It would never occur to ordinary CIA officers that derailing a presidency might be a desirable thing to do. The rumor of some kind of coup in the making is the creation of a media that is looking for a story and trying to bash Donald Trump at the same time.
To be sure, there has been an open dispute between Trump and several intelligence officials over the nature of the alleged Russian threat, with the new president tending to dismiss the alarms being raised by former CIA director John Brennan and others. Trump has struck back against the criticism in general terms, noting dismissively how several of the various agencies that make up the community have had a tendency to get things wrong, most notably the CIA’s Weapons of Mass Destruction assessment on Iraq.
Sometimes this rift has morphed into an alternative media narrative suggesting that the intelligence agencies are actually trying to stage a soft coup through their criticism of Trump and his advisers, attempting to delegitimize the presidency and wage war on Trump’s policies as he struggles to establish himself in Washington. There have also been allegations that leaks reportedly coming from the top levels of several agencies have been intended to discredit the new president.
Some others have noted, less alarmingly, that a president at odds with the intelligence agencies he directs is a formula for trouble internally and will also create problems in sharing information with friendly foreign security services. Those who are more conspiracy-minded see instead a focused effort to pile up criticism and distractions that will narrow Trump’s options for dealing with Russia and the Middle East. In its most extreme rendition, some suspect that the national security “deep state” is even eager to enter into a new Cold War with Moscow, possibly to justify its own existence and emoluments.
Trump has responded sharply to a so-called dossier containing allegations about his relationship with Moscow, calling the possibility that an intelligence agency leaked the scandalous but unverifiable material something that might have happened in Nazi Germany. John Brennan saw an unacceptable analogy in that comment and also warned that the impression that the White House does not trust its own spies could have major international repercussions. He recommended that the new president should be more careful in what he says and does, particularly regarding Russia, further fueling the perception that the national-security state is building a united front against any possible shift in policy.
I do not, however, share the view that a major conflict between America’s intelligence community and the Trump administration is in place or somehow developing. Nor is there a potential problem with foreign intelligence services, which continue to receive much more information from Washington than they provide. Yes, there is a rift between the new White House and its national-security apparatus, but what we have been seeing is a largely internal conflict between the outgoing Obama administration and the incoming Trump administration over the foreign-policy and national-security agenda.
Sources of Russian Hysteria
Obama, for reasons that elude me, used his last several weeks in office to punish Russia. Relying on the as of yet evidence-free claims of Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election as a pretext, 35 Russian diplomats and their families were expelled just before the New Year while an American infantry brigade supported by armor was shifted to Poland over a largely speculative threat to allies in Eastern Europe.
The Obama attempt to lock Russia into a certain foreign-policy box has been aided and abetted by a largely Democratic Party and media-induced hysteria over the results of the election, one that increasingly blames Russia and Vladimir Putin personally for the outcome. The narrative has expanded as it has gone along, adding an apparent Russian-Putin plan to destabilize all of Europe. Republican notables, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have eagerly jumped on board the bandwagon and are chairing committee hearings where no one who has anything exculpatory to say about Russia need apply.
But as the CIA does not often do things spontaneously, someone should be asking who in the White House directed the agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to focus on Russia and the election, resulting in the yet-to-be-seen-by-the-public classified 35-page report on the alleged hack that is now being used to explain the stunning election results. As John Brennan has been promoting the anti-Russian agenda as Obama’s yes-man in Langley, he is almost certainly the source of much of the prevailing narrative, but one nevertheless has to assume that he was acting under orders.
Another prominent former CIA officer who has also been aggressively pushing the anti-Russian button is retired Acting Director Michael Morell. He is best known for his recent recommendation that the United States begin to assassinate Iranians and Russians to send a “serious” message that they are interfering in Syria—and that we are really angry about what they are doing. (Morell somehow missed the fact that we are the ones who are interfering, as Syria has an internationally recognized government that has sought assistance from Tehran and Moscow while excluding us.)
Morell is currently calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to return whistleblower Edward Snowden to the U.S. so he can be tried and punished as an inaugural “gift” to President Trump. If the proposal is being made in all seriousness, it suggests that Morell has completely lost touch with what most would regard as reality.
Morell is inevitably a passionate Clinton supporter who might have been aspiring to be named as her CIA director. During the campaign, he described Trump as an “unwitting agent” of Russia even though his own career through the CIA bureaucracy rather suggests that “unwitting” might well apply to several of his stops along the way. Morell, as White House briefer, delivered the false report that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. He also presented to George W. Bush the August 2001 CIA report suggesting that a major terrorist strike on the U.S. was about to take place but added his own view that “there was no need to worry about an Al Qaida attack on the homeland.” Morell also led the team of analysts that prepared the infamous Colin Powell UN speech that falsely claimed Iraq possessed “biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”
But Morell is gone for good unless one has the misfortune to see him on CBS News. Brennan is now also out the door, soon to be replaced by Mike Pompeo, and if Brennan’s personal staff is not gone already, it soon will be. So the drive for a certain flavor of foreign policy being supported by cherry-picked intelligence to suit will lose its raison d’être and will change to conform with what the new administration desires.
The Permanent CIA
The CIA is not the departed John Brennan and his inner circle of heavily politicized senior managers. Nor is it Michael Morell. It is nearly 20,000 employees who are generally type-A personalities: headstrong and largely unwilling to have anyone tell them what is right and what is wrong. Many who work through a couple of overseas tours return home pretty much as political nihilists, regarding one band of corrupt politicians pretty much like any other, including those who sit in Washington. To cite only one example, while serving in Geneva, fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden recounted how he met many American spies who were deeply opposed to the ongoing war in Iraq and U.S. policy in the Middle East. “The CIA case officers were all going, what the hell are we doing?” That kind of reaction by CIA’s foot soldiers to what was coming out of Washington was not exactly unusual.
An interesting recent op-ed by David Ignatius, who is well plugged in to Washington intelligence circles, explains inter alia how the CIA is not equivalent to the agency leadership, which comes and goes with each administration. As Ignatius describes, most CIA staffers are currently more engaged in a controversial internal reorganization Brennan has been implementing over the past year—in part to punish the agency’s actual spies, who reportedly rejected his services 37 years ago, instead forcing him to become an analyst. He has never forgiven them, apparently. Ignatius cites two senior operations officers who describe the changes as the “revenge of the nerds.”
The bottom line is that few agency staffers care very deeply about how Donald Trump might perceive the organization that pays them, as long as it continues to pay them and gives them at least a modicum of respect. No cuts in the intelligence-community budget are anticipated and some believe that it might actually increase. I know there were no exit polls at CIA headquarters, but I would bet that an overwhelming majority of agency staffers, who normally identify as Republicans anyway, actually voted for Donald Trump. Many were more than a little disgusted by what they regarded as a pusillanimous Obama and hold Hillary Clinton in utter contempt for no-fault email caper.
Trump, for his part, has clearly understood the need to reassure the intelligence community that new management is preparing to take over. His first visit to a government agency on the day after the inauguration was to CIA, where he was applauded as he said at least some of the right things to heal the breach.
Sure, it is nice to be loved—but it is far more important to have a good job with benefits, work that is fulfilling, and regular promotions that help pay the mortgage and kids’ college tuition. CIA employees who put their job and family first will go with the program as long as the leadership doesn’t go completely bonkers. Most also take seriously their oath to uphold the Constitution, not necessarily what they perceive as the propaganda that comes out of every White House.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.