A surge of public activism by former CIA personnel is one of the most unexpected developments of the Trump era
Two former CIA officers — both Democrats, both women, both liberal — were elected to Congress on November 6. Abigail Spanberger, former operations officer, was elected in Virginia’s 7th District. Elissa Slotkin, former analyst, won in Michigan’s 8th District. Both Spanberger and Slotkin incorporated their intelligence experience into their center-left platforms. Their victories tripled the number of CIA “formers” in Congress.
At the halfway point in Trump’s first term, these formers see themselves as a bulwark of an endangered democracy. The president and his supporters see a cabal of “deep state” radicals out to overturn the will of the people. With the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, an unqualified political operative, as Attorney General, Brennan said a “constitutional crisis” is fast approaching. The clash between a willfully ignorant commander in chief and a politicized intelligence community seems sure to deepen.
..I think the blatant disregard for the threat of foreign influence in our election and the demonization of the Intelligence Community was a turning point for a lot of us,” former branch chief Cindy Otis told me in an email. “. . . Critics can call me ‘The Deep State,’ but I joined the CIA under George W. Bush and the vast majority of people at CIA lean conservative on foreign policy/natsec [national security] issues.”
.. in the 1980s, former director Bush and a host of senior agency operatives joined the Iran-Contra conspiracy. They sought to subvert the Democratic majority in Congress that had banned covert intervention in Central America. The agency’s rank and file did not object. Indeed, many applauded when President Bush pardoned four CIA officials who had been indicted in the scandal.
..After the 9/11 attacks, the consensus in Langley that torture was a permissible, effective and necessary counterterrorism technique no doubt struck many intelligence officers as apolitical common sense. But, of course, adopting “extreme interrogation tactics” was a deeply political decision that President Bush embraced, and President Obama repudiated. The agency deferred to both commanders in chief... The problem with Trump in the eyes of these CIA formers is almost pre-political. The president’s policy decisions matter less than his contempt for intelligence and the system that collects it... When we see things that are blatantly wrong, and the president is responsible, it is fair to speak out,” Bakos said in an interview. “If you’re silent, you’re part of the problem.”
.. Former personnel know better than anyone that the CIA has a license to kill. The agency can spy, capture, bomb and assassinate. It can overthrow governments, foster (or smash) political movements, even re-organize entire societies, according to the inclinations of the president and his advisers.CIA operatives could trust both neoconservative George W. Bush and internationalist Barack Obama with that arsenal because they believed, whatever their politics, both presidents were rational actors. With Trump, they can have no such confidence.
Trump’s contempt for the intelligence profession, weaponized in his “deep state” conspiracy theories, has agency personnel feeling professionally vulnerable, perhaps for the first time. An irrational chief executive has shattered their apolitical pretensions and forced them to re-examine what their core beliefs require.
.. Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to Hayden, told me, “Until now I’ve been mostly a Republican voter at the national level because Republicans shared my views on national security. For a lot of people inside the national security community, that is not necessarily the case anymore. The Republican Party under Trump has abandoned people like us.”
.. When Pfeiffer told me, “Who knows? I might have to vote for Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders in 2020,” he sounded amazed by the possibility but not averse to it. Two years of Trump can do that to a former spy.
The point is not that the CIA is getting more liberal, says John Prados, author of “The Ghosts of Langley,” a history of the agency. Rather, the election results show that the voting bloc that supports the president now skews even more to the hard right. “The migration of [the] political spectrum to the right makes the agency look more liberal than it is,” he said in an interview.
.. “I find it sad — and maybe a few other adjectives — that Brennan now gets a pass for some of [the] things he did as director, just because he’s combatting Trump,” Prados said.
.. “If Trump is going to carry out a secret war against Iran as he seems to want to do, who is our ally?” Prados asked. “Mossad [the Israeli intelligence service]? Who can work with Mossad? The CIA. If that is Trump’s Middle East agenda, the interests of current CIA people and the formers may diverge.”
.. “Trump is not only relying on lies and falsehoods in his public statements, but I have to believe he is pushing back on the realities that are brought to him. Imagine Gina Haspel goes to the White House with a briefer to talk about the latest intel on — fill in the blank:
- North Korea’s missile program.
- What China is doing to supplant America in Asia.
- Where Europe wants to go with NATO.
Does the president listen or care? Or even understand? We’re not in crisis on any one issue, but can we really say the government is functioning?”
.. Harrington expects the mistrust between the president and the intelligence community to grow in the next two years.
“No director of any federal agency can turn away the inquiries of the Democratic House,” Harrington said. “CIA people have to deal head on with the consequences of a president who is fundamentally not dealing with reality.”
If there’s one thing to be learned from talking to former CIA personnel, it’s the sense that the CIA system — powerful, stealthy, and dangerous — is blinking red about the latest news of an authoritarian leader in an unstable nation.
“The Deep State,” on the other hand, is a description of the millions of bureaucrats immune from the political ebbs and flows. The term is meant to suggest that these men and women are pursuing agendas that run contrary to the preferences of the president, the peole who voted for him, or the nation at large.
.. We can debate whether and how much the Deep State is actually countering Trump’s agenda. But one thing that is not debatable is that the anonymous author is not part of such a group. Anonymous is, rather, a “senior administration official” who, based on what his op-ed reveals, serves at the pleasure of the president. Trump could get rid of him, if he knew who he was.
