John Bolton’s tell-all memoir is dismissive of South Korean President Moon Jae-in for seeking to coax President Trump into a denuclearization agreement with North. The fact that South Korea had an independent position toward its nuclear-armed neighbor annoyed Bolton, who expected South Korean deference.
But President Moon, elected a platform of reconciliation with North Korea, actually sought to deliver what most Korean voters want: a formal end to the Korean war and denuclearization of the peninsula.
Now Moon is returning Bolton’s disfavor by trashing the book.
Chung Eui-yong, national security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, accused Bolton of “being inaccurate” in his memoir and “distorting the reality.” “Unilaterally revealing discussions made based on mutual trust among states violates the fundamental principles of diplomacy and could undermine future negotiations,” Chung said in a statement via a presidential spokesman. Chung did not specify which parts of Bolton’s memoir he claimed were inaccurate or distorted.
Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI deputy director for counterintelligence, looks ahead to the 2020 president election and sees chaos coming. The convergence of Trump, COVID, and William Barr, and is dangerous. “Things will get bad before they get better,” he tells Strange Days host Fernand Amandi.
Figliuzzi’s fears echo those of Mark Medish and Joel McCleary‘s warning about the looming crisis of emergency powers. American democracy is in the hands of dangerous men.
All three authors have extensive experience in national security politics and policy. They know what they’re talking about
Give a listen here. And if you want to know more, subscribe to Strange Days here.
“In dozens of interviews, no current or former government officials told me they had seen evidence of a conspiracy by FBI and CIA officials to force an American president from power,” he writes.
Rohde, now an executive editor at newyorker.com, depicts the faction that Trump calls “the deep state” as a cadre of civil servants dedicated to nothing more controversial than expertise and orderly functioning of the federal government. When some 80 former national security officials came together in March to endorse Joe Biden’s presidential bid, they dubbed themselves “the steady state.” Confronted with an erratic, lawless president, these functionaries want to be reassuring, and so does Rohde. Reality, however, is less comforting.
Rohde combines a lucid history of the abuses of America’s secret government agencies with a generous assessment of the congressional oversight process designed to keep the CIA and NSA under control. But Rohde’s account fails to explain why Trump’s “deep state” rhetoric, supposedly disconnected from political reality, succeeded in consolidating his support and winning an acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial.
The notion that America’s formal democratic institutions are but a facade for deeper power arrangements is hardly new. In the 1970s, Professor Peter Dale Scott offered a theory of “deep politics” to explain events ranging from the assassination of JFK to Watergate. In Scott’s view, networks of intelligence officials, organized crime, and arms traffickers shaped American politics at a subterranean level.
Scott’s perspective was an alternative and answer to the happy narrative of post-World War II American politics in which pragmatism was said to have prevailed over ideology. At home, prosperity was seen as broadly based. Abroad, America was an exceptional nation leading the world on a march to freedom, with the good men of the FBI and the CIA standing guard on “national security.”
The upheavals of the 1960s demolished this propagandistic facade of American identity. The civil rights movement, the violent white backlash, the explosion of urban riots, the carnage of Vietnam, the burgeoning antiwar movement, and the scandals known collectively as “Watergate” revealed a different reality.
America was a deeply unequal country whose domestic politics and foreign policy had been covertly influenced, and sometimes controlled, by secret government agencies, which lied, spied, and denied in service of their reactionary agendas. By the time President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974, the post-war American narrative was defunct.
Congress stepped in to write a new narrative. As Rohde recounts in a series of deft personality profiles, a bipartisan Senate committee, led by Senator Frank Church, launched the first serious investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Over the bitter objections of senior CIA and FBI officials, the Church Committee and Edward Levi, a Republican-appointed attorney general, held the agency accountable for 25 years of abuses of power.
At the same time, Congress created a new regime for controlling the secret agencies. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees were supposed to be notified of all classified operations. In 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) established a secret court to review government applications to eavesdrop on Americans. And most federal agencies created inspector generals to audit operations and finances while protecting whistleblowers. The new narrative posited that the U.S. government had established democratic control over its secret intelligence agencies.
Rohde argues that “the Church Committee system” worked, albeit with diminishing effectiveness, from the 1970s until Obama’s second term when intelligence became “politicized.” Then Trump “blew up” this system. By replacing top intelligence officials with political loyalists, Rohde suggests, Trump is establishing his own “deep state” network in Washington to wield power in his second term.
Rohde’s history tends to undermine his argument that the intelligence community is led by civil servants defending democracy. He shows how the Reagan administration set out to flout the post-Watergate oversight process. When the House Intelligence Committee and the majority of Congress voted to forbid the CIA from supporting counterrevolutionary forces in Nicaragua, CIA director William Casey and Vice President George Bush simply bypassed the elected government. They covertly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the contra forces.
