The U.S. intelligence community is not a “deep state” conspiracy. It is a political faction, clad in official secrecy, and protected by general friendly media coverage.
The intelligence community loathes and fears President Trump for his ignorance, his flouting of the traditional policymaking process, and now his desire to get control of U.S. intelligence agencies, starting with the Office of Director of National Intelligence. (ODNI)
One sign: an intelligence briefing in which a senior ODNI exaggerated the threat posed by Russia in the 2020 election. Both Democrats and Republicans who heard the briefing thought it was overstated.
The intelligence community also sees the rise of Bernie Sanders and fears him for a different reason. Sanders rejects much the national security agenda that the intelligence community has pursued both in the Cold War and the war on terror. In the era of endless wars, Sanders’ position is increasingly attractive to voters and thus increasingly threatening to the national security elite that yearns for the pre-Trump status quo.
The IC’s hostility to Sanders was signaled by the leak to the Washington Post. On Friday, the Post reported that “U.S. officials” had briefed Sanders a month ago on alleged Russian efforts to help his campaign.
The leak about a supposedly confidential meeting on the eve of the Nevada caucus signaled hostility from official sources.
The CIA knows that Russian support for Sanders is nothing compared to support for Trump. The Oxford Computational Propaganda Project found the Internet Research Association (IRA) efforts on behalf of Sanders were miniscule compared to their support for Trump. The alleged Russian effort of behalf of Sander is exaggerated too.
The leak to the Post generated the headlines that implied Russia’s help for the Vermont senator was somehow comparable, which is false. The leaked story, in short, was a smear.
Sanders was rightly dismissive.
“I don’t care, frankly, who [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to be president,” Sanders said in a statement. “My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do.”
But the IC efforts to delegitimize Sanders are sure to continue.
It was, in the eyes of Trump World, the very clubhouse of the Deep State: the plush, blue-carpeted, wood-paneled 13th floor auditorium of the National Press Club, located in the heart of the Washington swamp, just two blocks from the White House.
The Halloween-eve panel discussion featured a line-up of heinous perps indicted by the “stable genius” of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: On the far left sat the bulky former CIA director John Brennan (“a liar about being a liar,” according to Donald Trump); on the right, the amiable former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe (“major sleazebag”). In between, two dutiful understudies held forth: former acting CIA directors Mike Morell (“total Clinton flunky”) and John McLaughlin, the only speaker on the stage not yet honored with a vilifying Trump call-out. At one point, McLaughlin said, “Thank God for the Deep State,” which RT and Fox News cited as proof of perfidy in the president’s critics.
The event was, according to the participants themselves, a defense of the federal government, a gathering of the leaders of the American civil service—“a crown jewel of the American government,” in McLaughlin’s words. They occasionally threw shade on Trump while voicing justified concerns about election integrity in 2020; unqualified praise for the intelligence community’s commitment to truth-telling; and debatable claims about that community’s apolitical character.
They encouraged the many young people in the audience to pursue careers in intelligence and law enforcement. “He won’t be president forever,” Morell said. The event, sponsored by the Gen. Michael V. Hayden Center at George Mason University, was titled “2020 Vision: U.S. Intelligence and the Presidential Election.” It enabled me to see something more clearly: The CIA is emerging as a domestic political party.
I don’t mean this in a conspiratorial sense (though it has conspiratorial implications), and I don’t mean it literally. Although there are three former CIA employees in Congress (and a fourth is running), the CIA does not resemble the Democratic or Republican parties. But in practice, the U.S. intelligence community, led by former officials, is developing into an organized political faction—call it the Intelligence Party. Like other factions, at home and abroad, this faction is seeking to gain public support and influence the 2020 presidential election to advance its institutional and political interests.
For Trump World, the October 30 event embodied the dreaded Deep State in action. The president’s embattled defenders demonize the CIA as a secretive law-breaking organization, but seem unconcerned about the verifiable harm it actually does in the world (such as torture, arms trafficking, drone warfare, and regime change).
Nor do Trump stalwarts commend the intelligence community for the good things it does (counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation). No, the CIA is the enemy because of its intellectual sophistication and lack of slavish loyalty to the president.
For the former leaders of the deep state organizations, the U.S. intelligence community—comprised of 17 different agencies with a combined budget of more than $70 billion a year—is defending the highest standards of public service, analytical thinking, and patriotic action by resisting the president’s anti-democratic impulses. What the intel community actually does—and whether it serves the interests of American democracy—is not explained in these leaders’ attacks on the ignorant real estate mogul who lives around the corner.
In the panel discussion, Brennan restated the Intelligence Party’s message on Russian interference in the 2016 election, calling it “a sweeping and systemic effort” that may or may not have changed the outcome of the election. McCabe stressed that Trump’s victory turned on tallies in four states, including Michigan, which was decided by 11,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast. He noted that Paul Manafort, Trump’s now-felon campaign manager, had shared polling data from those four states with Russian interlocutor, Konstantin Kilimnik, in August 2016. Looking ahead to 2020, the panel was not optimistic; Morell said the Russians were undeterred by the U.S. response to their 2016 interventions. “They are doing it here, right here, right now,” he said.
