You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.


What happens when the president goes to war with his own spies?

Clockwise from top: Cheriss May/Nurphoto/Brendan Smialowski; Drew Angerer; Alex Wong; Chip Somevilla, All Getty
Clockwise from top: Cheriss May/Nurphoto/Brendan Smialowski; Drew Angerer; Alex Wong; Chip Somevilla, All Getty

Shortly after dawn on a July morning in 2007, a convoy of black FBI utility vehicles snaked down Ridge Road, a tranquil, leafy street lined with modest homes and manicured shrubs in the Maryland suburb of Severn. After a few twists and turns, they came to a stop at the end of a cul-de-sac opposite a two-story gray colonial. Seconds later, a dozen agents, weapons pulled from their holsters, burst into the house. Upstairs was William E. Binney, a former senior employee of the National Security Agency headquartered at nearby Fort Meade.

“They shoved my son out of the way as they rushed in with their guns drawn and charged upstairs, where my wife was getting dressed and I was in the shower,” Binney told me. “After pointing their guns at her, one of the agents came into the shower and pointed a gun directly at my head as he forcibly pulled me out. Then they took me out to the back porch and began interrogating me, attempting to implicate me in a crime.”

Binney was suspected—wrongly—of leaking details about the NSA’s illegal and highly secret domestic eavesdropping operation, code-named Stellar Wind. Although he was not arrested, his computers and files were seized. But instead of keeping quiet about the top secret wiretapping effort, Binney spoke out forcefully about the agency’s illegal spying, becoming the first former NSA official to go on the record about the program.

A decade after the raid, in October 2017, the government again questioned Binney. But this time the situation was reversed. President Donald Trump was seeking his help in attacking the FBI and the rest of the intelligence community, which have been investigating whether his campaign colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the presidential election. Trump has, at various points, called the investigation a “witch hunt,” “ridiculous,” and a Democratic “hoax.” And he has attempted to cast doubt on the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the election by comparing it to the mistake over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “They were wrong, and it led to a mess,” Trump said last July. Now, on orders from Trump, according to The Intercept, CIA Director Mike Pompeo invited Binney to meet with him in his office at Langley to discuss an analysis the former NSA official had put together.

Binney’s analysis contradicted the conclusion of the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee’s emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. Instead Binney told Pompeo it was his view, based on a variety of technical factors, that a DNC insider leaked the data. If that conclusion were true, it would discredit the findings of the intelligence community and let the Russians—and Trump—off the hook.

Despite Binney’s reputation as a courageous whistleblower, however, his analysis was widely disputed and apparently changed few minds within the intelligence community—a fact made clear by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment, in February, of 13 Russians and three companies involved in the scandal. In the indictment, Mueller laid out a detailed picture of how the Russian government attempted, time and again, to influence the U.S. election, forcefully undermining Trump’s charge that the claims were a “hoax.”

Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017 was a flash point in the president’s war with the intelligence community.
Drew Angerer/Getty

But Trump’s campaign to discredit his own intelligence agencies highlights how drastically the president has shattered many of the spy world’s long-held norms. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the intelligence community and the White House generally formed a united front, supporting each other in public if not always agreeing in private. Together, they defended the government from a public that was angry about the NSA’s illegal domestic spying, the CIA’s targeted killing program, and the FBI’s excessive use of national security letters demanding confidential information without a warrant. Now, however, it is the White House that has declared war on the FBI and the intelligence community over criminal investigations and the Russia probe. And, in an ironic twist, the public, lawmakers, and the press have rushed to the defense of the FBI and the intelligence agencies.

Last December, a number of journalists even began appealing to the public to send donations to the FBI Agents Association, an organization representing current and former agents. Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of the legal blog Lawfare, tweeted that he had donated $1,000 to the group in response to Trump’s attacks on several agents, adding, “I urge others to give as well and tweet that you did so to #thanksFBI.” Others quickly joined in, including Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. The association later announced that it had raised more than $140,000 from 2,000 donors in the course of a single month.

