One of the strangest contradictory sensations of the Trump era is the man's relationship towards and with the various U.S. intelligence agencies. In many cases, Trump's broad criticisms about the unaccountable and seemingly limitless scope of intelligence gathering are valid. Or would be, anyway, if the man actually cared about those issues for any reason beyond his larger tantrum over the way those agencies have undermined his ego. Or if he wasn't simultaneously trying to use that same wide jurisdiction to target his own political enemies.
In other words, Trump's not necessarily wrong about the potential abuses of secret and/or warrantless surveillance (or "wiretapping" as he puts it). But he's only mad about those things because they can be used to threaten him and his friends, instead of reinforcing his hunches. Otherwise, illegal spying and invasions of privacy are totally fine with him—as long as they target the right people.
There are moments, then, where it becomes a case of "My enemy's enemy is my friend" — except that "friend" is also an enemy of sorts, which further complicates the whole mess. Case in point: this recent Just Security post by Douglas London, a former CIA operative. In it, London talks about the way that the CIA's priorities have been forced to shift from general intelligence gathering to just kind of soothing Trump's ego, and retroactively justifying all of the man's random baseless instincts:
The revealing and most disconcerting aspect of this episode was not that Pompeo presumed the worst from his workforce before getting the full story, nor his vicious dressing down of a dedicated senior official and decorated officer. Rather, it was what caused him to be so furious in the first place: The director was worried that the news would come to President Donald Trump's attention. Anything that could somehow embarrass the president, or make him appear weak, had to be avoided in order to insulate those in his orbit like Pompeo, who had his eyes on yet bigger and better things. The president's advisers knew their own political futures depended on staying in Trump's favor and providing him with so-called "successes." Therefore, Pompeo prioritized shielding Trump from news he didn't want to hear, an approach to the job that sometimes subjugated the country's interests to those of the president. Concerned more about his own standing with the president, Pompeo also refused to provide the CIA workforce with any words of support in the face of Trump's repeated attacks on it, fearing such encouragement would anger Trump.
The first evidence of what it would be like under the new administration came with the White House's direction to change how the U.S. government referred to the Islamic State. CIA had used the standardization: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or, ISIL, which was aligned with how the group saw and referred to itself. But, Trump didn't like that name, associating its use with his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and demanded we call it as he did, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In a compromise, CIA used the Arabic for Syria, "al-Shams," to provide the president his preferred "ISIS" acronym. The episode was minor, but revealing of what was to come.
That's all good and well — or at least, I can understand why it would be frustrating, and why Trump's chaotic nature could be even dangerous than the CIA's more traditionally methodical activities. See also:
Another example of the President setting the nation's security priorities from Fox News headlines rather than the most pressing threats of which our military, diplomatic and intelligence professionals warn. https://t.co/92KvNCXEiS
— Douglas London (@douglaslondon5) February 16, 2020
But I soon found myself doing a double-take, as London compares that Trumpian chaos to his rose-tinted view of the wonderful and thoughtful leadership of … Gina Haspel, the notoriously skillful torturess.
I believe Director Haspel has faithfully represented the CIA's reporting and assessments, as evidenced by the strong stand she took after Jamal Khashoggi's murder. She is smart, substantive, more interested in details than her predecessor, and open to receiving greater input. Still, like Pompeo, Haspel does not tend to include the participation of more substantive officers in briefings as other directors have done. But unlike Pompeo, Haspel is a voracious reader and savvy as both an intelligence consumer and practitioner. Still, while I'd like to believe that Haspel has not validated the president's damaging remarks about a Deep State that includes intelligence officials conspiring to undermine him, neither has she done much to correct them.
I'll be honest: my brain is just not prepared to comprehend so many positive adjectives placed so adjacently to the woman responsible for so much extrajudicial torture and abuse.
Another recent example of this bizarre double-take phenomenon comes from the New York Times' reporting into the Justice Department investigating of the CIA's choice to keep certain information about Russia close to its chest.
Mr. Durham appears to be pursuing a theory that the C.I.A., under its former director John O. Brennan, had a preconceived notion about Russia or was trying to get to a particular result — and was nefariously trying to keep other agencies from seeing the full picture lest they interfere with that goal, the people said.
But officials from the F.B.I. and the National Security Agency have told Mr. Durham and his investigators that such an interpretation is wrong and based on a misunderstanding of how the intelligence community functions, the people said. National security officials are typically cautious about sharing their most delicate information, like source identities, even with other agencies inside the executive branch.
So extrajudicial torture is fine. Entrapping terrorists that you framed and created is totally fine. But following clues into foreign interference in an election that may have favored the very same President who ultimately benefited from it? That's where the line gets crossed?
Part of the problem here is the obsession that Trump and most of the GOP have with sorting things binaries. It's all black and white — with us, or against us; good guy with a gun, or criminal; Democrat, or Republican. The problem with the CIA and the FBI and the NSA is not that they are part of an Obama-Clinton Deep State that is diametrically opposed to the Trump Agenda; the problem is that the Intelligence Community is loyal only to itself, and to maintaining the Status Quo by any means necessary. Their job is to keep the System running, and that can be good, or bad, depending. But Trump simply cannot fathom that there are more than 2 sides to any conflict. His team is the winner; and everyone who's not on his team is the loser. He thinks he can force the Intelligence Community to play for his team, in which case, he doesn't need to reign in any of their worse impulses, as long as they work in his favor.
(Even stranger is the assumption that all Intelligence Agencies are working together and sharing information, like that the FBI would know if they were spying on someone who was allegedly a CIA informant. But that's a topic for another time.)
Justice Dept. Is Investigating C.I.A. Resistance to Sharing Russia Secrets [Charlie Savage / New York Times]
The C.I.A. in the Age of Trump [Douglas London / Just Security]
Trump's war against the "Deep State" enters a new stage [Peter Baker / New York Times]
Image: CIA / Flickr