.. Instead of rebuking Anonymous with the same complaints many conservatives have lobbed at the career officials at the Department of Justice, we could instead see his op-ed as an illustration of the inherent principal–agent problem that every president must confront. And the essay strongly suggests that Trump is struggling with this problem.
.. Simply stated, the principal–agent problem arises whenever any principal deputizes an agent to do his bidding. How can the principal make sure that the agent is actually doing what he has been tasked to do? Well, it requires monitoring and sanctions — both of which are costly to the principal.
.. Indeed, the differences between presidential success and failure often come down to how the president handles the monitoring of his staff. Jimmy Carter, for instance, was an unsuccessful president in no small part because he was a micromanager.
.. Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, imported organization structures from the military to great success. More recently, in Confidence Men, Ron Suskind reported that Barack Obama instructed U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to draw up a plan to dissolve Citigroup; however, Suskind claimed, Geithner ignored the order, and Obama never followed up. That is the principal–agent problem in action.
.. These are all symptoms of an executive branch that is suffering from a lack of sufficient management.
.. If Trump does not have a good handle on what his agents are up to, then his power necessarily is going to decline, as the principal–agent problem grows. We can bemoan the fact that his political appointees are undermining democratic accountability by ignoring or circumventing Trump’s dictates, but that misses the point. The principal–agent problem exists just about everywhere. It is a consequence of human nature, whereby people are prone to put their own judgments and interests first. That’s why principals must monitor their agents.
I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations... The dilemma — which he does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations... To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous... But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making... Although he was elected as a Republican, the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives:
- free minds,
- free markets and
- free people.At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, he has attacked them outright... In addition to his mass-marketing of the notion that the press is the “enemy of the people,” President Trump’s impulses are generally anti-trade and anti-democratic.
There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture:
- effective deregulation,
- historic tax reform, a
- more robust military and more.
But these successes have come despite — not because of — the president’s leadership style, which is
- petty and
From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims.
.. Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.
“There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next,” a top official complained to me recently, exasperated by an Oval Office meeting at which the president flip-flopped on a major policy decision he’d made only a week earlier.
The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in and around the White House. Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media. But in private, they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.
The result is a two-track presidency.
Take foreign policy: In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations.
Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.
.. On Russia, for instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. He complained for weeks about senior staff members letting him get boxed into further confrontation with Russia, and he expressed frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior. But his national security team knew better — such actions had to be taken, to hold Moscow accountable.
.. This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.
Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.
.. The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us. We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility.
.. Senator John McCain put it best in his farewell letter. All Americans should heed his words and break free of the tribalism trap, with the high aim of uniting through our shared values and love of this great nation.
.. We may no longer have Senator McCain. But we will always have his example — a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue. Mr. Trump may fear such honorable men, but we should revere them.
.. There is a quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put country first. But the real difference will be made by everyday citizens rising above politics, reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one: Americans.
The 2017 document, titled “The Echo Chamber,” accused former Obama officials of undermining the incoming Administration.
In early 2017, some of Donald Trump’s advisers concluded that they faced a sophisticated threat responsible for “coordinated attacks” on the new Administration. They circulated a memo, titled “The Echo Chamber,” which read like a U.S. military-intelligence officer’s analysis of a foreign-insurgent network. Instead of being about enemies in a distant war zone, however, the network described in the memo consisted of former aides to President Barack Obama.
The memo claimed that the “communications infrastructure” that the Obama White House used to “sell Obamacare and the Iran Deal to the public” had been moved to the private sector, now that the former aides were out of government. It called the network the Echo Chamber and accused its members of mounting a coördinated effort “to undermine President Trump’s foreign policy” through organized attacks in the press against Trump and his advisers. “These are the Obama loyalists who are probably among those coordinating the daily/weekly battle rhythm,” the memo said, adding that they likely operated a “virtual war room.” The memo lists Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national-security adviser to President Obama, as “likely the brain behind this operation” and Colin Kahl, Vice-President Joe Biden’s former national-security adviser, as its “likely ops chief.”
.. officials said that it was circulated within the National Security Council and other parts of the Trump White House in early 2017.
.. Some of the same conspiracy theories expressed in the memo appear in internal documents from an Israeli private-intelligence firm that mounted a covert effort to collect damaging information about aides to President Obama who had advocated for the Iran deal.
.. In May, 2017, that firm, Black Cube, provided its operatives with instructions and other briefing materials that included the same ideas and names discussed in the memo
.. A source familiar with the operation has maintained that the investigation of Rhodes and Kahl was part of Black Cube’s work for a private-sector client in the shipping industry, pursuing commercial interests.
.. Conspiracy theories of this kind appear to have thrived in the Trump White House, which was divided into factions that often used media leaks to undermine their rivals and compete for influence with the President.
.. In private meetings, Bannon’s allies in the power struggle, some of whom had military backgrounds, said they were eager to fight back.
.. The firm compiled a list of nine reporters and commentators it claimed were part of the Echo Chamber, including
- The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg,
- the New York Times’ Max Fisher, and
- NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell.
.. Both the memo and Black Cube documents reference attacks in the press on Sebastian Gorka
.. In a section titled “Gorka Allegations,” the Black Cube documents reference allegations that he was anti-Semitic and affiliated with Nazi groups, which Rhodes mentioned in a tweet on one occasion.
.. Jake Sullivan, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, is identified as one of the leaders of the Echo Chamber. The former Obama Administration officials Tommy Vietor, Ned Price, Jon Favreau, Jon Finer, and Dan Pfeiffer are all listed as “likely operations officers.”