practice, because well, the tweets in question auto-deleted. But I can remember well when and why she began doing it, and even considered at the time doing the same myself. 

In other words, Susan began setting her tweets to auto-delete during the Trump administration. And no, I have no indication that either the Justice Department nor any component of the Trump-Pence administration requested, directed or suggested that she do so.

Second, it is notable that Susan is being attacked largely for saying things that are either perfectly and plainly true or are well within the bounds of reasonable opinion. Did she comment extensively on allegations about collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign? Why, yes. That was, in fact, her job. 

Did she comment that Christopher Steele was a “person whose work intelligence professionals take seriously”? Yes, again. This was hardly a radical or partisan statement. 

Indeed, whatever damage Steele’s reputation may have suffered in the interim, that account of him by Susan, Quinta Jurecic and me was simply an accurate statement of his reputation in January 2017, when we wrote the piece in question. What’s more, far from hyping the so-called Steele dossier, the piece explains all the reasons to be cautious about the dossier and concludes: 

All of which is to say to everyone: slow down, and take a deep breath. We shouldn’t assume either that this is simply a “fake news” episode directed at discrediting Trump or that the dam has now broken and the truth is coming out at last. We don’t know what the reality is here, and the better part of valor is not to get ahead of the facts—a matter on which, incidentally, the press deserves a lot of credit. 

I think this piece stands up very well with the benefit of four years of hindsight, even as more information has come out about Steele and the dossier in question. 

Notably, the authors of the House Republican letter show no sign of having read the Steele piece Susan actually wrote. The quotation in their letter includes a footnote to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Kimberley Strassel that quotes the Lawfare piece, not a footnote to the piece itself.

There’s a reason why none of Susan’s attackers can produce a quotation in which Susan hyped the Steele dossier: Those quotes do not exist—and they never did. There were many people who were hyping the Steele dossier. Susan Hennessey was not at any time one of them. 

The painting of Susan as some shrill left-wing conspiracy theorist by quoting other people quoting Susan out of context is a pattern in the letter. The House Republicans cite, for example, a Wall Street Journal editorial quoting Susan as saying that the intercepted conversation between Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, about which Flynn later lied to the FBI, “posed a countervailing set of extraordinary circumstances.”

It’s hard to imagine why this quotation might be seen as reflecting partisanship or bias under any circumstances. But again, the letter writers would have done well to read Susan’s actual piece, which makes clear exactly what she thought of the Flynn leak:

[B]oth Adam Klein and Tim Edgar wrote about the troubling nature of the Flynn disclosures on Lawfare. Certainly both were right about the extraordinary nature of those disclosures and the difficult questions they raise. I cannot recall any other time in which the contents of FISA intercepts were disclosed to the media in this manner. The Flynn disclosure posed security risks to sources and methods by revealing that a precise communication channel had been compromised. And, as both Tim and Adam noted, it violated laws and guidelines designed to protect not only security but civil liberties as well.

Even among the security-minded, however, that particular episode posed a countervailing set of extraordinary circumstances. As Sally Yates testified, there were individuals in the US government who believed Flynn was in a position to be compromised by Russia, posing a grave national security risk. And despite the information’s being reported through the ordinary channels, no protective action was taken and White House officials were making materially false statements on the matter to the American public.

I could go on, but there’s no need to bother. Susan’s commentary over the years has been careful and measured. It has stood up excellently in retrospect. The only way to make it look outrageous is to mischaracterize it pervasively.

This brings me to my third and most important point, which relates to the reason this is happening to Susan. When a broad political movement has consistently put lies ahead of truth in the service of its own power—as the Trumpist right has with respect to Russia, Trump and associated matters—it simply has to smear those who faced the issue squarely. To acknowledge that Susan’s writings are accurate, that she is superbly qualified to serve at the Justice Department, and that her work reflects not bias but care and wisdom and factual rigor is to allow that there really was something to talk about concerning Russia and Trump. 

By painting Susan as a crazed conspiracy theorist who does not belong in government, the right-wing ecosystem can elide its own failure to grapple with Trump’s gross failures of patriotism—and the movement’s own failure to put country and national security before its immediate political interest in defending him. 

Sliming Susan is also about whitewashing history. The project of rehabilitating Flynn, even as he urges a military coup against the Biden administration, requires discrediting those who took his criminal behavior seriously at the time it happened. The project of pretending that Russia collusion concerns were a “hoax” requires discrediting those who followed carefully and spoke about the investigation of those matters in real time. It is by painting the Susan Hennesseys of the world as disreputable that the far right can pretend these things did not happen. It is by sliming people like Susan that Trump’s defenders can maximize the disincentive for others to speak candidly about these issues in the future. 

This is how history gets rewritten—through the mindless and endless repetition that the Capitol insurrectionists were just tourists, that the Russia investigation was a “collusion hoax” and that those who took the allegations seriously were partisan conspiracy theorists.

So let me conclude with a few words about who Susan Hennessey really is, as someone who has worked with her especially closely since she was in law school. She is a woman who did not follow the career trajectory of legal partisans of all stripes: Instead of clerking for an ideologically simpatico judge and then going to the right sort of law firm, she took the highly unusual step of going directly from law school into the NSA general counsel’s office. She left government and came to Lawfare at my request at a time when the site was generally thought of as a locus of right-of-center thought on national security legal matters. We never discussed her political views in the course of my consideration of her taking on a management or editorial role at the site. 

Over the past few years, it has been Susan’s job to study contentious national security legal questions, to form views of them, to write about those issues on the site, and to explain them on any number of podcasts and television shows. She has done this with care and with both legal and moral seriousness. She has consistently added value to the conversation. 

When Garland responds to this letter, he likely won’t say any of these things. And if and when Olsen has to answer questions about Susan in his confirmation hearing, he probably won’t either. That’s appropriate. It is not the job of senior Justice Department officials to point out the malicious ignorance of letters by senior legislators or of articles by their media ventriloquists.

It is, however, my job to say that I am deeply proud of the work Susan did at Lawfare—both on her own and in collaboration with myself and others—and to insist that it reflects, far from bias or partisanship, analysis under pressure, in the highest tradition of the Department of Justice.