A surge of public activism by former CIA personnel is one of the most unexpected developments of the Trump presidency, and it is accelerating.
Two former CIA officers—both Democrats, both women, both liberal—were elected to Congress on November 6. Abigail Spanberger, former operations officer, was elected in Virginia’s 7th District. Elissa Slotkin, former analyst, won in Michigan’s 8th District. Both Spanberger and Slotkin incorporated their intelligence experience into their center-left platforms.
Their victories tripled the number of CIA “formers” in Congress. Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), previously the only former intelligence officer on Capitol Hill, won re-election by defeating Gina Ortiz Jones, herself a former military intelligence officer.
They are hardly alone. Former directors John Brennan and Gen. Michael Hayden are among Trump’s harshest critics. Other former CIA leaders like Michael Morell and John McLaughlin are critical but more circumspect. As a group, they are far more outspoken about the current president than, say, former director George H.W. Bush was about President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. When Trump threatened to pull Brennan’s security clearance, more than 70 former intelligence officers signed an open letter calling Trump’s action a threat to free speech.
At the halfway point in Trump’s first term, these formers see themselves as a bulwark of an endangered democracy. The president and his supporters see a cabal of “deep state” radicals out to overturn the will of the people. With the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, an unqualified political operative, as Attorney General, Brennan said a “constitutional crisis” is fast approaching. The clash between a willfully ignorant commander in chief and a politicized intelligence community seems sure to deepen.
“I think the blatant disregard for the threat of foreign influence in our election and the demonization of the Intelligence Community was a turning point for a lot of us,” former branch chief Cindy Otis told me in an email. “…Critics can call me ‘The Deep State,’ but I joined the CIA under George W. Bush and the vast majority of people at CIA lean conservative on foreign policy/natsec [national security] issues.”
All of the former CIA personnel I interviewed spoke of the ideals of disinterested intelligence collection and analysis as the basis for their opposition to Trump.
“It is pounded into you: To be in the CIA, you have to be as objective as possible,” said Nada Bakos, author of a forthcoming memoir, The Targeter, about her CIA career. “Your personal beliefs don’t have a place in dealing with facts objectively.”
But history tells us the apolitical ideals of the agency have often been observed in the breach without provoking a revolt in the ranks. In the 1980s, former director Bush and a host of senior agency operatives joined the Iran-Contra conspiracy. They sought to subvert the Democratic majority in Congress that had banned covert intervention in Central America. The agency’s rank and file did not object. Indeed, many applauded when President Bush pardoned four CIA officials who had been indicted in the scandal.
After the 9/11 attacks, the consensus in Langley that torture was a permissible, effective and necessary counterterrorism technique no doubt struck many intelligence officers as apolitical common sense. But, of course, adopting “extreme interrogation tactics” was a deeply political decision that President Bush embraced, and President Obama repudiated. Most CIA personnel I’ve spoken to were glad to defer to the commanders in chief on such a controversial issue.
Trump is another story. Kent Harrington, a former station chief who served as agency spokesman, says historical comparisons miss “a huge and obvious point.”
“We are dealing with a level of ignorance and psychosis in the Oval Office and dysfunction in the so-called administration itself that makes drawing parallels, much less conclusions about Trump vs. previous national leaderships perilous to say the least,” Harrington wrote in an email.
The problem with Trump in the eyes of these CIA formers is almost pre-political. The president’s policy decisions matter less than his contempt for intelligence and the system that collects it.
“When we see things that are blatantly wrong, and the president is responsible, it is fair to speak out,” Bakos said in an interview. “If you’re silent, you’re part of the problem.”
The formers speaking out against Trump, she said, are simply defending “all the things that as agency officers we swore to uphold. The Constitution, as it was written. Freedom of speech. The values of democracy vs. nationalism.”
Although no one said it explicitly, former personnel know better than anyone that the CIA has a license to kill. The agency can spy, capture, bomb and assassinate. It can overthrow governments, foster (or smash) political movements, even re-organize entire societies, according to the inclinations of the president and his advisers.
CIA operatives could trust both neoconservative George W. Bush and internationalist Barack Obama with that arsenal because they believed, whatever their politics, both presidents were rational actors. With Trump, they can have no such confidence.
Trump’s contempt for the intelligence profession, weaponized in his “deep state” conspiracy theories, has agency personnel feeling professionally vulnerable, perhaps for the first time. An irrational chief executive has shattered their apolitical pretensions and forced them to re-examine what their core beliefs require.
Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff to Hayden, told me, “Until now I’ve been mostly a Republican voter at the national level because Republicans shared my views on national security. For a lot of people inside the national security community, that is not necessarily the case anymore. The Republican Party under Trump has abandoned people like us.”
When Pfeiffer told me, “Who knows? I might have to vote for Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders in 2020,” he sounded amazed by the possibility but also open to it. Two years of Trump can do that to a former spy.
The point is not that the CIA is getting more liberal, says John Prados, author of The Ghosts of Langley, a history of the agency. Rather, the election results show that the voting bloc that supports the president now skews even more to the hard right. “The migration of [the] political spectrum to the right makes the agency look more liberal than it is,” he said in an interview.
“I find it sad—and maybe a few other adjectives—that Brennan now gets a pass for some of [the] things he did as director, just because he’s combatting Trump,” Prados said.
Prados also distinguished between former and current CIA personnel. While Trump has nothing but scorn for the former intelligence chiefs who blast him on CNN and MSNBC, he does have something to offer the agency’s current leaders: a policy mission they may find urgent.
“If Trump is going to carry out a secret war against Iran as he seems to want to do, who is our ally?” Prados asked. “Mossad [the Israeli intelligence service]? Who can work with Mossad? The CIA. If that is Trump’s Middle East agenda, the interests of current CIA people and the formers may diverge.”
But Harrington argues the crisis facing the CIA, and other federal agencies, goes beyond any one policy.
“Trump is not only relying on lies and falsehoods in his public statements, but I have to believe he is pushing back on the realities that are brought to him. Imagine Gina Haspel goes to the White House with a briefer to talk about the latest intel on—fill in the blank: North Korea’s missile program. What China is doing to supplant America in Asia. Where Europe wants to go with NATO. Does the president listen or care? Or even understand? We’re not in crisis on any one issue, but can we really say the government is functioning?”
Harrington expects the mistrust between the president and the intelligence community to grow in the next two years.
“No director of any federal agency can turn away the inquiries of the Democratic House,” Harrington said. “CIA people have to deal head on with the consequences of a president who is fundamentally not dealing with reality.”
If there’s one thing to be learned from talking to former CIA personnel, it’s the sense that the CIA system—powerful, stealthy, and dangerous—is blinking red about the latest* news of an authoritarian leader in an unstable nation.
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[This piece also appeared in Salon on Nov. 16.]