The ‘Deep State’ Isn’t a Conspiracy. It’s a Political Faction

John Brennan
John Brennan
Former CIA director John Brennan on the 2020 election (Credit: CSPAN)

[This story was first published in The New Republic as “‘The Deep State’ Is a Political Party,” November 8, 2019)]

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. 

John McLaughlin CIA
John McLaughlin, former acting CIA director (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

Of course, the CIA has long been involved in domestic political affairs. In the 1950s, the agency fought off the Trump-like attacks of Senator Joe McCarthy. In the 1960s, agency operatives were involved in the events that led to the assassination of President Kennedy (though exactly how is disputed). In the 1970s, CIA operatives figured deeply in the Watergate affair. (Again, the details are murky.) In the 1980s, four top CIA officials were indicted for their role in the Iran-Contra conspiracy to bypass anti-interventionist legislation passed by a liberal Democratic Congress. (The details are abundantly documented). One of their cases was dismissed when the U.S. government would not share classified evidence; the other three perps were pardoned by lame-duck Republican President George H. Bush, himself a former CIA director, who acted on the advice of an attorney general named William Barr.

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.

Indictments Coming?

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.

Andrew McCabe
Andrew McCabe, former deputy FBI director. (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

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.

Impeachment Frenzy Sets Trump Against the CIA

CIA Seal
Trump Biden Brennan

The long-impending constitutional crisis has arrived, courtesy of a CIA whistleblower. If his or her complaint was conceived as a covert political action operation, it could not have been more effective. The nine-page letter did what Robert Mueller’s 448-page opus did not: jump-start the impeachment process. The day after Trump acknowledged he spoke with the Ukrainian president about Joe Biden’s son Hunter, seven freshman Democrats, six of them with national security experience, came out for impeachment. Nancy Pelosi, an impeachment skeptic, relented and allowed impeachment proceedings to begin. “The facts changed the situation,” she said.

No, says the president and his defenders. It’s just “BULLSHIT,” tweeted the rattled Trump. His conversation with the Ukrainian president was “perfect,” he intones. To doubt its perfection is to join the ongoing “deep state” conspiracy to get him.

Trump’s defenders, while awash in bad faith and lies, are correct about one thing: there is a subterranean conflict that pulses beneath partisan clashes between congressional Democrats and the Republican president. It is a clash of bureaucratic factions, fought with leaked (or planted) narratives disseminated by allies in the media.

This is the traditional way of Washington politics, now whipped to a froth by the convulsions of a dysfunctional and deregulated political system. Not only do U.S. intelligence agencies see the American presidency is vulnerable to manipulation (or capture) by pro-Trump intelligence services in Moscow, Riyadh, and Jerusalem, but the president himself is viewed as a threat to the national security process.

The crisis runs even deeper than Watergate, which had the effect of empowering Congress and reining in the intelligence agencies. As in Watergate, the Trump crisis pits a president who says there are no limits on his freedom of action against the institutional forces of the CIA and FBI. These agencies were, and are, adept at defending their interests in the Washington press corps. As in Watergate, the interests of the agencies and the Democrats overlap—they both seek to curb and remove a lawless president.

Richard Helms CIA
Richard Helms, CIA director 1967-73

The CIA-White House power struggle is much more naked than during Watergate. In the early 1970s, the agency abhorred the very idea of a “media presence.” The imperious director Richard Helms occasionally testified in Congress, but he gave no interviews. He cultivated senior editors but betrayed few secrets. The CIA, respectable and feared, had many Republican defenders on Capitol Hill. No more.

Today, the Agency is more public and politicized. The agency’s suspicions of Trump crystallized as he marched to the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Trump’s arriviste style and proud ignorance were provocative to the agency’s buttoned-down style. So was his “isolationism” and hostility to the shibboleths of free trade and national security. Damaging leaks of classified information from national security sources began even before he took the oath of office.

Since then, the political profile of the CIA has grown. Former directors John Brennan and Michael Hayden have become cable TV regulars, along with a diverse cast of former officers. In 2018, two CIA formers were elected to Congress, and the agency launched its Twitter and Instagram feeds (which, Edward Snowden observes, amount to state-sanctioned propaganda repackaged as adorable social media.)