Former intelligence chiefs who, a few years ago, were justly chastised by much of the mainstream media for lying and violating civil liberties are now featured in the press as purveyors of truth and justice. Among them is former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who was roundly criticized for what many view as his lying under oath before Congress regarding the NSA’s illegal domestic spying; former NSA Director Michael Hayden, who secretly ordered his agency to begin that spying; and former CIA Director John Brennan, who purportedly ran the agency’s program of targeted killing of Americans and tried to prevent the Senate from releasing its voluminous investigation into the CIA’s torture program. In November, Trump attacked Clapper and Brennan as “political hacks.” The next day, the pair appeared on CNN to defend the intelligence community. “Considering the source of the criticism,” Brennan said of Trump’s comments, “I consider that criticism a badge of honor.”

Members of Congress, too, are stumbling over each other to praise the agencies, when they should be scrutinizing them. New York Representative Jerrold Nadler, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, labeled the president’s attacks “wildly dangerous” to American institutions. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, accused Republicans of “an effort to torch the credibility of the FBI.” And Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in an email that “the men and women of the FBI are among the most professional and committed public servants in our nation.”

This sudden backflip by lawmakers, the media, and the public is understandable, given the seriousness of the charges leveled against Trump and his overt and systematic attempts to thwart the Russia investigation. But there is a great danger to society in overlooking past issues of accountability and the potential harm to civil liberties and instead viewing the FBI and the spy world in a purely positive light. And as the rift between the president and America’s spies grows wider, there is also an ominous possibility that the FBI and the intelligence agencies will no longer feel accountable to Trump, because they no longer see him as a legitimate partner or commander.

Ironically, much of the danger Trump poses can be laid at the feet of Barack Obama. Assuming that past norms would be future norms, Obama created the most powerful surveillance state the world has ever seen. Over eight years, he spent more than $100 billion on everything from eavesdropping satellites encircling the globe, to a million-square-foot building in the Utah desert for storing massive troves of intercepted data, to secret taps on the hundreds of thousands of miles of undersea cables that carry everything from tweets to Google searches to endless chatter. He also unleashed fleets of killer drones around the world, authorized the assassination of Americans without trial, and jailed more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined.

What Obama apparently never considered was that the Orwellian surveillance tools he created, and the precedents he set of killing and jailing Americans, could one day fall into the hands of a mountebank, demagogic president unrestrained by norms and perhaps even untethered from reality. One who may see them as preapproved weapons in his war to delegitimize his own government and attack political opponents, innocent Americans, and the press, which he has labeled “the enemy of the American people.”

It was a prospect Senator Frank Church warned about more than 40 years ago, after taking a first look at the NSA’s capabilities. “If this government ever became a tyranny,” he said, “the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.” Four decades later, the NSA is light years ahead of where it was during Church’s visit.

Where does Trump’s hostility to the intelligence community come from? As the first president in history to enter the White House without any prior government experience, Trump had never worn a military uniform, viewed a classified document, approved a covert operation, or read an NSA intercept. He needed a guide to that opaque world—and he found one in a bitter and ambitious former intelligence chief who ended his career with a boot: Lieutenant General Michael Flynn.

Unlike many of his fellow general officers, Flynn attended a state university rather than West Point but nevertheless rose rapidly as an intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. For many years, he was a close friend of Stanley McChrystal, whom Obama dismissed as his top general in Afghanistan for publicly mocking senior administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden. Flynn, McChrystal’s intelligence chief, escaped unharmed—despite a 2010 incident in a Berlin bar when he reportedly pretended to prostrate himself across a table, laughing, “I worship the god of beer.” According to Michael Hastings, a reporter for Rolling Stone who was with the group at the time, when someone asked, “How the hell did you ever get your security clearance?” Flynn replied, “I lied.”

Two years later, Obama named him director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, making him the highest-ranking military intelligence officer in the country. His would be a short and rocky stint. According to a former longtime DIA official familiar with Flynn’s tenure, Flynn’s personality seemed to line up closely with Trump’s. “He’s ideologically driven,” the former DIA official told me. “His attitude was very similar to Trump’s.”

