When candidate Donald Trump vowed to wage war on official Washington, his expected targets were EPA scientists, Civil Rights Division attorneys, and career diplomats. There were few signs that Trump, a devotee of waterboarding, watch lists, and surveilling mosques, would also declare war on the U.S. intelligence community (IC)—that is, until he decided the IC had declared war on him with its findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
After the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) warned, in October 2016, that “Russia’s senior-most officials” were behind the DNC hack, Trump scoffed, “they always blame Russia. . . . because they think they’re trying to tarnish me with Russia.” By early December, Trump’s transition team was dismissing reports that the CIA had concluded Moscow was trying to help get him elected, declaring: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Since then Trump has accused the IC of “McCarthyism,” after claiming that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’” (he would also push the idea that British intelligence was in on the conspiracy), and denounced the FBI’s investigation into his campaign as “treason.” When his now outgoing DNI, Dan Coats, and his CIA Director, Gina Haspel, told Congress this year that North Korea was unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons and Iran was not cheating on the nuclear deal, he furiously tweeted: “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
Trump’s attempt to replace Coats with a chorister of “deep state” conspiracies was frustrated last week after even GOP Senators objected to Rep. John Ratcliffe’s lack of experience and reports that he’d hyped his resume. (Trump said he wanted someone who could “really rein” in “intelligence agencies [that] have run amok”). The betting is that the President will now choose a more conventional candidate, but the bullying won’t stop.
The intelligence agencies are no fragile flowers, and have their own history of excesses, so it is tempting to dismiss Trump’s attacks as his usual mind games. But the President has gotten badly played by Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un because he refused to listen to his intel and foreign policy advisers, and in a fast-moving military crisis that unschooled arrogance could be disastrous.
There is also a serious danger that Trump’s relentless bullying could end up muzzling or politicizing all serious intelligence analysis, while undermining the credibility of the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities at home and abroad. Trump promised this week to give the FBI “whatever they need” to combat domestic terrorism, but his repeated claims of an FBI conspiracy against his presidency risk feeding even more extremism. And at this point, if the CIA were to find evidence Iran is actively building a nuclear weapon, would even our closest allies believe it?
Steve Slick, a former member of the CIA’s clandestine service and special assistant to President George W. Bush who directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin, told me the United States is already paying for Trump’s declared war on the intelligence community. “Our key foreign intelligence partners,” he says, “are recalculating the risks and benefits of intelligence cooperation with U.S. agencies that are viewed by the President as incompetent, threatening, or—going forward under new leadership—potential political tools.”
Things will likely get worse, as Attorney General William Barr follows Trump’s demands to “investigate the investigators”: probing alleged misdeeds in the early days of the FBI investigation and looking for biases and other weaknesses in the IC’s analysis on Russian interference. (There are three overlapping Trump-ordered investigations being run out of Justice, including one into Hillary Clinton’s many alleged sins, but this appears to be the main event.) Announcing his decision in late May to give Barr far-reaching powers to declassify intelligence, including the power to overrule objections from the intelligence chiefs, Trump made clear the finding he’s expecting: “It was an attempted coup or an attempted takedown of the president of the United States.” Barr, who has repeatedly described the FBI’s actions as “spying,” appears eager to comply.
Mueller fatigue notwithstanding, there are important questions that still need to be addressed about Russia’s assault on America’s democratic institutions–questions that Trump and Barr show no interest in investigating. For starters: Why did it take the U.S. intelligence agencies so long to raise the alarm about Russia’s hacking and disinformation campaign? (Neither Republicans nor Democrats have called for oversight hearings on that intelligence failure.) What more needs to be done to push back against disinformation, foreign and homegrown, without chilling free speech? And what more will it take to harden the U.S. voting infrastructure—and do states’ rights really trump the security of our electoral system? Last month, on the same day the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a bipartisan finding that the Russians targeted voting systems in all 50 states, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked two election security bills, including one that would have required candidates and campaigns to inform the FBI of any offers of help from foreign governments.
Even a narrower look at the origins and conduct of the FBI investigation could do a real service–if it didn’t start out with a presumption of guilt and were conducted honestly. (The one small reason for hope is that Barr has chosen a respected U.S. attorney, John Durham of Connecticut, to do the actual investigating.) Trump may have been the perfect tool, but the Russians aren’t going to stop with him. The U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities need to figure out how to conduct an investigation into candidates and campaigns suspected of accepting foreign help without feeding more wild conspiracies of government overreach and persecution.