John Brennan,
John Brennan, CIA director, 2013-17

Publicity is not necessarily an advantage for covert operators. Unlike Nixon, Trump is willing to mobilize popular hostility to his bureaucratic antagonists. Privately, Nixon raged and plotted against the CIA and FBI, but publicly he championed those agencies. He couldn’t and wouldn’t make them a political issue.

Trump is not so constrained. Four times in the last two weeks, the president has taken to Twitter to liken the whistleblower to a spy who should face “Big Consequences.” With less than a third of Trump supporters holding a favorable opinion of the CIA and FBI, Trump can shore up his support by demonizing his critics as tools of “a Crooked and Demented Deep State.”

Nonetheless, Trump has taken a punch, apparently from the CIA, that has him raging incoherently in public. The whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky transformed Washington’s political reality by capturing Trump, the recidivist, in action.

Last spring, Mueller’s cautious report detailed how Trump’s entourage solicited help from the Russian state agents without ever quite conspiring with them. Mueller documented how Trump obstructed his investigation but left it to others to bring charges. “No collusion,” Trump crowed.

But, barely a day after Mueller’s July 24 appearance before Congress, Trump couldn’t help but do what he had just denied: He sought to collude. The White House summary of his conversation with Zelensky essentially confirmed the whistleblower’s narrative that Trump had tried to solicit—if not extort—a foreign government into helping his 2020 election campaign. Thanks to the CIA officer’s report, the case for impeachment suddenly had a simple narrative and a new urgency.


Harry Truman
President Harry Truman initially opposed creation of the CIA.

The role of the CIA is unsettling. President Harry Truman initially opposed the creation of the CIA in 1945 because he feared creating an “American Gestapo,” a secret police force. The agency’s involvement in American politics today is hardly unprecedented. In the early 1990s, four senior agency officers were indicted for leading roles in the Iran-contra conspiracy to bypass a congressional ban on CIA activities in Central America. But, in that case, the agency and the presidency were aligned. President George H.W. Bush, a former director, pardoned the indicted men on the advice of Attorney General Bill Barr. The agency suffered little for its intervention in domestic politics.

Now the CIA and the White House are at war. In comparison with an unstable president, a rogue attorney general, and a coterie of conspiracy theorists, the agency’s credibility is higher than usual. But the Ukrainian revelations, coming from an employee of a law-breaking, not law-making, organization, has to be treated with care.

First of all, meddling in (and profiting from) Ukrainian politics is the norm in the U.S. political class, as Yasha Levine notes. Paul Manafort, Trump’s one-time campaign manager, reaped coin in Kiev. So did Tad Devine, a strategist for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. So did Hunter Biden. That doesn’t excuse Trump’s mafioso-like demand for “a favor” from the Ukraine president, but it does explain why he might have thought it was business as usual.

“I do not trust the CIA when it comes to whistleblowers,” says John Kiriakou, a former operations officer turned whistleblower who went to jail for 30 months for confirming details of the CIA’s torture regime to a reporter. “The CIA is protecting itself. They don’t care about you, they don’t care about me. They don’t care about the presidency. They care about themselves.”

Michael Hayden, CIA
Michael Hayden, CIA director 2006-09

The complaint, Kiriakou speculated in a phone interview, was written by “a committee of spies.” He speculated that the whistleblower was advised by CIA superiors, including lawyers, before submitting the complaint to the inspector general in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The New York Times has reported that the whistleblower only shared the complaint anonymously with CIA lawyers. That said, Kiriakou added, “I want to believe the guy. I think his identity should be protected and more people should come forward.”

I asked Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to ex-CIA director Michael Hayden, if he thought the whistleblower’s complaint had been vetted by the agency.

“I’m not going to speculate about something like that,” he replied. “The whistleblower statute was written to protect the identity of the whistleblower, so I would assume he or she wouldn’t want others to know. My reading of the complaint is that it sounds like the whistleblower coordinated with others working on Ukraine issues across the inter-agency [process.] I think they were all concerned that the stated policy of the U.S. government was not being adhered to.”

