Long ago, when I was a spear carrying middle ranker at CIA, a colleague took me aside and said that he had something to tell me “as a friend,” that was very important. He told me that his wife had worked for years in the Agency’s Administrative Directorate, as it was then called, where she had noticed that some new officers coming out of the Career Trainee program had red tags on their personnel files. She eventually learned from her boss that the tags represented assessments that those officers had exceptional potential as senior managers. He added, however, that the reverse appeared to be true in practice as they were generally speaking serial failures as they ascended the bureaucratic ladder, even though their careers continued to be onward and upward on paper. My friend’s wife concluded, not unreasonably, that only genuine a-holes had what it took to get promoted to the most senior ranks.
I was admittedly skeptical but some recent activity by former and current Directors and Acting Directors of CIA has me wondering if something like my friend’s wife’s observation about senior management might indeed be true. But it would have to be something other than tagging files, as many of the directors and their deputies did not come up through the ranks and there seems to be a similar strain of lunacy at other U.S. government intelligence agencies. It might be time to check the water supply in the Washington area as there is very definitely something in the kool-aid that is producing odd behavior.
Now I should pause for a moment and accept that the role of intelligence services is to identify potential threats before they become active, so a certain level of acute paranoia goes with the job. But at the same time, one would expect a level of professionalism which would mandate accuracy rather than emotion in assessments coupled with an eschewing of any involvement in the politics of foreign and national security policy formulation. The enthusiasm with which a number of senior CIA personnel have waded into the Trump swamp and have staked out positions that contradict genuine national interests suggests that little has been learned since CIA Director George Tenet sat behind Secretary of State Colin Powell in the UN and nodded sagaciously as Saddam Hussein’s high crimes and misdemeanors were falsely enumerated.
Indeed, one can start with Tenet if one wants to create a roster of recent CIA Directors who have lied to permit the White House to engage in a war crime. Tenet and his staff knew better than anyone that the case against Saddam did not hold water, but President George W. Bush wanted his war and, by gum, he was going to get it if the CIA had any say in the matter.
Back then as now, international Islamic terrorism was the name of the game. It kept the money flowing to the national security establishment in the false belief that America was somehow being made “safe.” But today the terror narrative has been somewhat supplanted by Russia, which is headed by a contemporary Saddam Hussein in the form of Vladimir Putin. If one believes the media and a majority of congressmen, evil manifest lurks in the gilded halls of the Kremlin. Russia has recently been sanctioned (again) for crimes that are more alleged than demonstrated and President Putin has been selected by the Establishment as the wedge issue that will be used to end President Donald Trump’s defiance of the Deep State and all that pertains to it. The intelligence community at its top level would appear to be fully on board with that effort.
The most recent inexplicable comments come from the current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, speaking at the Aspen Institute Security Forum. He began by asserting that Russia had interfered in the U.S. election before saying that the logic behind Russia’s Middle Eastern strategy is to stay in place in Syria so Moscow can “stick it to America.” He didn’t define the “it” so one must assume that “it” stands for any utensil available, ranging from cruise missiles to dinner forks. He then elaborated, somewhat obscurely, that “I think they find anyplace that they can make our lives more difficult, I think they find that something that’s useful.”
Remarkably, he also said that there is only “minimal evidence” that Russia is even fighting ISIS. The statement is astonishing as Moscow has most definitely been seriously and directly engaged in support of the Syrian Arab Army. Is it possible that the head of the CIA is unaware of that? It just might be that Pompeo is disparaging the effort because the Russians and Syrians have also been fighting against the U.S. backed “moderate rebels.” That the moderate rebels are hardly moderate has been known for years and they are also renowned for their ineffectiveness combined with a tendency to defect to more radical groups taking their U.S. provided weapons with them, a combination of factors which led to their being denied any further American support by a presidential decision that was revealed in the press two weeks ago.