As a branch of the Pentagon, the DIA typically functions in an orderly and regimented way. Under Flynn, however, chaos was the norm, and many employees rebelled against his roughshod management style. “Instead of being a real innovator and creative, he was disruptive in not a good way,” a former senior DIA official involved in advanced planning told me. “He clashed with the staff, and he had a temper.… People didn’t like working for him.” The former longtime DIA official agreed. “He treated people like crap,” this official said. “He could yell at people, he could single people out.... He was the head of DIA, and he was a bully.”

Finally, in April 2014, less than two years after becoming director, Flynn was fired. But the very qualities that contributed to his ouster from the DIA—his brash, over-the-top temperament and chaotic management style, as well as his right-wing views on terrorism and the world—endeared him to Trump.

In contrast to Trump, President Lyndon B. Johnson worked closely with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and had a voracious appetite for intelligence reports.

Flynn became one of Trump’s key foreign policy advisers during the presidential campaign, and he set out to help Trump shatter old norms and create new ones—an effort that he hoped would also remove the tarnish from his stars and allow him to regain his rightful place in the community from which he had been ingloriously ejected. It was an easy task, working for someone with a similar disregard for tradition, little respect for the national security bureaucracy, and no patience for slogging through briefing papers and multipage analyses. Both had common cause to go to war with the intelligence agencies—Flynn to repay those who caused his downfall, and Trump to strike back at those who he believed sought to undermine his election victory.

From early on, it was clear that Trump would not treat intelligence officials with the customary respect with which his predecessors had. On August 17, 2016, after Trump won the Republican nomination, intelligence officials assembled in New York to deliver the traditional intelligence briefing given to all new presidential nominees. Normally, this briefing is a somber occasion: Secrets are revealed for the first time, and the nominee traditionally listens respectfully and keeps all details of the meeting confidential. But according to NBC News, Flynn repeatedly challenged the briefers—his ire so unchecked that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who also attended the meeting, reportedly told Flynn to shut up and “calm down.” Trump later spoke publicly about the meeting, saying he could tell from the briefers’ “body language” that they were unhappy working for Obama.

Flynn was officially appointed to be Trump’s national security advisor in November 2016. Then, a brief three months later, Trump fired him for lying to Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI concerning a conversation with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, about sanctions imposed on Russia by Obama. But Trump has continued to exhibit the dim view of the intelligence community that he inherited from Flynn. He has rejected the President’s Daily Brief, for example—long the single most important national security document a president reads every day. Packed with critical reports and potential threats from all of the spy agencies, it has been a staple for presidents for more than four decades. Trump, however, has declined to read it, demonstrating how little he values the intelligence community. “You know, I’m, like, a smart person,” he said in an interview on Fox News Sunday in December 2016. “I don’t have to be told the same thing and the same words every single day.”

Trump’s enormous self-regard and disinterest in hearing outside opinions—particularly any that diverge from his own—has sparked fear that he could dispense with perhaps the spy world’s most sacred rule: unbiased reporting. The Bush administration’s decision to cast aside that norm helped lead to the disastrous war in Iraq. Unhappy with the CIA’s more cautious reporting on possible weapons of mass destruction in that country, the White House set up a separate, secret unit inside the Pentagon to cherry-pick the intelligence the White House wanted to see. Today, Trump—a man of endless conspiracy theories—may now be following a similar path with regard to Iran and North Korea, potentially leading to an even more calamitous war.

Trump’s recent support of a controversial memo drafted by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee is a window on what might be happening in the dark recesses of the spy world. The deliberately slanted memo criticized a secret warrant issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor the communications of one-time Trump aide Carter Page. It was released to the public despite the strong warnings of the FBI that it was fundamentally biased and inaccurate. The bureau expressed its “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” But Trump nonetheless tweeted that the memo “totally vindicates” him in the Russia probe.

And the closer Trump comes to a premature end to his administration—whether the result of criminal indictments or the threat of impeachment—the greater the danger that he will break the most serious norm of all: launching a war only as a last resort. If desperate enough, Trump may find a pretext to launch an attack against Iran or North Korea in an attempt to divert attention from his domestic troubles.