Under fire from the president, the agency suddenly needs the intelligence oversight process. The post-Watergate reforms—the creation of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act courts—brought the agency under more supervision, which it consistently resisted. Five years ago, the CIA was stonewalling the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture investigation.

Now the agency embraces oversight to ward off a hostile president.

“Congressional oversight of executive branch activities is a vitally important constitutional tool in maintaining our democracy,” wrote former acting CIA director Michael Morell and coauthor David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security, in a Washington Post column last month. “It is particularly important for intelligence activities because the intelligence community consists of secret organizations operating in a democracy.”

It’s easy to mock Morell’s commitment to democracy given the agency’s record of anti-democratic dirty tricks. The fact that Morell is a Post columnist (and CBS News contributor) illuminates the alignment of the liberal media and the clandestine service. But Morell’s take on the current crisis is hard to fault.

Thanks to a “radical change in our politics … many partisan actors today seek advantage by rejecting bedrock institutions and norms while a significant portion of the electorate responds with nihilistic glee,” wrote Morell and Kris. “As applied to the oversight of intelligence, this convergence is very dangerous, because those institutions and norms are a major part of what keeps the intelligence community properly in check.”

In other words, the beleaguered CIA is looking for allies on Capitol Hill, especially among liberals and Democrats who want stronger oversight. Trump’s impeachment, like Nixon’s, will likely strengthen the hand of those who want to curb the CIA.

“From what we know so far, this looks very much like the story of Mark Felt and Watergate,” says historian Bruce Schulman of Boston University. Felt was the senior FBI official who served as confidential source for the Washington Post’s Watergate reporters as they investigated President Nixon’s abuses of power in the early 1970s.

“There’s a career employee, a lifer, who doesn’t like the way the White House wants to use his or her agency,” Schulman went on. “He or she wants to push back. What’s different is that in the post-Watergate environment, they don’t have to leak to the Post. There are new institutions and processes through which that can happen.”

A president who is out of control confronts an agency that wants to show Congress and the public that it is under control. All of which underscores the new reality of Washington’s impeachment season: nobody’s in control.

A Night of Angst from Spies and Journalists

David Ignatius, columnist.
From left to right: Andrea Mitchell, NBC News; David Ignatius, Washington Post columnist; Suzanne Kelly, Cipher Brief; and Peter Finn, Washington Post, national security editor.

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.

Liberals lament (Credit: Jefferson Morley)

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.

Heads Down

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.

Michael Hayden
Michael Hayden, former CIA director in October 2018

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.”

Accountability, Washington-Style

Assange Arrested
The arrest of Julian Assange (Credit: RT)

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.

Bening as Feinstein
Annette Benning as Sen. Dianne Feinstein in “The Report. (Credit: Sundance Institute)

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.

Peter Finn
Peter Finn, Washington Post, defends Julian Assange. (Credit: CSPAN)

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.

What Do Democrats Do With the CIA?

Hayden Center panel

It was a get-together only a Washington policy addict could love. On a cold winter night, I took a Metrobus to a weekday evening presentation at the National Press Club, two blocks from the White House.  The event was organized by a former CIA director. It featured four former government officials and a national security lawyer. Mostly centrist in politics, they were  uniformly earnest in style as they opined on the most unsexy of subjects: “Governing Intelligence in an Imperfect World.”

In any other city, such an event might have drawn a handful of senior citizens, a couple of Code Pink activists, a poli sci professor or two, and the odd Reddit conspiracy theorist. I filed into the Press Club’s 13th floor  ballroom to find 175 well-dressed attendees settling into their chairs under the gimlet eyes of two CSPAN cameras,

Hayden Center panel
Spywatchers: Former CIA director Mike Morell; former Obama adviser Lisa Monaco; former CIA lawyer John Rizzo, former CIA spokesman George Little, and attorney Mark Zaid.

