ASPEN, Colorado—Like escaped malware destructive beyond its creator’s wildest dreams, Russia’s campaign to influence the U.S. presidential election is now ripping through the mostly apolitical U.S. national security community—with President Donald Trump’s warmth toward Moscow dividing professionals who have worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations from those laboring to prove their loyalty to Team Trump.
“Sometimes I wonder whether what he’s about is making Russia great again,” former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper said at the widely attended Aspen Security Forum, of Trump’s overtures to Moscow and half-hearted dissing of Russian election interference.
“They’ve been at this a long time and I don’t think they have any intention of backing off,” said CIA Director Mike Pompeo, articulating what was to become a much-repeated Trump maxim: that Russian election interference is annoying but unremarkable, while the real enemies are Iran, ISIS, and the U.S. press corps.
The tensions between current and former national security chiefs reflect the deepening divide in Washington, D.C., between those who see possible collusion in the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia, and those—including the president—who call it a witch hunt that’s keeping the White House from moving ahead on improving relations with Moscow to step up the counterterrorism fight.
White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci confirmed Trump’s continued skepticism over his own intelligence community’s conclusion that Moscow tried to influence the polls. “He basically said to me, ‘Hey you know, this is, maybe they did it, maybe they didn’t do it,’” Scaramucci told CNN Sunday.
The heightened strain in Aspen reflects the increasing difficulty for defense and intelligence professionals who want to build new defenses against Russian influence and step up the fight against ISIS without seeing either through a political lens.
Some Trump officials who had served in previous administrations walked a fine of exhorting their own successes while also extolling the achievements of President Barack Obama, likely aware the boss was watching or was at least aware his top national security officials were lining up to explain and defend his White House.
Trump tweeted an approving reference to an interview with Special Operations Commander Gen. Tony Thomas, who said a leak to the media allowed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to escape. Trump identified the media organization as The New York Times, a charge that the Times has strenuously denied.
Yet former Bush-turned-Trump counterterrorism official Thomas Bossert dared a gracious tip of the hat to the Obama team.
“What we are doing is building on last two administration's efforts not contrary to them, not diminishing them… and I promised a lot of people I would say this because I mean it: I want to say thank you to the Obama team,” said Bossert, who succeeded Lisa Monaco as the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.
“That doesn’t mean they got everything right,” he added, describing the Trump counterterrorism program as more decentralized, pushing more authority closer to the battlefield to make decisions on strikes. He also vaguely described what sounded like an expansion of lethal targeting directed against anyone involved in a terrorist network rather than the Obama administration’s insistence on building legal cases against suspected terrorists outside designated war zones.
That could mean loosening restrictions on who gets targeted and where, but Bossert insisted the Trump administration would continue to work by, with and through local governments as the Obama team did, and respect the laws of war when it came to collateral damage. He again saluted the Obama administration for codifying targeting procedures to protect civilians, saying unnecessary casualties turn populations against U.S. troops—a departure from Trump’s campaign promise to “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” including targeting terrorists’ families.
“Our standards are based on those bedrock principles,” he said. “We’re primarily rewriting them to address who makes the decision, not what the standard is.”
He offered equal praise for the Obama team’s hostage policy, which was based on input from families of missing Americans like former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007.
There were no such generous tips of the hat to the Obama administration from CIA chief Pompeo, whose combative tone angered current and former administration officials attending the conference, and was in part blamed for the fiery riposte later by former CIA chief John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence Clapper.
Pompeo dismissed Russian election meddling as routine, and instead attacked what he saw as the Obama administration’s failure to act against Iranian aggression in deference to their prized nuclear deal with Iran; against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, lumping them among past U.S . administrations who “whistled past the graveyard” on North Korea, allowing it to develop both intercontinental ballistic missiles and an ever-more sophisticated nuclear weapons program. He also claimed the Obama administration opted to “allow Russia to enter into Syria,” to prop up Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and he accused the Obama team of allowing Moscow to take the lead in negotiating the dismantling of Syrian weapons of mass destruction.