Far more than Trump’s Ukraine conspiracy, Iran-contra was a “shadow foreign policy” conducted beyond democratic institutions and the Constitution. The Iran-contra conspiracy was exposed in November 1986, not by civil servants or Congress, but by news reporters in Beirut and Washington.
Nonetheless, the system worked, Rohde argues, because of the post-Watergate consensus about the need for accountability. President Reagan was forced to apologize. A bipartisan congressional investigation found fault with the CIA and the White House. William Webster, a judge, was brought in to keep the CIA in line.
All of which is true, but… As Rohde notes, Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush and his attorney general, William Barr, dealt a “crippling” blow to the Congress’ ability to check the presidency. Barr persuaded Bush to pardon all the Iran-contra figures, including the three top CIA officials who had been indicted for perjury and obstruction. No one in Langley complained. Back then, the CIA thought Bill Barr was on the side of the national security angels. Only when he defended a president with a different agenda would Langley sour on him.
A decade later, the 9/11 attacks swept away most concerns about potential CIA and FBI abuses of power. In a wartime atmosphere, the CIA established a torture regime, blessed by top-secret Justice Department memoranda. The White House implemented a wireless wiretapping program so extreme that some insiders, including FBI director Robert Mueller, objected. And the CIA found that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, providing intelligence community rationalization for an illegal and ill-conceived invasion that ended in disaster.
Rohde spells out this history but ultimately gives the intelligence community a pass.
Former NSA director James Clapper told Rohde that when the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney White House pushed its bogus narrative about Iraq’s alleged rogue weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, “intelligence officers including me… were so eager to help that we found what wasn’t really there.” It was an honest mistake, said Joan Dempsey, a former senior CIA executive. “We were leaning far forward and we fell.” The candor is welcome, but it’s no substitute for accountability. On a momentous issue, the CIA chose not to speak truth to power, and was never compelled to explain to the American people how and why they made such a costly mistake.
Under Obama, the post-Watergate oversight system was further degraded. When the Senate intelligence committee investigated the torture program in 2014, CIA director John Brennan authorized a break-in at the committee’s Capitol Hill offices in search of an internal agency document. Brennan, abuser of the post-Watergate oversight system, would go on to criticize Trump for abusing democratic norms.
Rohde goes so far as to say the oversight system worked in the case of Trump’s attempt to extort a political favor from the Ukraine government. It is true that the complaint from a whistleblower was properly handled by the inspector general of the Office of National Intelligence. And the results were significant: congressional hearings, an investigation and two articles of impeachment.
“Despite Trump’s pressure… the system created in the 1970s to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse by presidents, intelligence agencies, and individual federal workers alike still functioned,” Rohde writes. “The Church reforms remained intact.”
This seems charitable in light of Trump’s acquittal. Yes, the oversight system functioned in a formal sense. Trump was impeached but acquitted, and only one Republican senator was persuaded that Trump’s Ukraine scheme was a high crime or misdemeanor.
It would be more realistic to say Trump is trying to finish what Reagan, Bush, Barr, Cheney, and Brennan started: the neutering of the post-Watergate intelligence oversight system. From 1947 to 2017, the intelligence community consistently elevated the demands of presidential power over the claims of democratic norms, international law, and Congressional oversight. Now the intelligence community is paying a heavy price in the form of a hostile president.
Only when Trump started asserting presidential powers for his own often-corrupt purposes—as opposed to national security doctrine—did the leaders of the intelligence community boast of “defending democracy” and “speaking truth to power.”
Rohde takes these claims at face value. He wants to believe the system is working. But a lot of evidence says otherwise. After Iran-contra, 9/11, two endless wars, and the lies about Iraq’s WMD, torture, and mass surveillance, and the unprecedented intervention of former spy chiefs in domestic politics, a lot of Americans—and not just Trump supporters—no longer trust the mandarins of national security, even if they are appropriately appalled by the president.
The intelligence community has a profound credibility problem, of which Trump’s “deep state” rhetoric is a symptom, not the cause. The cause is the intelligence community’s poor performance and lack of accountability since 9/11. The solution is not just a stronger oversight system but a fundamental rethinking of what we mean by “national security.”
The pandemic may force new paradigms, but Joe Biden probably will not. The often decent civil servants in the CIA and FBI who give voice to Rohde’s narrative are representative of Biden’s “steady state” supporters. They are justified in saying Donald Trump is a dangerous fool and must be removed from power by legal means. They are not anti-democratic plotters, but it is credulous to think of them as disinterested civil servants.
Call it what you will, the intelligence community/“deep state” is a power faction that seeks to regain what they lost in 2016: functional control of the U.S. presidency. The leaders of this faction now pledge allegiance to accountability and democratic norms in order to hasten Trump’s departure, but there is little sign they are serious about reforming the dysfunctional national security system that enabled his election.
