Donald Trump Attacks U.S. Spies, Will They Strike Back?
President Richard Nixon didn’t trust the CIA on the Vietnam War. President George W. Bush didn’t much like what the CIA had to say about the war in Iraq.
But until Donald Trump, no future commander in chief has compared America’s spies to Nazis.
“I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out there,” Trump said, implying members of the U.S. intelligence community were behind the leak of a former British spy’s opposition research on Trump.
“That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done,” he said at his first news conference as president elect, just days ahead of his inauguration.
The broadside against the U.S. intelligence community shows Trump’s suspicion that the CIA and other agencies are a tool of the outgoing Obama administration, delivering whatever its political masters want to hear—and leaking material damaging to his future presidency.
“Trump is… pointing to the top of the organization and saying it’s become politicized,” said Peter Hoekstra, a former House Intelligence Committee chairman and current Trump ally.
Hoekstra, who has discussed the intelligence community with the president elect, said Trump blames Obama appointees, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan.
“He knows that they got Benghazi wrong, they got ISIS wrong, they got Egypt wrong with the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s a very healthy skeptic of intelligence.”
Late Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement saying he’d spoken to the president elect, and expressed dismay over the leaks.
“We both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security,” Clapper said, adding that he did not believe the leaks came from his people. Clapper said they discussed the controversial private security company document, which he emphasized was not verified by U.S. intelligence agencies agencies, but had been circulated among the press and Congress for months.
“We did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions. However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security,” the emailed statement said.
That may help tamp down bruised feelings in the intelligence community, but several former top intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that Trump’s comments Wednesday moved well beyond skepticism—and closer to a declaration of bureaucratic war.
“I served under seven presidents—I can’t remember it ever being this bad,” John Rizzo, the CIA’s top lawyer after the attacks of 9/11, told The Daily Beast.
Another high-ranking former intelligence officer called Trump’s remarks Wednesday “beyond that pale,” and said if Trump keeps attacking the agency, the message they’ll receive is that they have to tailor the news to what he wants to hear.
“You’re sending bad signals that ‘I’m coming in, and you’re going to speak my truth,’” the former officer said.
The president elect’s latest outburst follows the leak of a salacious 35-page document, which alleges that Russian operatives claim to have “compromising personal and financial information” on Trump. The Wall Street Journal reported it was written by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, of London-based Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. Calls to the business were not answered.
The document was published by BuzzFeed on Tuesday night without verification, after CNN first reported that it had been briefed to Trump, President Barack Obama, and lawmakers as part of the intelligence community’s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the U.S. election. Both news organizations came in for by-name criticism by Trump. But at least he didn’t compare them to Hitler’s troops.
“I did find it stunning that he… seemingly equated what he perceived to be the leaks by the intelligence community as something that would happen in Nazi Germany,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo came in for plenty of harsh criticism himself over the years for signing off on Bush-era harsh interrogation methods and black sites, which he described in his memoir Company Man. “Nothing approaching…these kind of gratuitous swipes at the integrity and ascribing political motives to the intelligence community just before taking office,” he told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
This tension between the future president and his spies is more than just back-room wrangling. It could have a major, real-world impact, said Adam Schiff, D-Calif., one of the few lawmakers willing to comment on the remarks. “At some point he may come before the nation to lay out his case for a specific action he is taking abroad, and do so on the basis of information he has received from the intelligence community,” Schiff said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “By mentioning the intelligence community in the same sentence as Nazi Germany, President-elect Trump is undermining the authority and credibility that he will need as President.”
“We can only go up from here,” said former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence Carmen Medina. “This tabloid conflict gets in the way of a serious conversation—long overdue—about how the IC [Intelligence Community] should best support the President. I will commit sacrilege and say that Trump isn’t crazy when he says he doesn’t need an intel briefing every day,” referring to the incoming’s preference for fewer spy reports.
“All that said, Trump is demeaning the professional integrity of intelligence professionals,” she added. “Nothing good will come of this.”
“The dialogue is full of misunderstanding: this is not a real intelligence document and the IC did not ‘ leak’ it,” said former acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, calling Trump’s harsh comments “regrettable.”
None of the seasoned intelligence officials thought much of the 35-page memo, calling it poorly sourced gossip that wouldn’t stand up to the rigors of American or British spy agencies.
“It reads like a high-priced detective gathering evidence for a high-profile divorce case,” sniffed one former senior CIA operator.
“There’s nothing about their reliability levels, nothing about levels of confidence in the sources, so it’s just very raw intelligence,” added another.
“It’s a lot of unsubstantiated allegations that are very explosive and [Trump] has a right to be mad about it. But he’s shooting the wrong target,” another of the former officials said.
Yet every single intelligence professional who read the document said they would likely have made the same call—to share it with Trump and others, if only to inoculate them from the surprise of having the memo break in the media.
“Knowing this was floating around Washington, they had to give him the heads up,” said one of the officials. “If he had not been told, it would look like they were withholding information.”
Trump adviser Hoekstra said the blowback is not aimed at the intelligence rank and file.
“Every time I went anywhere, I met with case officers. They felt the Obama administration was throwing them under the bus,” Hoekstra said, describing how Obama left open the door to prosecute CIA employees. “This is a president that came in in 2009 and let the attorney general begin an investigation of those folks who did enhanced interrogations.”
Hoekstra includes in that former CIA case officer Sabrina de Sousa who is just days away from being extradited from Portugal to Italy, to serve a four-year sentence for a botched CIA extradition operation—a case he hopes the Trump administration will act on.
He said the simmering sense of betrayal is also felt by NSA officers doing the listening programs who felt like they got “hung out to dry” when the Obama administration failed to vigorously defend their actions after the Snowden leaks.
Trump’s choice of former Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana to lead the DNI, and Republican Congressman from Kansas Mark Pompeo to take over the CIA have been welcomed by intelligence professionals, according to multiple current and former officials.
But some said if these verbal attacks continue, that could change.
“They are starting with a reservoir of good will. But their jobs are going to be unnecessarily harder if the commander in chief keeps on with these attacks,” said former CIA lawyer Rizzo. “If these remarks persist it will clearly have a corrosive effect on the morale.”
“I winced when he lodged yet another unsupported accusation regarding the weird Russian dossier,” said Andy Liepman, 30-year CIA veteran and currently RAND senior analyst “Who knows where it came from, what is true and what isn’t, or who leaked it?” He said he was “modestly hopeful” that Pompeo and Coats would quiet his suspicions about the community. “I think we have all been forced to get used to the President Elect’s jarring style of praising in one breath and attacking in the next—that might work in the business world, or even in politics (clearly it worked) but it won’t work as well with the men and women of the intelligence community.”
“I’ve spoken with people at the working level, and at the end of the day, I don’t think it will have much of an impact of how we conduct operations,” said a former CIA official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss conversations with serving officers.
“There are just as many people who are for Trump as are against him in the IC. They may not like Trump’s lack of refinement, but they are still conservatives,” he said.
“They are willing to say it’s growing pains, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of doing our jobs.”
“These bad vibes should die down once everyone’s in place in the new administration and they have to get work on concrete problems,” said McLaughlin. “The breach, if that is what we have, will heal.”
And despite all the name-calling on Wednesday, there was one peaceful sign for the president-elect and his intelligence team. Trump finally accepted the conclusions of the intelligence community that Russia did try to influence the U.S. election—though he quickly added that other nations like China are also guilty of attempting to hack U.S. institutions.
For months, Trump has been trying to blame someone—anyone—other than the Russians for the politically-motivated hacks and leaks. The he got an intelligence briefing late last week. Perhaps that’s what changed his mind.