Trump’s Attacks on Spy Agencies Are Called a National Security Risk

WASHINGTON—President Trump questioned the competence of U.S. intelligence agencies whose assessments of Iran, North Korea and other threats differ from his own, sparking warnings from national security experts and lawmakers that such public comments expose the U.S. to greater risks.

In a series of tweets Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump suggested that Iran is close to developing nuclear weapons, and that intelligence agencies that don’t recognize the threat are misinformed. “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” Mr. Trump said in one morning tweet. In another, he wrote, “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”

.. Mr. Trump is hoping his personal chemistry with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will help smooth the path toward a nuclear deal. At a rally in West Virginia last year, he noted that he has gotten “beautiful letters” from Mr. Kim and the two “fell in love.” Mr. Trump is planning a summit meeting with Mr. Kim next month, hoping to lock down commitments to roll back the country’s nuclear program.
.. John Brennan, a veteran CIA officer, the agency’s director under President Obama, and an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, wrote in a tweet of his own: “All Americans, especially members of Congress, need to understand the danger you pose to our national security.”Mr. Trump has long said he is wary of the conclusions coming from the U.S. network of spies and intelligence officials whose job is to keep him informed about foreign threats.

He has used the Iraq war to justify his skepticism, noting faulty intelligence estimates that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. As president-elect, his transition team said of U.S. intelligence agencies, “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.”

That statement came in response to reports that U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential raceto aid Mr. Trump.

What happens when the intelligence community decides that Trump is too dangerous to be president?

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 Slippery Slope of Complicity

the absence of any meaningful pushback from Congressional Republicans. Indeed, not only are they acquiescing in Trump’s corruption, his incitements to violence, and his abuse of power, up to and including using the power of office to punish critics, they’re increasingly vocal in cheering him on.

..  if Republicans hold both houses of Congress this November, Trump will go full authoritarian, abusing institutions like the I.R.S., trying to jail opponents and journalists on, er, trumped-up charges, and more — and he’ll do it with full support from his party.

But why? Is Trumpocracy what Republicans always wanted?

Well, it’s probably what some of them always wanted. And some of them are making a coldblooded calculation that the demise of democracy is worth it if it means lower taxes on the rich and freedom to pollute.

.. They’re not really ideologues so much as careerists, whose instinct is always to go along with the party line. And this instinct has drawn them ever deeper into complicity.

.. once you’ve made excuses for and come to the aid of a bad leader, it gets ever harder to say no to the next outrage.

.. Republicans who defended Trump over the Muslim ban, his early attacks on the press, the initial evidence of collusion with Russia, have in effect burned their bridges. It would be deeply embarrassing to admit that the elitist liberals they mocked were right when they were wrong

.. the path of least resistance is always to sign on for the next stage of degradation.

“No evidence of collusion” becomes “collusion is no big deal” becomes “collusion is awesome — and let’s send John Brennan to jail.”

.. The party has long been in the habit of rejecting awkward facts and attributing them to conspiracies: it’s not a big jump from claiming that climate change is a giant hoax perpetrated by the entire scientific community to asserting that Trump is the blameless target of a vast deep state conspiracy.

.. as long as they toed the line they can count on “wing nut welfare” — commentator slots on Fox News, appointments at think tanks, and so on.
.. Even now, I don’t think most political commentators have grasped how deep the rot goes.
.. We’re seeing, in real time, what the GOP is really made of.

How Important Is the Protest Against Trump from the National-Security Establishment?

During the past few years, we have learned that, almost no matter how outrageous or potentially dangerous Donald Trump’s actions and words are, senior Republicans in Congress, on whose support Trump ultimately depends, won’t break with him. If anything, Trump’s grip on the Republican Party, and particularly on its process of selecting candidates, seems to be getting stronger.