“I will tell you, more and more, we’re hearing the story [that the new coronavirus emerged from a Wuhan lab],” President Trump said on April 15.
On April 30, Trump said he had a “high degree of confidence” the new coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Trump said he was “not allowed” to revealed his sources, according to Reuters.
Facing Republican criticism and declining polls numbers for his belated and chaotic response to the pandemic, Trump has changed the subject to China. He cut off funding for the World Health Organization, charging it is Chinese dominated and is exploring sanctions against China for its handling of the outbreak. Amplifying the uncertainty around the origins of the virus is a political imperative for an agitated president.
Locating the origins of the virus is no easy matter, notes the Washington Post. The Wuhan lab cannot be ruled out as a source.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that of the first 425 patients, only 45 percent had connections to the market. A separate Jan. 24 analysis published in the Lancet found that three of the first four cases — including the first known case — did not have market links.
Daniel R. Lucey, a pandemics expert at Georgetown University, put it simply: “In my opinion, the virus came into the market before it came out of the market.”
The scientists interviewed by the Post would not rule out the possibility of a laboratory leak but most said they considered it “highly unlikely,” based on the molecular characteristics of the virus. Others are not so certain.
“It just seems like such a remarkable coincidence that you have an outbreak of a coronavirus in theory from a bat in the same city where there is this high-level BSL-4 laboratory, where not only are there foreign concerns about its safety, but there are Chinese articles about the safety protocols not being sufficient. And obviously there’s no smoking gun,” said Emily de La Bruyère, a China expert with Horizon Advisory. “It’s all circumstantial, but it’s pretty remarkable.”
Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that “the weight of evidence” points to natural causes.
On Thursday, the Office of Director of National Intelligence, now headed by Trump loyalist Richard Grennell, weighed in with a promise to investigate further.
“As we do in all crises, the Community’s experts respond by surging resources and producing critical intelligence on issues vital to U.S. national security. The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
More investigation is always appropriate. But since Grenell has zero intelligence or scientific credentials, some U.S. officials suspect a political agenda behind the Trump administration’s investigation.
The New York Times reports:
Some intelligence analysts are concerned that the pressure from administration officials will distort assessments about the virus and that they could be used as a political weapon in an intensifying battle with China over a disease that has infected more than three million people across the globe.
Most intelligence agencies remain skeptical that conclusive evidence of a link to a lab can be found, and scientists who have studied the genetics of the coronavirus say that the overwhelming probability is that it leapt from animal to human in a nonlaboratory setting, as was the case with H.I.V., Ebola and SARS.
Former Times reporter Tim Weiner comments:
Still, it is impossible to say that Trump is wrong, which gives a president cornered by the virus room to fudge the facts.
When President Trump used his State of the Union address to call on Congress to pass legislation allowing crime victims to sue sanctuary cities for offenses committed by undocumented immigrants, CIA director Gina Haspel rose to her feet clapping. It was an unusual display of partisan spirit for the nation’s top intelligence officer, especially as it concerned a domestic law enforcement issue, an area where the agency is forbidden by law from acting.
It was not “right” for the agency’s CIA director to applaud, said General Michael Hayden, who served under President George W. Bush. “It is odd that a DCI [director of central intelligence] who avoids public appearances of any kind would make a public appearance at the most fractious SOTU in our time,” former CIA officer and Brookings analyst Bruce Riedel told me in an email. “The job is being more politicized than it should be.”
Haspel was not required to attend the State of the Union. The CIA director is not even a Cabinet officer, noted ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou. “Why was she even there, much less in a seat of honor, up front?” he said in an interview. “The Joint Chiefs don’t applaud. The Supreme Court justices don’t applaud. The director shouldn’t either.”
Haspel’s appearance raises the unsettling possibility that Trump, for all his denunciations of the supposed “deep state” plot against him, might now have an ally at the top of the CIA. With Attorney General Bill Barr pursuing Trump’s agenda at the Justice Department, a compliant director in Langley would enhance Trump’s power to pursue worse whims—including, potentially, foreign aid to his political and personal fortunes.
The Arc of Her Career
While there’s no way to know what’s in Haspel’s mind, her Trump-supportive public actions provide clues. “Some contend this public stance provides Haspel a better ability to privately influence the president,” Douglas London, a 34-year veteran of CIA’s Directorate of Operations and former Haspel colleague, wrote this week for Just Security. “In practice, however, her actions reflect a continued unwillingness to spend any of her political capital on encouraging the president to be more supportive of the Intelligence Community’s views, priorities or its workforce’s morale.”
Yet, as London also points out, the arc of Haspel’s career shows her State of the Union performance was not that surprising. Despite her reputation as a low-key apolitical director, Haspel could not have made it to the director’s office on the seventh floor of the Langley headquarters without being skilled at cultivating patrons and dodging proverbial bullets. And if Haspel hopes to keep her job in a second Trump administration, she needs to distinguish herself from her former mentors, John Brennan and John McLaughlin, who have become harsh critics of the president. (If a Democrat is elected in November, Haspel is surely out of a job given her torture resume.)