Can asking the right questions for the wrong reasons lead to anything good? Probably not. Still, for the sake of political comity and the credibility of our national security institutions, here are some of the issues that we can hope will be seriously addressed.
The Origins of the FBI Investigation
Here’s what we know: the FBI launched a counter-intelligence investigation in late July 2016, after hearing from the Australians that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had told one of its diplomats that the Russians had damaging information about Hillary Clinton that could help the campaign. The Australians only told the Americans after the first WikiLeaks dump of DNC emails. Once the investigation began, the FBI sent an informant, a UK-based American professor, and an investigator posing as a research assistant, to try to figure out what Papadopoulos really knew. After the Mueller report, Congressional reports, and countless news reports, all of this should be beyond dispute.
However, if you follow the President’s Twitter feed, surf Fox News, or listened to House Republicans question Robert Mueller you get a different story– of a hoax wrapped in an FBI-CIA-Hillary Clinton directed conspiracy designed to bring down the President. In this telling, the investigation was really triggered by a DNC/Clinton campaign-financed opposition research memo, the undeniably flawed “Steele dossier,” filled with disinformation on Trump. And the FBI, CIA, several foreign governments and shadowy figures in the pay of the U.S. government all conspired to entrap Papadopoulos and discredit the Trump campaign by offering up dirt on Hillary, cash, or sex. Never mind that the Steele memos only made it to the investigators seven weeks after the FBI began investigating.
Barr will surely re-up the cringe-inducing anti-Trump texts written by Peter Strzok, the now fired senior FBI counter-intelligence agent, who helped oversee both the Clinton email investigation and the early Trump campaign investigation. And Barr will certainly bore further into the provenance and weaknesses of the Steele memos (remember the pee tape?) and ask why the FBI was so willing to listen to a spook-on-hire to Trump’s opponents, even one who used to work for MI6 and had successfully collaborated with the Bureau in the past.
There are undoubtedly other questions and critiques to be raised. But the Attorney General’s greatest service for the country would be to debunk the grand conspiracy and confirm what is already known: The FBI investigation–if flawed–was launched because of credible concerns about Russian interference in an American presidential campaign. Not to investigate would have been irresponsible.
In this related Trumpian narrative, the FBI and Department of Justice are accused of tricking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court into approving a wiretap so it could “spy” on a former Trump campaign aide, using disinformation in the Steele memos and hiding the work’s partisan origins. Carter Page has not been charged with a crime, which has added to claims that his rights were abused. We know very little about how the secret Court works. A serious investigation, which honestly weighed both national security concerns and the public’s need to know, could set the stage for a more informed and bipartisan discussion about privacy issues and surveillance reform—a topic that dominated after the Snowden revelations, but has all but disappeared since the Russia scandal took over.
What we do know right now is that a redacted version of the FISA application suggests that the FBI, which had been monitoring Page’s dealings with the Russians for several years, relied on information from Steele and other evidence to argue, “Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.” The President’s camp sees dark doings in the fact that the surveillance application, consistent with Court practice, refers to Steele only as Source #1 and doesn’t name the DNC and the Clinton campaign as the ones footing the bill for his work. It does say that Source #1’s employers were “likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign,” while also attesting to Source #1’s credibility based on “previous reporting history with the FBI.”
Again, there are legitimate questions Barr could raise about this process. How much of the information in the Steele dossier did the FBI turn over to the Court? If it held back portions that might have weakened the work’s credibility, who made that decision and why? Did the Bureau oversell Steele’s credentials, especially knowing that he was now a spook-for-hire? Should there be different identification rules in the midst of a high-stakes political campaign?
Brown University’s Timothy Edgar, who served as the DNI’s deputy for civil liberties during the George W. Bush Administration and director of privacy and civil liberties for the Obama NSC, sees no small irony in Republicans crying foul against the FISA Court after opposing or watering down post-Snowden reforms. Congress did approve a Special Advocate in 2015 to argue the case for privacy at the FISC, but only if the Court decides there is a “novel” or “significant” legal question presented. We don’t know if the Court even considered the issue of whether to grant a surveillance order for a former presidential campaign aide to be “novel” or “significant” enough to potentially merit the presence of a special advocate. “But if Republicans believe the FISA process was abused for Carter Page it should follow that they will now want a stronger amicus provision,” Edgar argues. Edgar would also like to know “how much did [the Court] consider the First Amendment rights of Trump and the people in the Trump campaign to hold dissenting views” on Russia? That, he says, has relevance for investigation targets with dissenting views across the political spectrum.
