Jefferson Morley | April 17, 2019
A Night of Angst from Spies and Journalists
Some of the folks whom President Trump has smeared as “enemies of the people” took to the speaker’s platform at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. Tuesday night. Attended by senior journalists and intelligence professionals, the event, “Breaking News: U.S. Intelligence and The Press,” was affably insiderish in the Washington way.
Former acting CIA director Mike Morell, a dexterous civil servant, praised David Ignatius, the owlish Washington Post columnist, for the excellent movie version of his thriller, “Body of Lies.” The ever-grave NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell lauded former agency spokesman Bill Harlow while Gen. Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and NSA, sat beaming in the first row.
The SRO crowd of three hundred gave Hayden a sustained round of applause for his evident progress in recovering from a stroke last November. The warmth was palpable in the politically diverse crowd. This was a conclave of two beleaguered tribes, the CIA and the Washington Post. For the assembled, liberals and conservatives alike, it was time to commiserate about the misery of Trump’s Washington.
The CIA and the news media both find themselves demonized by the president of the United States, which is not unprecedented. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon often disdained the clandestine service. Nixon loved to express his loathing of the Post. But Trump goes farther. He has likened the CIA leaders to Nazis and coup plotters. He belittles the “Bezos Washington Post” as a font of fake news.
While Trump revels in reviling journalists and intelligence professionals, the panelists chose not to return the favor. Instead, they examined their mutual plight of spies and scribes in 2019.
The conflict between journalism and secret intelligence work, said Ignatius, is “inevitable and appropriate.” But, of course, so is a degree of collaboration. The CIA needs a defensible public narrative of its action to protect its budget and further its missions. The Post (at its best) speaks truth to power to enhance its brand and mission.
“The two professions are eerily similar,” allowed Ignatius. His sources, he said, are sometimes “prisoners of information rather than masters of it.”
That is certainly true of liberal journalists too.
The agency finds itself scorned, not for its crimes, but for its very essence, its identity as an organization that cares about empirical fact.
The CIA has a 70-year history of serving as the eyes, ears, and unsheathed blade of American power. Now its highly trained cadre of spies, analysts, operatives find themselves living with the whims of a corrupt New York real estate mogul. Trump scoffs at the worldview embodied in the CIA’s daily briefings, even as he seeks private deals with persons connected to hostile foreign intelligence services.
The agency’s veterans find themselves in a world of unexpected hazard. A president who meets privately with another chief of state is a security threat to the clandestine service, whether or not Bob Mueller thinks “Individual 1” is an indictable offender.
To describe a dangerous situation politely, the U.S. national security system, established in 1947, is not functioning. “There is no inter-agency process,” moaned Morell, a man bereft of the thing he loves.
CIA director Gina Haspel, said Post national security editor Peter Finn, “is setting the tone for handling the White House at the moment, which is keeping their heads down and doing their work.”
The agency, the panelists agreed, must simply try to outlast a president who does not play by the rules of the National Security Act and the secret agencies it spawned.
The Post’s predicament is no easier. The paper was embarrassed by its acquiescence to the Bush-Cheney rush to war in 2003. As if to compensate, the paper took the lead in 2013 in publishing the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden and won a Pulitzer Prize in the process.
But with Trump spoiling for a fight, the Post prefers to live down its Watergate-era reputation for bringing down a president. Even the hacking of publisher Jeff Bezos’s cell phone for purposes of blackmail did not get a rise out of the Posties.
These liberal reporters find themselves shut out not only from White House deliberations but from the functioning of multi-billion-dollar executive branch agencies. Andrea Mitchell lamented that cabinet secretaries no longer return her phone calls. They won’t speak to NBC, she complained, “only to one network,” namely Fox. This was dangerous, she said, “because facts do matter.”
If Mitchell’s sentiment was not quaint, it sounded a wee smug. The dance of journalism and espionage is fascinating, but the larger context matters too, and the CIA’s record in the last twenty years is not great, even on matters of fact. More conflict, not less, between journalists and spies, would arguably better serve the public–and the republic.
One question that was not addressed at the Press Club event was, why do a significant minority of Americans cheer as the president demonizes the once-vaunted CIA as a nest of “deep state” operators subverting the will of the people?
The agency’s poor performance during a time of rampant capitalistic inequality is one possible explanation.
After 9/11, the CIA, led by George Tenet, vouched for the bag of bogus intelligence concocted by the Bush-Cheney White House to promote the illusory threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. As a result, the United States invaded a sovereign country under a false pretense. The misbegotten Iraq war killed a million people, destabilized the region and dealt a devastating blow to the credibility of the CIA.
The people’s representatives in Congress have reason to be disaffected. The CIA under Hayden’s leadership established a torture regime that was, at best, unproductive and unsustainable. At worst, it was a war crime.
When Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the Senate Intelligence Committee tried to tell the American people what happened, the agency balked and suppressed its report. It is safe to say that the American people will have the full text of Mueller’s report on the Trump-Russia investigation before they see the full text of the Senate’s 2014 report on torture.
(A new motion picture, “The Report,” starring Annette Benning and Adam Driver, tells the story of the Senate investigation with Hollywood panache.)
The larger reality is that the post-9/11 national security system is dysfunctional. The NSA has reportedly discontinued the Patriot Act mass surveillance programs exposed by Snowden. Practically no one in Washington has objected to killing a costly program that prevented exactly one terror attack
The CIA, along with the Pentagon’s Special Operation Command, is now waging secret drone wars in at least four countries. Who our joystick warriors are killing–and why—remains a state secret. The value of drone war in protecting the American people and U.S. interests is often asserted. It has never been subject to any kind of verification.
Such is the global system of power and violence that Julian Assange and Wikileaks sought to expose and disrupt.
Coming just days after Assange’s arrest, the Press Club event (sponsored by the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University) highlighted the difference between Washington-style accountability and Wikileaks-style accountability.
Mitchell and Suzanne Kelly of Cipher Brief, an intelligence blog, sniffed that Assange wasn’t a real journalist. Ignatius carefully positioned himself on the fence, saying the government’s case was unproven. Only Post national security editor Peter Finn called the indictment of Assange a threat to freedom of the press.
“I would extend First Amendment privileges to Wikileaks,” Finn said. He was the exception that proved the rule of the journalistic club: Wikileaks need not apply.
The insularity of the national security mandarins and their allies in the liberal media has arguably had a real price. In the years after 9/11, the obsessive militarized focus on “terrorism”–the real but non-existential threat of lightly armed jihadist networks–became a form of intellectual blinders.
The endless war on terror prevented intelligence professionals from perceiving a more profound danger: An oligarchic-organized crime regime in Moscow, in league with reactionary populists across Europe and in Trump Tower.
The truth is that the CIA was late to warn President Obama, policymakers, and the public of the Russian threat. Whether or not there was a criminal conspiracy, Russian agents sought to enlist Trump as an agent, instrument or ally of President Putin’s plans to coopt American democracy. And the Russians succeeded to an astonishing degree. The 2016 election marked a grave counterintelligence failure, whose dimensions will become more clear with Mueller’s forthcoming report.
So while the crisis of the Trump presidency is real, so is the crisis of CIA and the news media. A scoundrel with his finger on the nuclear trigger. An intelligence service on the brink of irrelevance. And liberal reporters asking that perennial question, what’s the real story here?
Maybe it’s the dysfunction of the U.S. intelligence system.