The CIA’s Rising Profile in Politics

Not since former CIA director George H.W. Bush was elected vice president in 1980 have former U.S. intelligence officers played such a prominent role in U.S. electoral politics.

Three former CIA officers are now serving in Congress. Two newly-elected Democrats Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, have joined incumbent Will Hurd, Republican from Texas, as clandestine service veterans on Capitol Hill.

Michael Hayden
Michael Hayden, former CIA director.

Then there’s former CIA director John Brennan whose bald dome seems to attract the attention of an MSNBC camera every day or two. Along with his regular denunciations of President Trump, Brennan offers shoutouts to Colin Kaepernick and congressional Democrats. No former CIA director since Bush has been so involved in politics.

Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA director, has gone public with his opposition to Trump’s presidency. He likened Trump’s mid-term electioneering to the radicalization techniques of ISIS, only to be sidelined by a stroke. Hayden promises to return to the political fray as soon as he can.

What’s the Problem?

Liberals may cheer Brennan’s passion for calling out Trump. Conservatives may note approvingly that Spanberger and Slotkin did not vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.

But everybody should be wary of secret intelligence officers in politics.

Abigail Spanberger,
Abigail Spanberger, spy turned lawmaker

There’s a reason why President Harry Truman invoked the specter of the Gestapo–the secret police of the Nazi party–when considering plans to create the CIA in the late 1940s. Truman said he didn’t want to be rushed into the creation of peacetime intelligence agency because “this country wanted no Gestapo under any guise or for any reason.”

There is a fundamental tension between a democracy and a secret intelligence service. One solution is abolition, which many serious people have entertained over the years.

After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, President John F. Kennedy raged against “CIA bastards” and mused about smashing the agency and “scattering it to the winds.”

A month after JFK was assassinated, Truman advocated abolition of the clandestine service, an indication he suspected CIA complicity in the gunfire that took Kennedy’s life. in Dallas.

In the early 1970s, an antiwar activist in Vermont named Bernie Sanders advocated abolition of the agency.

In the 1990s, Sen. Pat Moynihan, a centrist Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced legislation to eliminate the CIA and transfer its functions to the State Department.

Wariness of the CIA is a mainstream American tradition.

Spooks in Power

Spies in power are a dangerous thing. Russian president Vladimir Putin is a former intelligence officer and it shows. His foreign policy betrays a faith in influence operations aimed at other country’s elections, as well as assassination of perceived enemies. The CIA has a long record of the same.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, CIA officer turned Democratic congresswoman.

This is not to suggest that there is a moral equivalence between Putin and Spanberger, Slotkin, Hurd and Brennan. Spanberger says she worked on counterproliferation, which is one of the CIA’s most important and defensible missions.

The point is that the CIA is a law-breaking, not law-making, institution. CIA officers, almost by definition have participated in law-breaking activities. Some of these may be justifiable but we know that some are not. Brennan, like his successor Gina Haspel, participated in the implementation of the agency’s torture regime between 2002 and 2009. The only way to make sure the agency does not abuse its powers is strong accountability and oversight.

Clearly, President Trump’s attacks on his “deep state” enemies has motivated former CIA employees to speak out. They fear the president’s “ignorance and psychosis” will harm the country. They want to protect the the legitimacy of the agency.

But legitimacy in a democracy depends on transparency. Former CIA officers in the arena of electorate politics need to commit to maximum transparency and strong congressional oversight, lest they encourage the suspicion that they are covering up for their former employer or importing a clandestine mentality to democratic politics.

Spanberger tells Ian Shapira of the Washington Post that she wants to serve without a “partisan lens.” That would be a big improvement over the clownish behavior of Rep. Devin Nunes, former House Intelligence Committee chairman.

But scandals old (Iran-Contra) and new (torture and mass surveillance) show that intelligence oversight system is broken. Re-establishing accountability to bring the CIA under democratic control is a big job that has just begun. Former undercover officers can help–if they come in from the cold.

3 Replies to “The CIA’s Rising Profile in Politics”

  1. It will be interesting to see if the public picks up on the trend.

    The masses need to be often reminded of the incident in which CIA hacked Senate investigators computers trying to intimidate the investigating committee.

    CIA going covert in the Senate to spy on the Senate committee charged with oversight of the Agency.

    There are things that are obviously seriously wrong with CIA oversight, CIA and the Senate overseers.

    Obama made Brennan issue a personal apology to Sen. Feinstein.

    The attempt to intimidate the Senate worked and CIA got off the hook.

    Weak, oversight? No wonder.

  2. When I educated myself on the history history of all things nuclear I discovered something most Americans have never been aware of.

    The Domestic/Nuclear//Military/ portion of the Military industrial complex was far from forthright with the public. To grasp the dynamics that were at work requires learning the history of what actually happened as opposed to the story put out by the government, the propaganda. If the reader is really interested I can list a number of publications that I read after the industry tried to brain wash me.

    I’ll give two examples.

    Studies tell a tale of an aged poorly maintained distribution infrastucture of U.S. power grids. At the time the “party line” was these breakdowns were the result of insufficient generating capacities. This was not true.

    At the time nuke power was all the rage and USAEC’s Strauss fanned the flames of discontent with unfounded promised of power too cheap to meter. And he did by design.

    In one of those books I speak of I looked at footnotes and in the context I was reading I found it very interesting that when I started looking more closely the stories in News Week, US News and world report and others like the financial rags were warning all electric Utilities of doom in the markets if they did not join the rush to go nuclear. The government was urging the financial sector to coerce the utilities to go nuclear or be left behind.

    That was 50 years ago. What do we know to be true about the nuclear power industry today. Right it has lost money hand over fist and rate payers pick up the slack.

    The truth is at this time the Military was withholding the best possible information available at the time from all but a very small number of insiders.

    This story is a revelation of a governments military/nuclear-industry/complex wielding undue influence of the American electric utilities industry.

    This story does not come into view until we look at it in hindsight. So effective was the propaganda and the lock on info to congress that they pulled it off.

    All the money spent on nuclear could have been used to bury the distribution network in this country. Which is where it belongs in most locations.

    We have not learned anything by ;the lies of the government and the suffered greatly by the secrets it has kept from us.

    I’m not sure if this is the right place for this but it’s way past time we held our government accountable. For everything. I want this story out because it is a clinic in the failure of government and why.

    This lie about nuclear power may well have been conceived to cover for the so called theft of highly enriched U-235 from the U.S. since Israel had no or little oil.

    I have the books I’ve read and can illistrate the inconsistencies. More than one corporation in the U.S. was given bad info or lied to or suffered from the neglect of the USAEC not being fully truthful and informative about the technology.

    But the big players the Bechtels and other wartime nuke contractors had much to say about who got what info and why. You see that already had clearances and a head start.

    Thanks againd Jeff.

  3. Look at the “blackouts and brown outs” of the middle sixties to the seventies. Sorry I was rushing again. It is one of my many terrible on line habits.

    Things you can expect from an old cynical dyslexic, agnostic insomniac, who lies awake all night wondering if the is really a Dog.

    Thanks Jeff.

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