Spies and Politics Don’t Mix
Two weeks ago, my former colleagues in the intelligence community did something unprecedented: they briefed President-Elect Trump — the nation’s future Commander in Chief — that they’re aware of allegations that he’s engaged in a scandalous if not treasonous relationship with Russia.
Days later, CIA Director John Brennan softened this claim, saying the allegations were not based on “intelligence community information” and he gave it no particular credence.
As a former CIA ops officer, I believe something deeply troubling is happening in Washington D.C. In short, the sacred wall between politics and intelligence is cracking, with grave consequences for the republic.
To understand why, consider five key facts:
1) On January 6th, the Chiefs of the U.S. intelligence community (Office of the Director of National Intelligence, CIA, NSA, and FBI) briefed Trump on Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
2) During this briefing, at least one of the Chiefs relayed to Trump — either verbally or in writing — that the American Government was aware of allegations that he and his staff have engaged in a clandestine relationship with Russia. These allegations stem from an unclassified 36-page document compiled by a former British spy.
3) Following a leak of this meeting and related allegations, intelligence officials announced that they had “not made any judgment” as to whether the information in the document was reliable.
4) Yet, according to Vice President Biden, there has been or is currently an inquiry into these allegations. “I think it’s something that obviously the agency thinks they have to track down,” he said.
5) The reason for the inquiry: to give policymakers the “fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.”
When President Obama heard these facts — namely the allegations against Trump — his response was telling: ‘What does this have anything to do with anything?’” Intelligence leaders replied that they felt obliged to do so because he “may hear about it.”
To those of us who have served in the intelligence community, this response — combined with the above facts — is a breathtaking indictment of our former colleagues.
When you become an intelligence officer, you are trained in several core competences. One of them is how to properly vet raw information before it can be considered finished intelligence. Why is this so important? Finished intel goes to policymakers who in turn use it to decide issues of war and peace; people live or die based on the quality of your finished intelligence.
The vetting process is supposed to be rigorous. When it’s not, very bad things happen: the Iraq War was predicated, in part, on poorly vetted intelligence.
So what vetting has been done to assess the allegations against Trump? The intelligence community offers “no judgment,” despite some amount of investigation. President Obama’s reaction — “‘What does this have anything to do with anything?” — suggests that the veracity of the allegations is inconclusive or nonexistent.
Despite this, intelligence professionals decided to brief the accusations anyway. Why? Allegedly because policymakers “may hear about it.”
I cannot underscore how disturbing this is.
Intelligence professionals decided that if a President might hear about something that affects national security — unvetted rumor, gossip, or idle chatter — it’s their responsibility to address it. To become involved in it.
In this case, intelligence leaders think it’s appropriate to brief an uncorroborated rumor that our next Commander in Chief is a secret Russian traitor — and they offer no judgment as to whether or not it’s true.
That alone is stunning — and without precedent. But it gets worse.
My former colleagues then felt it appropriate to brief the alleged crimes to the alleged traitor himself — Donald Trump. This defies logic.
To be clear, I take no position on the accuracy of the allegations against Trump. Why? I don’t have the secret databases, clandestine sources, signals intelligence, or reporting from other governments that I used to.
That said, Trump’s affinity for the Russian Government is deeply suspicious. For instance, he brushed off the treason allegations by saying, in effect, that Russia’s denial was proof enough for him — and should be for the country. That’s patently absurd.
Still, my suspicions have no place in the world of finished intelligence, especially when discussing the alleged treason of our next President. If he is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, our justice system will send him to jail — or lead him to impeachment. Otherwise, salacious political rumors have no place in a briefing where our nation’s leaders — and the American people — expect facts.
Let me be clear: there is no middle ground on this issue. The intelligence community does not belong in politics. U.S. law is abundantly clear on this.
However, on January 6th, all facts suggest that the chiefs of the CIA, FBI, NSA, and ODNI broke that covenant. Whether by political intent or naiveté, these men have called into question their apolitical allegiance to the American people.
They owe us all an honest explanation — and an apology.
Bryan Dean Wright is a former covert CIA ops officer and member of the Democratic Party. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.