Not since former CIA director George H.W. Bush was elected vice president in 1980 have former U.S. intelligence officers played such a prominent role in U.S. electoral politics.
Three former CIA officers are now serving in Congress. Two newly-elected Democrats Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, have joined incumbent Will Hurd, Republican from Texas, as clandestine service veterans on Capitol Hill.
Then there’s former CIA director John Brennan whose bald dome seems to attract the attention of an MSNBC camera every day or two. Along with his regular denunciations of President Trump, Brennan offers shoutouts to Colin Kaepernick and congressional Democrats. No former CIA director since Bush has been so involved in politics.
Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA director, has gone public with his opposition to Trump’s presidency. He likened Trump’s mid-term electioneering to the radicalization techniques of ISIS, only to be sidelined by a stroke. Hayden promises to return to the political fray as soon as he can.
What’s the Problem?
Liberals may cheer Brennan’s passion for calling out Trump. Conservatives may note approvingly that Spanberger and Slotkin did not vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.
But everybody should be wary of secret intelligence officers in politics.
There’s a reason why President Harry Truman invoked the specter of the Gestapo–the secret police of the Nazi party–when considering plans to create the CIA in the late 1940s. Truman said he didn’t want to be rushed into the creation of peacetime intelligence agency because “this country wanted no Gestapo under any guise or for any reason.”
There is a fundamental tension between a democracy and a secret intelligence service. One solution is abolition, which many serious people have entertained over the years.
After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, President John F. Kennedy raged against “CIA bastards” and mused about smashing the agency and “scattering it to the winds.”
A month after JFK was assassinated, Truman advocated abolition of the clandestine service, an indication he suspected CIA complicity in the gunfire that took Kennedy’s life. in Dallas.
In the early 1970s, an antiwar activist in Vermont named Bernie Sanders advocated abolition of the agency.
In the 1990s, Sen. Pat Moynihan, a centrist Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced legislation to eliminate the CIA and transfer its functions to the State Department.
Wariness of the CIA is a mainstream American tradition.
Spooks in Power
Spies in power are a dangerous thing. Russian president Vladimir Putin is a former intelligence officer and it shows. His foreign policy betrays a faith in influence operations aimed at other country’s elections, as well as assassination of perceived enemies. The CIA has a long record of the same.
This is not to suggest that there is a moral equivalence between Putin and Spanberger, Slotkin, Hurd and Brennan. Spanberger says she worked on counterproliferation, which is one of the CIA’s most important and defensible missions.
The point is that the CIA is a law-breaking, not law-making, institution. CIA officers, almost by definition have participated in law-breaking activities. Some of these may be justifiable but we know that some are not. Brennan, like his successor Gina Haspel, participated in the implementation of the agency’s torture regime between 2002 and 2009. The only way to make sure the agency does not abuse its powers is strong accountability and oversight.
Clearly, President Trump’s attacks on his “deep state” enemies has motivated former CIA employees to speak out. They fear the president’s “ignorance and psychosis” will harm the country. They want to protect the the legitimacy of the agency.
But legitimacy in a democracy depends on transparency. Former CIA officers in the arena of electorate politics need to commit to maximum transparency and strong congressional oversight, lest they encourage the suspicion that they are covering up for their former employer or importing a clandestine mentality to democratic politics.
Spanberger tells Ian Shapira of the Washington Post that she wants to serve without a “partisan lens.” That would be a big improvement over the clownish behavior of Rep. Devin Nunes, former House Intelligence Committee chairman.
But scandals old (Iran-Contra) and new (torture and mass surveillance) show that intelligence oversight system is broken. Re-establishing accountability to bring the CIA under democratic control is a big job that has just begun. Former undercover officers can help–if they come in from the cold.