President Sanders’ Policy Options

Like most everyone in attendance, I came to the event, sponsored by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security, because I cared about the issue. After three decades reporting on the CIA, I think U.S.  intelligence agencies are badly in need of democratic control.

Some might have boycotted the event because of Hayden’s record. As director of the National Security Agency under President Clinton and as CIA director under President George Bush, Hayden played a leading role in U.S. policies of torture, rendition, and mass surveillance. Some say Hayden is “an evil man.”  I did not come to judge the man but to hear what the panel had to say.

President Bernie Sanders (or President Elizabeth Warren) will not have the option of boycotting rooms inhabited by people who share the views of General Hayden. On January 21, 2021, the next president will assume command of the CIA. One of the first orders of his or her business will be to repair and strengthen the government’s intelligence oversight system.

I came in search of answers to the question: How’s that going to work?

President Sanders’ handling of the CIA will mostly likely be implemented by some of the very people on that stage and in that room—Capitol Hill staffers, government lawyers, civilian Pentagon employees, and think tank specialists.

How does President Warren get control a secret intelligence agency? The answer, on display that night, was: not easily. The next Democrat to occupy the White House will inherit a huge CIA challenge. The panel discussion illuminated the nature of the problem.

With Gen. Hayden recuperating from a stroke, the moderator of the evening was former acting CIA director Mike Morrell. Like Hayden, Morell has emerged as a critic of President Trump. But this was not a partisan event. Amazingly (and pleasantly) for a wonk’s night out in Washington, Trump was barely mentioned.

 “Secrecy make it hard to convince the public that the CIA is acting lawfully, responsibly, and efficiently,” Morell noted. So the government has created a variety of bureaucratic structures within the executive branch to oversee the agency’s operations.

Morell ticked them of,  and they sounded impressive: An NSA lawyer’s group and the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, not to mention independent bodies like the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and the Information Security Oversight Office.

“Why so much oversight?” he asked John Rizzo, former CIA counsel and advocate of “enhance interrogation techniques.”

The Nature of the Problem

Rizzo explained that he joined the CIA in 1976, at a time when the agency was under investigation from by the Church Committee, which discovered the agency’s role in assassinations,  mind-control experiments, and the surveillance of Americans.

“There was bipartisan revulsion at the CIA activities over the previous two decades and no one knew about it,” Rizzo said.

One result was the creation of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Another was an explosion of lawyers at the CIA. Rizzo said he was the 18th lawyer hired at the agency in 1976. By the time he retired 30 years later, there were 130.

But Rizzo himself embodies the failure of Executive Branch oversight. It tends to overlook, rather than supervise. After 9/11, Rizzo promoted and rationalized the torture regime that disgraced the agency and harmed the reputation of the U.S. government worldwide. Oversight within the CIA did not prevent the implementation of an illegal policy. Quite the contrary.

Lisa Monaco former national security adviser to President Obama, made a key distinction. Oversight has two functions, she noted, compliance and governance. One asks, “Is this policy legal? The other asks, “Does this policy make sense?”

Rizzo and others dressed up the torture policy in legalese that convinced agency operatives (like Gina Haspel) that that they could waterboard suspected terrorists. Their sleight of hand made torture “legal” but it didn’t mean that torture made sense as a government policy or that it would pass congressional muster.

When it comes to intelligence operations, Monaco said, “the most effective oversight involves all three branches of government and therefore has the legitimacy that comes with them.”

This elementary point struck me as key for President Beto O’Rourke to remember. He (or President Kirsten Gillibrand) cannot restrain the CIA via executive order.  Getting the agency under control will require enlisting the Congress and the courts.

Snowden’s Impact

The panelists danced around the specter of Edward Snowden. No one on the panel approved of him, but no one denounced him either. Five years after his exposure of NSA operations, Snowden was not a hot button issue. The programs he disclosed remain in effect, albeit with more transparency.

Another takeaway from the evening: Pardoning Snowden would be politically realistic for President Kamala Harris (or President Joe Biden).

George Little, a former CIA spokesman, said the NSA suffered from the Snowden disclosures because the agency “had no reputational capital in the bank.” The agency’s perennial “no comment” posture meant the public had no reason to believe its claims that mass surveillance was justified and necessary.  Little’s point: If the intelligence community wants public trust, it needs to be more transparent. 

