To protect OR serve:
How breaking the mission of the intelligence community endangers our democracy, ourselves
Each morning since the inauguration, I flip through Twitter in an effort to make sure the view from my bedroom window lines up with reality. The day before yesterday, those two realities didn’t line up, and I’m not sure I want them to.
Watching clips of Kellyanne Conway from the morning news shows is like receiving a master class on media training. But Tuesday morning, I had to wonder if she’d messed up when she told Matt Lauer that “General Flynn was in the presidential daily briefings, was part of the leader calls as recently as (Monday).”
Or, maybe most worrisome, she just did not realize what she said. Even as a lowly intelligence contractor who only went over to the agency headquarters, or the “big house” as it was lovingly called, on rare occasions, I know that access to the PDB and to those sessions is extremely privileged. For us contractors, it took years of working on an issue to get one line — or now one of those only nine bullet points — of a briefing. This was a hallowed achievement, and a huge credential mentioned only in hushed tones as the PDB-published person walked past. The PDB is serious because it is like pillow talk. It is not just big secrets, but it contains the feels of those involved in the secrets. It is not just “X said Y about Z.” It is “X said Y about Z, and this is how A, B, and ourselves feel about it,” and maybe even “now here’s what we’re gonna do.”
Yet now that we know through leaks from the intelligence community that surveillance of the Russian embassy proved that former security adviser General Flynn was lying about his conversations with Kremlin officials and may in fact have been a source of information for them, it becomes clear why Jared Kushner’s former publication, The Observer, is reporting that intelligence officials are withholding information from the President. This is a real cause for concern.
Intelligence folks must see their mission breaking down: they work to both support the President with information and protect the country from foreign threats. General Flynn has forced them into a situation where they can do one or the other. Either share information in the PDB that is potentially passed along to the Kremlin, or withhold the information and break down our democratic institutions.
To be clear, employees of the intelligence community are heroes — and not just the badass operatives in the field we see on TV, but the analysts, too. On top of baring their souls regularly on paper and polygraph, they toil endlessly in remote, inaccessible locations on geographies that never get any air time, and they cannot even talk to their families or friends about what they do. Some have died in the line of duty, others on American soil. They do this unsung and often tedious work because they wish to protect our great country.
I wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to share the sensitive information they receive with the President. It is hard won in many cases, and if someone can’t be bothered to read, let alone acknowledge the nuance and detail, that’s awfully annoying. And the president, of course, has repeatedly insulted the intelligence community. But again, these are thankless bureaucrats who’ve likely endured worse. Though they may take some things personally, I imagine they would still offer their best work to this and any President in order to keep our country safe.
We’re left with two ultimate choices. In a deep state scenario, we should expect an engaged and informed President to counterbalance the power that the intelligence community, Wall Street, or Silicon Valley may exert on our economy, our institutions, and our elected leaders. I’m not convinced that this President is that advocate. If we rely on individual whistleblowers, we ask for another huge personal sacrifice from those who already given their lives to protect us. The only way forward is to ensure that the intelligence community doesn’t have to make the choice between our safety and our democracy.
How do we ensure that doesn’t happen? An answer to this question must not be deflected.