It is therefore tempting to dismiss the growing protests against Trump’s decision to revoke the former C.I.A. director John Brennan’s security clearance as just another summer squall in the nation’s capital, one that will quickly blow over. But possibly—just possibly—this could turn out to be a significant political moment.

The blowback intensified on Thursday, when seven former C.I.A. directors issued a public letter supporting Brennan and denouncing the President’s decision. “We all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar actions against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances—and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech,” the letter said. The letter’s signatories included

  1. William Webster,
  2. George Tenet,
  3. Porter Goss,
  4. Michael Hayden,
  5. Leon Panetta,
  6. David Petraeus, and
  7. Robert Gates,

whose tenures as the head of the C.I.A. spanned five Presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama.

That is quite a list. Even the stoutest Trump defenders will have difficulty describing the letter as a partisan political ambush, although, of course, that will not stop them from trying.

.. In asking the President to revoke his security clearance, he was taking a step that could have negative financial consequences for him and his family.

(Many retired military and intelligence figures parlay their security clearances into valuable consulting gigs.)

.. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter that McRaven’s letter “could well be the closest we have come to a Joseph Welch ‘Have you left no sense of decency?’ moment that in many ways broke the McCarthy fever.”

.. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter that McRaven’s letter “could well be the closest we have come to a Joseph Welch ‘Have you left no sense of decency?’ moment that in many ways broke the McCarthy fever.”

.. the former C.I.A. chiefs didn’t go as far as McRaven did. They didn’t attack Trump’s over-all record, call him an embarrassment, or ask him to revoke their security clearances in solidarity with Brennan. But, Haass noted, “They were willing to put their names to something that will not go down well in the White House. It is one thing to take on an individual like John Brennan. But I don’t think the White House counted on this type of reaction. These are patriots. Many of them have served in the military. A lot of members of the Trump base will respect these people.”

.. For months now, Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and pro-Trump media figures like Sean Hannity have been vilifying former senior government officials with long and distinguished records, including Brennan; James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence; and James Comey, the former F.B.I. director.

In the coming days and weeks, the vilification campaign may well extend to McRaven and the former intelligence chiefs who signed the public letter. Will Trump’s base care more about them than they did about Clapper?

.. On Capitol Hill, some Democrats have expressed concerns that Trump’s actions are intended to silence people who might serve as witnesses in any eventual impeachment process or other legal proceeding. Most senior Republicans, predictably enough, are keeping quiet or expressing support for the President’s treatment of Brennan. The “President has full authority to revoke [Brennan’s] security clearance as head of the executive branch,” Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.

..  especially in the run-up to the midterms, Republicans are unlikely to come out strongly against Trump’s actions, much less hold hearings on them. But he pointed out that, back in 1954, a substantial amount of time—six months—elapsed between Welch’s exasperated remonstration of McCarthy and the Senate’s historic vote to censure the Wisconsin senator, which put an end to his reign of terror.

.. “Sometimes, only in retrospect do actions or words emerge as a key moment, or a tipping point. We’ll only know in retrospect if this is one of those moments.”

John Brennan isn’t the real victim

Mr. Trump, in fact, made no secret of his illegitimate motive: In an interview published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, he blamed Mr. Brennan for the special counsel’s investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. Revoking Mr. Brennan’s clearance is an act of petty vengeance.

.. The real victim here is not Mr. Brennan, who will get along fine without his security clearance, but the national security of the United States and its democratic norms. National security is harmed because administration officials and members of Congress benefit when they can draw upon the wisdom and experience of long-serving public servants such as Mr. Brennan. Mr. Trump has threatened eight other former officials , and even one current official, with similar treatment. Over time, that would make their advice less useful to officials who might otherwise benefit from it.

.. Democratic norms erode as the president, inventing insulting pretexts for his actions, uses his authority over access to classified information to bully and punish critics and would-be critics.

Those who may be more vulnerable than Mr. Brennan, who rely on their security clearances for their employability in the private or public sector, may indeed be intimidated into silence.