While avoiding mention of Snowden, all the panelists paid lip service to the need for whistleblowers to check abuses of power, although attorney Mark Zaid noted drily that “Everyone likes a whistleblower until one actually shows up at their door.” (Full disclosure: Zaid is a friend and supporter of The Deep State blog).

The panel discussion focused on oversight within the Executive Branch and, by design, did not address the more problematic issue of congressional oversight. (The Hayden Center will hold a separate event on that issue next year.) But all of the panelists decried the politicization of the House Intelligence Committee by Republicans defending President Trump.

“We need to get back to a time when the Congress was more effective,” Morell noted.  In passing, Morell punctured one myth propagated by the CIA and the Washington press corps over the years: that Congress can not be trusted with sensitive intelligence matters.

“I brief Congress many, many times on extraordinarily sensitive secrets and nothing ever leaked,” Morell said. “The fact is most of the leaks come from the Executive Branch.”

Last takeaway of the evening. After Trump is gone, President Warren (or President Sanders or President O’Rourke or President Gillibrand or President Harris or President Biden) will find wide support in the intelligence community for strengthening congressional oversight of intelligence operations. It’s not a panacea. It’s a start. 

Former Spy Chiefs Liken Trump to ISIS Recruiters

James Clapper
Michael Hayden
Michael Hayden, former CIA director.

If you think some former U.S. intelligence officials have been harsh in their criticism of President Trump, well, they’re getting harsher.

In the wake of the mail bomb arrest and the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, James Clapper and Michael Hayden are likening President Trump’s political rhetoric to radicalization tactics used by terrorists.

Clapper, former director of the National Security Agency, and addressee of one of the bombs mailed to CNN, told a Virginia audience on Wednesday, “Its not unlike what we experienced with ISIS where you have a group using social media to recruit and radicalize their supporters.”

While former CIA director John Brennan has attacked Trump’s character, Clapper and Hayden have tried to restrict themselves to issues of policy. No more.  The president is acting like a recruiter for a terrorist organization, the former spy chiefs say, and a few among his supporters are acting like terrorist

Former CIA director Michael Hayden who appeared with Clapper at George Mason University,  added,”I don’t want to say the two groups are equivalent but there are parallels.”

Hayden proceeded to spell them out.

“At CIA when our people looked at radicalization, I asked ‘Is it the ideology of Al-Qaeda or ISIS that attracts them? Or or these unhappy young males, who don’t have a job, have disappointments, are unattached, and are  looking to attach themselves to a larger cause?”

“In this country,” said Hayden, “what you get are individuals who are unhappy, violence-prone on their own, with a great sense of grievance who now get legitimization and justification for their grievance by attaching it to something larger themselves. …. and here’s what’s new. They now have a set of grievances to which they can attach themselves that have been articulated by the president of the United States of America.”

The charge is severe but the most recent evidence lends credence to the claim.

“If you look at the bomber, it was all there on his van,’ Hayden said. “If you look at the incident in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, [the shooter who killed 11 people had] a latent anti-semitism but the proximate cause was his belief  that international Jewry was sponsoring the invasion of America by that caravan which is still a thousand miles from the U.S. border. That has  been a constant theme coming from the White House.”

‘We Don’t Have Eight Years’

Both men said Trump’s attacks on the press, the FBI, and his critics are damaging the country’s democratic institutions, perhaps irretrievably. “We have four years to stop him,” Hayden said, “We don’t have eight.”

James Clapper
James Clapper, former DNI Director of National Intelligence.

And both men were pessimistic that the situation would change any time soon.

In a sardonic reference to Trump’s description of himself, Clapper said, “As long as the ‘stable genius’ continues to use his kind of rhetoric, we will see radicalization.”

Clapper and Hayden’s assessment might be the most ominous intelligence warning since a CIA briefer told President Bush in August 2001 that Osama bin Laden was “determined to strike in the United States.” Except now the threat comes from the president himself.