Already, Trump has denounced the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. And his former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, suggested that the Trump administration would support regime change in the Islamic Republic. Similarly, Trump has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”; flown bombers capable of dropping nuclear weapons near the Korean peninsula; positioned a Navy armada, complete with three aircraft carriers, in nearby waters; and continually taunted North Korea’s leader with name-calling—all of which could help create a pretext for war.

Of course, a president having absolute trust and confidence in the intelligence community is equally wrong. A newly elected president should possess a healthy skepticism. It was a lesson President John F. Kennedy quickly learned when, before he took office, the CIA handed him its flawed plan, drawn up under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to invade Cuba. Following the Bay of Pigs disaster, Kennedy fired CIA Director Allen Dulles, and thereafter he viewed intelligence reports with a far more critical eye.

With Trump, however, it’s more an outright hatred and fear than a healthy skepticism—fear that the FBI wants to prosecute him and a hatred of the spies for claiming the Russians interfered with the election, thereby casting doubt on its legitimacy, if not negating its outcome. And, at the risk of echoing Lloyd Bentsen’s damning assessment of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate, in terms of truthfulness, temperament, and intelligence, Donald Trump is no Jack Kennedy.

Adding to the concern, at a time when infotainment is replacing hard news, is the fact that much of the press, especially cable news, has also disregarded traditional norms—chief among them the devotion to objective reality and the investment of considerable resources, both human and financial, toward probing the workings of the darkest elements of government. Instead, as Trump charges the FBI with political bias and the intelligence community with acting like Nazis, the media—with the obvious exception of Fox News—seems to have taken on the mantle of defenders and protectors of those deeply problematic institutions.

In so doing, they have squandered their objectivity and precious resources on a single story: Russian election hacking. Many of the same reporters who once labored to track down leads concerning civil liberties violations and war crimes are now dishing up breathless and questionable leaks about the Russia investigation. Last December, for example, ABC News suspended and demoted Brian Ross, its chief investigative correspondent, for rushing on air with an unverified and incorrect story claiming that Michael Flynn would testify that Trump, as a candidate, had directed him to make contact with Russian officials. Months earlier, CNN forced out three journalists over similar missteps.

By devoting so much attention to the Russia story, journalists are failing in the difficult job of developing sources within what the spy world calls “hard targets”—the CIA, the NSA, and other parts of the intelligence community. No one, it seems, deems it necessary to explore the ways in which the U.S. intelligence establishment has for years brazenly hacked, bugged, and stolen data from the elections of others—even friends and neighbors such as Mexico. America the victim is always a far better story than America the perpetrator.

The public, therefore, may learn of an indictment a few hours or days before it happens but never learn what else the Trump administration is up to. Has the NSA’s giant ear turned toward the United States again, based on a secret Justice Department ruling? Is the FBI once more rummaging through private papers via another legal loophole? The leaks currently emanating from within the intelligence agencies focus almost exclusively on Trump’s unprecedented behavior. They say nothing about what covert operations may currently be underway.

Indeed, it’s also possible that while publicly criticizing the intelligence agencies, Trump may also be secretly authorizing the NSA to spy on lawyers representing immigrants, Democratic lawmakers, and journalists. Or perhaps, at Trump’s bidding, the CIA will soon begin the secret targeted killing of Americans overseas suspected of or charged with leaking, such as Edward Snowden. Yet even more troubling, perhaps, is the thought that these actions could take place without Trump’s authorization. Given Trump’s attacks, there is a danger of the spy agencies no longer feeling accountable to the White House and “going rogue”—especially if the country suffers another terrorist attack. With a distracted president, little oversight, and Orwellian new tools, spy chiefs may simply begin making up the rules as they go along.

For an administration no longer constrained by norms or even the truth, all of these dangers and more are possible, since the ultimate norm is obeying the law. As Richard Nixon discovered, slipping from breaking norms to breaking laws is easily done. And if it’s done in secret, the public may never know until it’s too late.