Pompeo’s predecessor John Brennan is, however, my favorite Agency leader in the category of totally bereft of his senses. In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee back in May, he suggested that some Trump associates might have been recruited by the Russian intelligence service. He testified that “I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and US persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals. It raised questions in my mind whether or not Russia was able to gain the co-operation of those individuals.”
In his testimony, Brennan apparently forgot to mention that the CIA is not supposed to keep tabs on American citizens. Nor did he explain how he had come upon the information in the first place as it had been handed over by foreign intelligence services, including the British, Dutch and Estonians, and at least some of it had been sought or possibly inspired by Brennan unofficially in the first place. Brennan then used that information to request an FBI investigation into a possible Russian operation directed against potential key advisers if Trump were to somehow get nominated and elected, which admittedly was a longshot at the time. That is how Russiagate started.
Brennan is certainly loyal to his cause, whatever that might be. At the same Aspen meeting attended by Pompeo, he told Wolf Blitzer that if Trump were to fire special counsel Robert Mueller government officials should “refuse to carry out” his orders. In other words, they should begin a coup, admittedly non-violent (one presumes), but nevertheless including federal employees uniting to shut the government down.
A lesser known former CIA senior official is John McLaughlin, who briefly served as acting Director in 2004. McLaughlin was particularly outraged by Trump’s recent speech to the Boy Scouts, which he described as having the feel “of a third world authoritarian’s youth rally.” He added that “It gave me the creeps…it was like watching the late Venezuelan [President Hugo] Chavez.”
And finally, there is Michael Morell, also a former Acting Director, who was closely tied to the Hillary Clinton campaign, apparently driven by ambition to become Director in her administration. Morell currently provides commentary for CBS television and is a frequent guest on the Charlie Rose show. Morell considerably raised the ante on Brennan’s pre-electoral speculation that there had been some Russian recruitment of Trump people. He observed in August that Putin, a wily ex-career intelligence officer, …“trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them [did exactly that] early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities… In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”
I and others noted at the time that Putin and Trump had never met, not even through proxies, while we also wondered how one could be both unwitting and a recruited agent as intelligence recruitment implies control and taking direction. Morell was non-plussed, unflinching and just a tad sanctimonious in affirming that his own intelligence training (as an analyst who never recruited a spy in his life) meant that “[I] call it as I see it.”
One could also cite Michael Hayden and James Clapper, though the latter was not CIA. They all basically hew to the same line about Russia, often in more-or-less the same words, even though no actual evidence has been produced to support their claims. That unanimity of thinking is what is peculiar while academics like Stephen Cohen, Stephen Walt, Andrew Bacevich, and John Mearsheimer, who have studied Russia in some depth and understand the country and its leadership far better than a senior CIA officer, detect considerable nuance in what is taking place. They all believe that the hardline policies current in Washington are based on an eagerness to go with the flow on the comforting inside-the- beltway narrative that paints Russia as a threat to vital interests. That unanimity of viewpoint should surprise no one as this is more of less the same government with many of the same people that led the U.S. into Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. They all have a vested interested in the health and well-being of a fully funded national security state.
And the other groupthink that seems to prevail among the senior managers except Pompeo is that they all hate Donald Trump and have done so since long before he won the election. That is somewhat odd, but it perhaps reflects a fear that Trump would interfere with the richly rewarding establishment politics that had enabled their careers. But it does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of CIA employees. Though it is admittedly unscientific analysis on my part, I know a lot of former and some current CIA employees but do not know a single one who voted for Hillary Clinton. Nearly all voted for Trump.
Beyond that exhibition of tunnel vision and sheer ignorance, the involvement of former senior intelligence officials in politics is itself deplorable and is perhaps symptomatic of the breakdown in the comfortable bipartisan national security consensus that has characterized the past fifty years. Once upon time former CIA officers would retire to the Blue Ridge mountains and raise Labradors, but we are now into something much more dangerous if the intelligence community, which has been responsible for most of the recent leaks, begins to feel free to assert itself from behind the scenes. As Senator Chuck Schumer recently warned “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”