Barr can do real good if he debunks what certainly appear to be baseless charges that the FBI lied to the FISA Court about its sources and opened a more serious conversation about how the Court does its work and whether the current system is protecting individual liberties for everyone. Privacy is not just for Trump and his advisors.
Barr’s investigation also plans to assess the intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference in the election, Putin’s role, and his preference for Trump. The unclassified version of the IC’s January 2017 finding is thin, but a lot has come out since. And according to Politico, former CIA director and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—another Trump true believer—conducted his own review of the CIA’s findings, “grilling analysts on their conclusions,” and came away persuaded that there was no bias or political pressure to skew their work. It is hard to see a Barr reassessment as anything but an attempt to airbrush the picture, and absolve Trump (and possibly Putin) of any culpability.
Mark Lowenthal, a former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and a former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, warns that putting the Attorney General in charge of reviewing the CIA’s analysis, as if it were a criminal investigation, is especially “political and frightening. You don’t want your analysts thinking that if I write something that the President–not just this President––doesn’t like you’ll get hauled up before the Justice Department. “
The pressing question that needs to be addressed—by Congress—is why the intelligence community didn’t see the Russians coming in time for the country to defend itself. Moscow began perfecting its hack-and-hype techniques in 2008 in Georgia, and they were on full display in Ukraine in 2014. Russian generals were writing publicly available treatises on information warfare. But from what we know, it wasn’t until early August 2016—five months after the Clinton campaign hacks and six weeks after the first internet dump of DNC documents—that the CIA warned President Obama that Putin was directing a full-on cyber campaign to disrupt the U.S. elections, damage Hillary Clinton, and help elect Donald Trump. Even then, it doesn’t seem like the CIA grasped what was happening on Facebook and Twitter.
In normal times, this would be branded a major intelligence failure and Congress would have demanded a public accounting. But in the Upside Down that is Trump’s Washington, the Republicans haven’t engaged for fear of further implicating (and infuriating) Trump. And the Democrats have been bore-sighted on the Mueller investigation, in their hope that it would bring down Trump—showing no desire to raise questions that might also embarrass President Obama or the Obama-era intelligence chiefs now fighting their own cage match with Trump.
There are a variety of explanations for why the intelligence community discounted or ignored Putin’s ability to wreak havoc in the United States. One is arrogance: Yes, we saw what the Russians did in Georgia, the Baltics, and Ukraine, but our democracy was thought too mature, our citizens too sophisticated, our media too diverse and skeptical to be manipulated that way. Or perhaps the Russian campaign was too low-tech, too low-cost, or too public for the high-tech, secrecy-obsessed IC to take seriously. The CIA is not allowed to monitor what happens inside the United States, and Internet trolling was never high on its strategic threat list. The FBI, which is responsible for counter-intelligence inside the country, focuses on making cases and isn’t known for its analytic or strategic imagination.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has discussed these issues behind closed doors with intelligence community leaders. But with the President insisting that Russia’s assault on American democracy is a hoax, and the IC’s belated findings an assault on his presidency, I’m skeptical that even robust closed-door discussions will be enough to ensure the needed changes in priorities, budgets, personnel or tasking. Remember how former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen couldn’t get a cabinet-level meeting on tightening security for 2020 because the President couldn’t tolerate even a whisper of doubt about his 2016 victory?
One of the biggest mysteries in Washington is why William Barr, once a respected institutionalist, has sold his soul to enable Donald Trump. Even Jeff Sessions deflected Trump’s demands for a Hillary Clinton Special Counsel, assigning a no-deadline investigation back in November 2017 that looks like it may never produce a finding. Barr could go that route and hope the President forgets–he won’t–or hope the President is satisfied with a pending report from the Justice Department’s Inspector General, which may whack some of his favorite targets (like James Comey) but is unlikely to wreak the sweeping vengeance Trump is looking for. Or Barr could do the right thing: Put an end to the conspiracy mongering, ask the real questions for the right reasons, and give the country the honest answers it deserves.