Haspel’s very reputation in the press as “apolitical” shows a certain mastery of spin. Her leading role in the waterboarding of suspected terrorists (and the destruction of video evidence) was so political that it inspired President Obama to cancel the program on his first day in office. Passionate opposition in the Senate to the torture program early derailed her nomination. Indeed, it was her deeply political embrace of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that secured Trump’s admiration.
When Haspel was first considered for the top job at the CIA, Don McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel, was so disturbed by her resume that he suggested Trump withdraw her nomination. Trump not only disagreed but “actually liked this aspect of Haspel’s resume,” according to Axios. Her support for torture “was an asset, not a liability” with the president. When Trump reportedly asked Haspel whether waterboarding “works,” she replied she was “100 percent sure” that it did.
Don’t forget too that Haspel first appeared publicly as CIA director in September 2018 in Kentucky at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, named for the Senate majority leader. McConnell introduced her to a friendly crowd. If Haspel was angling from the start to keep her job in Trump’s Washington, cultivating McConnell was a good start.
To be sure, Haspel is not a toady, unlike so many in the administration. Early in her tenure, she bucked White House pressure in her assessment of the Saudi role in the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. After a trip to Turkey, Haspel endorsed the agency’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible. Unlike National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Haspel did not tailor her findings to please the boss.
Trump seemed offended by her independence. In January 2019, when the U.S. intelligence chiefs gave congressional briefings on North Korea and Iran that Trump did not like, he denounced their views. “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!” he tweeted, but did not mention Haspel or any other chief by name.
“The question for me is, at what point do these intelligence chiefs quit,” John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, told Voice of America. “It is one thing for the president to have differing views. It is another thing altogether to openly attack or belittle the IC [intelligence community].”
A Dubious Compliment
Haspel seems to have learned a different lesson, namely if she wanted to keep her job, flattering the boss might be a good idea. When ABC News reported last May that Trump’s daily intelligence briefers had decided to focus on economic issues to keep his attention, the CIA director and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, put out a rare public statement.
“Speculation, including that from former and unnamed intelligence officers, about what occurs in our Oval Office briefings is wrong,” according to a joint statement from Coats and Haspel. “Simply put, these anonymous sources are not there as we deliver timely, unbiased intelligence and work alongside an engaged and knowledgeable President on the most complex national security issues.”
This factually dubious compliment was not enough to save Coats’ job. He was soon forced out by Trump and resigned on July 28, while Haspel remained in the director’s chair.
When Trump blocked military assistance to Ukraine over the summer as part of his effort to extract the announcement of a corruption investigation involving rival Joe Biden’s son, Haspel argued for lifting the hold. But this was no profile in courage, as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and National Security Adviser John Bolton were saying the same thing.
“She’s keeping her head down and doing the job,” more than one former CIA hand has told me during Haspel’s tenure. But the agency’s first female director took the concept of low profile to a new low in December when Politico reported the leaders of the intelligence community (no names mentioned) indicated to Congress that they would prefer not to give the usual unclassified intelligence briefings that provoked Trump’s ire a year ago. Whether Congress will capitulate is unclear, but the spy chiefs’ inclination to avoid displeasing Trump seems clear.
Paul Pillar, former CIA senior analyst for the Middle East, said Haspel’s predicament is how to do the job without losing the job. “You know what the White House wants to get across to Congress,” he said in an interview. “If that does not square with what your agency is saying in a briefing, you’re in a very dicey situation.” In other words, she could lose her job, as Coats did.
Yet when it came to the question of whether to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Haspel raised her head and offered a policy opinion. According to the New York Times, she “advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed, according to current and former American officials. Indeed, Ms. Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed,” which is exactly what happened. Esper told CNN that Haspel had summed up the stakes for the president by saying, “the risk of inaction is greater than [the] risk of action.”
“If she said that, that would be going beyond the ‘stick to your knitting’ approach to evidence that I think is more appropriate for a director,” Pillar said. “If I was on her staff, I would have advised her to stay away from such judgments.”
As with torture, she gave Trump the answer that buttressed his instincts, and he ordered the drone attack. A month later, she took her seat at the State of the Union and stood up for the impeached commander in chief who declared he’d done no wrong and merely pursued America’s greatness.
“Whether it was intentional or simply an oversight, her appearance was a sad symbol of the politicization of the intelligence service,” Kent Harrington, former CIA officer and spokesman, told me. “If she had asked me, I would have told her to stay at home and rearrange her sock drawer.”
Instead, Haspel signaled to her boss that she wants to be identified with the Trump team.