The agency’s defenders insist it has shed the legacy of its Cold War excesses. Yet in the 2000s, top CIA officials, including Brennan and Hayden, collaborated with the Bush administration in implementing a legally dubious, morally repugnant regime of torture, with only the most superficial approval of Congress and zero input from American taxpayers and voters. And when the Senate Intelligence Committee sought to publish its investigation into the abuses, the CIA, led by Brennan, deposited much of the report into the memory hole of official secrecy.
In the face of Russian meddling and Trump’s indifference to it, the Intelligence Party is mobilizing again. What is new is the open involvement of former top intelligence officials in electoral politics and the selection of a president. Trump’s assault on the U.S. governmental system gives them little choice: The president is a threat to their ethos and their budgets, because they are a threat to The Donald’s dreams of omnipotence and multimillion-dollar business deals. Agency veterans, with ample experience in analyzing authoritarian governments and implementing regime change policies, know full well the danger that someone like Trump poses. For both parties, the 2020 election is the inflection point. This increasingly open power struggle between the secret agencies and an out-of-control president is not the only unprecedented feature of America’s constitutional crisis, merely the most puzzling.
The event’s moderator, Margaret Brennan—no relation to John “that we know of,” she joked—is a senior correspondent for CBS News, and she noted that she’s actually a work colleague of Morell, a national security contributor for the network. For their parts, Brennan and McCabe should probably pay rent on the chairs they occupy so often in the MSNBC and CNN studios, respectively. McLaughlin, too, has a perch, on the Washington Post editorial page. For many mainstream newsrooms, reporting on the CIA’s ubiquity in domestic political coverage is not a priority. It might lend credence to Trump’s ravings.
The Intelligence Party is threatened most immediately by its former ally, Attorney General Bill Barr. Last April, Barr said the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of multiple contacts between the Trump entourage and Russian state actors amounted to “spying.” Last week, the Justice Department let it be known that its probe into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, is now a criminal investigation.
McCabe said he had expected to hear from Durham and that he would cooperate. “It’s on my list,” he said, to laughter. The problem, he continued, is that “some folks, and possibly even the attorney general, are bringing a set of preconceived notions and biases to that investigation”:
If that’s the case—and I don’t know that it is, but there are certainly some indicators that it might be, or that the purpose of the investigation is not really to get to the bottom of what did we know and why did we make the decisions we did, but it’s more to run out political conspiracy theories—that causes me great concern.
McCabe is right to worry. With Trump taking a beating on impeachment, the Democrats—and the Intelligence Party—have regained momentum lost after the damning but understated Mueller report dropped. The president needs a comeback, and questions about the factual basis of the Trump-Russia investigation offer an opening. But the Durham inquiry is not the biggest problem facing the Intelligence Party; based on the Mueller report, federal agents had ample reason to investigate Trump’s entourage.
The leaks that followed Trump’s election are probably the bigger legal vulnerability for the former spy chiefs. The Federalist, a Trump-friendly website with shadowy funding run by a Republican political operative and a serial plagiarist, has provided a narrative template that an aggressive prosecutor might be able to fill in with legal charges: In this account, Brennan and Co. orchestrated a “coup” via a series of leaks to the Washington Post, New York Times, and NBC News, designed to hamstring Trump’s presidency before it even began. These leaks, attributed to “U.S. officials,” involved classified information, namely the CIA-NSA-FBI assessment of Russia’s role in the election. The passing of classified information, depending on the circumstances, could be construed as a violation of the Espionage Act, the same law used to prosecute whistleblowers like Reality Winner and Edward Snowden. The former spy chiefs didn’t say it at the panel, but their body language betrayed the thought: Trump’s response to impeachment is likely to be indictments.
At the reception afterward, I asked Brennan if he felt the attorney general was conducting the Justice Department investigation in a fair-minded way. “Are we on the record?” he asked. I said yes. “I’m not going to comment,” he said.
“Are you at all concerned,” I asked, “about the agency’s growing profile in domestic politics?”
Brennan put a friendly finger on my chest. “The CIA is not involved in domestic politics,” he said. “Period. That’s on the record.”
This he asserted confidently, at an event where he had just spoken about about influence campaigns on swing voters and implied that Hillary Clinton might be right in calling Rep. Tulsi Gabbard a Russian asset. Even seasoned analysts, it seems, have their blindspots.
A mentally ill man killed a Mafia boss, apparently in service of President Trump’s crusade against “the deep state.”
Mr. Comello had become convinced that Mr. Cali was part of the so-called deep state, a cabal of criminals that conspiracy theorists claim controls the United States government. Mr. Comello also believed he was a chosen vigilante of President Trump. “Mr. Comello became certain that he was enjoying the protection of President Trump himself, and that he had the president’s full support,” Mr. Gottlieb wrote.
In my estimation, you are thorough investigative reporter. A great writer for sure. The stories you investigate are the most complex of any, fraught with deliberate deception, obfuscations, and god knows what all. I trust your work and writing because it is mature and, to the best of your ability, objective. That doesn’t mean I think you are perfect in some sort of way. We all get shit wrong searching out the truth. Your book about Jim Angleton convinces me of this. Keep at it.
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