And Pompeo kept his answers on Russian election interference brief, dismissing the actions during the last election as just a stepped-up version of a decades-long campaign. “It is true, yeah, of course,” he said.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats repeated the theme of downplaying the Russian disinformation campaign. “Is anybody shocked that the Russians are trying to influence how we think?” he asked. “I grew up being told the Russians are trying to influence how we think,” he said, explaining their fall campaign as more effective because of the technological advances and speed of the information age.
“They’re trying to undermine western democracy,” he added, in contrast to his commander in chief’s more moderate tone on Moscow.
That message might not be well received according to Pompeo, who hinted at some friction with the president when presenting information about Russian interference. “You should know, it is not unheard of for those policymakers to question the work that we do,” he said. “You don’t always convince a policymaker of the way you see things.” But he insisted the Trump administration is going to be firmer with Russia than Team Obama.
Clapper and Brennan responded to the attacks on their efforts by pronouncing the Russian connections between the Trump campaign as the height of naiveté, or something much darker.
“When I think of all the negative things he said about the intelligence community and I think about all the things he said about Putin and Russia, that seems to be incongruous,” Brennan said, harkening back to Trump’s tweet describing alleged leaks to the intelligence community as akin to Nazis.
Clapper called the overtures by a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump Jr. as a “typical Soviet tradecraft approach” to see if they were interested or able to be influenced, whether they were “witting or not.”
The two men said if they were still in charge, they’d review and possibly pull Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s security clearance for failing to disclose some of his contacts with Russians, terming it part of a pattern of questionable behavior by Trump campaign officials.
“That people will sometimes go down a treasonous path doesn’t mean that they will commit treason, it’s just that they’re along that line,” Brennan said. “Thankfully, the smart people when they realize that say ‘wait a minute, I need to report this to the authorities.’” He said the Trump campaign’s failure to do that is what the FBI is investigating.
Possibly the most extraordinary moment was when Brennan said that if Trump followed through with threats to fire special prosecutor and former FBI Director Robert Mueller, U.S. officials should revolt. “If he’s fired… I think it’s the obligation of some executive branch officials to refuse to carry out some of these orders.”
Another senior official at the conference said Brennan’s rage stemmed directly from Pompeo’s attacks the night before. He and the other current and former officials spoke anonymously to describe the emotionally charged exchanges.
Military officers are supposed to keep their political views to themselves, but Gen. Tony Thomas took a swipe at the last administration, speaking of a new opportunity to expand U.S. influence after eight years when the U.S. didn’t assert itself. His comments reflected the frustration among the special operations community that it took them years to convince the Obama administration that U.S. special operations advisers needed to be on the ground next to their allied local forces on the battlefield to make them effective.
NSA chief Admiral Mike Rogers said he had “no doubt at all” that Russia had meddled in U.S. elections, standing by the combined report of all the U.S. intelligence agencies.
Sitting alongside Rogers, Robert Hannigan, the former head of British signals intelligence agency GCHQ noted Russia didn’t seem to be trying to hide its hacking tracks as it had in the past, calling that “brazen recklessness.”
Rogers wouldn’t say whether Trump officials had reached out to Moscow on a cybersecurity cell. Senior Trump officials had raised cybersecurity cooperation as a win out of the G-20 summit before Trump himself tweeted “it can’t happen,” after bipartisan criticism.
“I would argue now is probably not the best time to be doing this,” he said in answer to a question from The Daily Beast.
But he said such cooperation in future might be a carrot to hold out to spur future Russian cooperation. He avoided endorsing or criticizing Trump policy when asked how the intelligence world could stay independent when the commander in chief demands personal loyalty—but he insisted he holds nothing back in briefings with Trump.
“I will say things I know he disagrees with,” Rogers said. “He gives me direct feedback,” he added, to laughter from the crowd.
Former CIA and NSA chief Gen. Michael Hayden, speaking on another panel, simply called the continuing fallout over Russia the most successful influence campaign of all time.
That was one area of agreement between at least one Trump official and the former Obama attendees.
“Almost every single panel, we’ve talked about Russia,” said Joshua Skule, the FBI’s executive assistant director for intelligence. “I think they would determine they have been successful.”
Brennan agreed. “It’s making our system of government in some respects dysfunctional,” he said. “I think Mr. Putin is probably crowing that it had an effect on this country that is hurting us.”