.. “I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency,” he writes. “If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken.”

In Mr. Trump’s America, every transition of power would result in the vilification, demotion and humiliation of those who served before, even civil servants who were honorably performing their duty. His conception of government denies the possibility of any motivation beyond partisan — or, in Mr. Trump’s case, personal — loyalty, at the expense of the principle that patriotic Americans can put the national interest above such considerations. It is pettiness distilled and more revealing of the president’s malformed sense of duty than that of his targets. This is the national debasement that Mr. Ryan and the rest of his party have enabled.

Free-speech conservatives, this is your call to arms

To all those supposed constitutional conservatives out there, consider this your call to arms: The First Amendment is under direct attack, and this time from a much more powerful foe than misguided college freshmen.

By whom I mean: the ostensible leader of the free world.

Again and again, President Trump has used the weight of his office and the broader federal government to inflict financial damage upon critics, whistleblowers, journalists and peaceful protesters for exercising their rights to free speech.

Trump’s most recent salvo involves former CIA director John Brennan. During his long career in intelligence, Brennan briefed Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Which makes his fierce criticism of Trump, and his characterization of Trump’s Helsinki performance as “treasonous,” all the more biting.

.. Such comments led Trump to revoke Brennan’s security clearance Wednesday. The administration said Brennan no longer needed clearance because it didn’t plan to call on him for consultations. But high-level clearances are valuable for private-sector work as well.

In other words, this was about shutting Brennan’s mouth by going after his wallet.

.. And that is but one way Trump has tried to silence critics just this week.

A day earlier, Trump’s campaign said it had filed an arbitration action against Omarosa Manigault Newman alleging that the former White House aide broke a 2016 nondisclosure agreement by publishing her recent tell-all book.

.. And that is but one way Trump has tried to silence critics just this week.

That the party bringing the claim here is technically a campaign, rather than, say, the Justice Department, doesn’t matter. The First Amendment is supposed to protect those critical of their government, including critics of its highest officeholder, from political retribution. And political retribution laundered through an election campaign at the president’s instruction is retribution all the same.

.. Elsewhere — again, in recent days — the president and his minions have called the press the enemy of the people and the opposition party. Previously they have blacklisted reporters and entire news outlets (including The Post) whose questions Trump disliked.

.. When unhappy with Post coverage in particular, Trump has threatened government action against Amazon in an apparent attempt to financially punish its chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, who independently owns the paper.

.. Journalists and media owners are hardly the only ones whose job or financial security Trump has targeted from his bully pulpit. He called for the firing of National Football League players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. NFL owners, in a secretly recorded meeting in October, expressed concern about the president’s impact on their bottom line.

Curiously, Republican politicians and conservative pundits who call themselves staunch defenders of the Constitution have allowed, and at times encouraged, the president to run roughshod over the First Amendment.

Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), John Neely Kennedy (La.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) celebrated Trump’s revocation of Brennan’s security clearance.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee oversaw a hearing titled “Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses,” refused to condemn Trump’s calls for the firing of NFL players engaged in peaceful protest. Instead, in September, he attacked the media for giving the “false impression” that Trump spent too much time attacking the NFL.

.. Polls in the past couple of years have shown that pluralities and, quite often, majorities of Republicans say that they, too, consider the media the enemy of the people; believe that the president should have the authority to close news outlets that he believes behave badly; and favor firing NFL players who refuse to stand for the anthem and stripping citizenship from anyone who burns the flag.

Revoke my security clearance, too, Mr. President

William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral, was commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command from 2011 to 2014. He oversaw the 2011 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Dear Mr. President:

Former CIA director John Brennan, whose security clearance you revoked on Wednesday, is one of the finest public servants I have ever known. Few Americans have done more to protect this country than John. He is a man of unparalleled integrity, whose honesty and character have never been in question, except by those who don’t know him.

Therefore, I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.

.. Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.

If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.