It was, in the eyes of Trump World, the very clubhouse of the Deep State: the plush, blue-carpeted, wood-paneled 13th floor auditorium of the National Press Club, located in the heart of the Washington swamp, just two blocks from the White House. The Halloween-eve panel discussion featured a line-up of heinous perps indicted by the “stable genius” of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: On the far left sat the bulky former CIA Director John Brennan (“the worst CIA Director in our country’s history,” according to Donald Trump); on the right, the winsome former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (“major sleazebag”). In between, two dutiful understudies held forth: former acting CIA directors Mike Morell (“total Clinton flunky”) and John McLaughlin, the only speaker on the stage not yet honored with a vilifying Trump call-out. At one point, McLaughlin said, “Thank God for the Deep State,” which RT and Fox News cited as proof of perfidy in the president’s critics.
The event was, according to the participants themselves, a defense of the federal government, a gathering of the leaders of the American civil service—“a crown jewel of the American government,” in McLaughlin’s words. They occasionally threw shade on Trump while voicing justified concerns about election integrity in 2020; unqualified praise for the intelligence community’s commitment to truth-telling; and debatable claims about that community’s apolitical character. They encouraged the many young people in the audience to pursue careers in intelligence and law enforcement. “He won’t be president forever,” Morell said.
The panel was titled “2020 Vision: U.S. Intelligence and the Presidential Election.” It enabled me to see something more clearly: The CIA is emerging as a domestic political party.
I don’t mean this in a conspiratorial sense (though it has conspiratorial implications), and I don’t mean it literally. Although there are three former CIA employees in Congress (and a fourth is running), the CIA does not resemble the Democratic or Republican parties. But in practice, the U.S. intelligence community, led by former officials, is developing into an organized political faction. Call it the Intelligence Party. Like other factions, at home and abroad, this faction is seeking to gain public support and influence the 2020 presidential election to advance its institutional and political interests.
For Trump World, the October 30 event embodied the dreaded Deep State in action. The president’s embattled defenders demonize the CIA as a secretive law-breaking organization, but seem unconcerned about the verifiable harm it actually does in the world (such as torture, arms trafficking, drone warfare, and regime change). Nor do Trump stalwarts commend the intelligence community for the good things it does (counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and counterproliferation). No, the CIA is the enemy because of its intellectual sophistication and lack of slavish loyalty to the president.
As these former administration officials see it, the U.S. intelligence community—composed of 17 different agencies with a combined budget of more than $80 billion a year—is defending the highest standards of public service, analytical thinking, and patriotic action by resisting the president’s anti-democratic impulses. What the intel community actually does—and whether it serves the interests of American democracy—is not explained in these leaders’ attacks on the ignorant real estate mogul who lives around the corner.
In the panel discussion, Brennan restated the Intelligence Party’s message on Russian interference in the 2016 election, calling it “a sweeping and systemic effort” that may or may not have changed the outcome of the election. McCabe stressed that Trump’s victory turned on tallies in four states, including Michigan, which was decided by 11,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast. He noted that Paul Manafort, Trump’s felonious campaign manager, had shared polling data from those four states with Russian interlocutor Konstantin Kilimnik in August 2016. Looking ahead to 2020, the panel was not optimistic; Morell said the Russians were undeterred by the U.S. response to their 2016 interventions. “They are doing it here, right here, right now,” he said.
Of course, the CIA has long been involved in domestic political affairs. In the 1950s, the agency fought off the Trump-like attacks of Senator Joe McCarthy while putting scores of U.S. journalists (and media executives) on its payroll each year. In the 1960s, agency operatives organized a PR campaign to discredit critics of the Warren Commission report on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (and suppressed investigations into what the CIA might have known about it). In the 1970s, CIA operatives figured deeply in the Watergate affair. (Again, the details are murky.) In the 1980s, four top CIA officials were indicted for their role in the Iran-Contra conspiracy to bypass anti-interventionist legislation passed by a liberal Democratic Congress. One of their cases was dismissed when the U.S. government would not share classified evidence; the other three perps were pardoned by lame-duck Republican President George H. W. Bush, himself a former CIA director, who acted on the advice of an attorney general named William Barr.
The agency’s defenders insist it has shed the legacy of its Cold War excesses. Yet in the 2000s, top CIA officials, including Brennan and Hayden, collaborated with the Bush administration in implementing a legally dubious, morally repugnant regime of torture, with only the most superficial approval of Congress and zero input from American taxpayers and voters. And when the Senate Intelligence Committee sought to publish its investigation into the abuses, the CIA, led by Brennan, deposited much of the report into the memory hole of official secrecy.
In the face of Russian meddling and Trump’s indifference to it, the Intelligence Party is mobilizing again. What is new is the open involvement of former top intelligence officials in electoral politics and the selection of a president. Trump’s assault on the U.S. governmental system gives them little choice: The president is a threat to their ethos and their budgets, because they are a threat to his dreams of omnipotence and multimillion-dollar business deals. Agency veterans, with ample experience in analyzing authoritarian governments and implementing regime change, know full well the danger that someone like Trump poses. For both parties, the 2020 election is the inflection point. This increasingly open power struggle between the secret agencies and an out-of-control president is not the only unprecedented feature of America’s constitutional crisis, merely the most puzzling.
The event’s moderator, Margaret Brennan—no relation to John “that we know of,” she joked—is a senior correspondent for CBS News, and she noted that she’s actually a work colleague of Morell, a national security contributor for the network. John Brennan and McCabe should probably pay rent on the chairs they occupy so often in the MSNBC and CNN studios, respectively. McLaughlin, too, has a perch, on The Washington Post editorial page. For many mainstream newsrooms, reporting on the CIA’s ubiquity in domestic political coverage is not a priority. It might lend credence to Trump’s ravings.
The Intelligence Party is threatened most immediately by its former ally, Attorney General Bill Barr. Last April, Barr said the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of multiple contacts between the Trump entourage and Russian state actors amounted to “spying.” Last week, the Justice Department let it be known that its probe into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, is now a criminal investigation.
McCabe said he had expected to hear from Durham and that he would cooperate. “It’s on my list,” he said, to laughter. The problem, he continued, is that “some folks, and possibly even the attorney general, are bringing a set of preconceived notions and biases to that investigation”:
If that’s the case—and I don’t know that it is, but there are certainly some indicators that it might be, or that the purpose of the investigation is not really to get to the bottom of what did we know and why did we make the decisions we did, but it’s more to run out political conspiracy theories—that causes me great concern.
McCabe is right to worry. With Trump taking a beating on impeachment, the Democrats—and the Intelligence Party—have regained momentum lost after the damning but understated Mueller report dropped. The president needs a comeback, and questions about the factual basis of the Trump-Russia investigation offer an opening. But the Durham inquiry is not the biggest problem facing the Intelligence Party; based on the Mueller report, federal agents had ample reason to investigate Trump’s entourage.
The leaks that followed Trump’s election are probably the bigger legal vulnerability for the former spy chiefs. The Federalist, a Trump-friendly website with shadowy funding run by a Republican political operative and a serial plagiarist, has provided a narrative template that an aggressive prosecutor might be able to fill in with legal charges: In this account, Brennan and Co. orchestrated a “coup” via a series of leaks to the Washington Post, New York Times, and NBC News, designed to hamstring Trump’s presidency before it even began. These leaks, attributed to “U.S. officials,” involved classified information, namely the CIA-NSA-FBI assessment of Russia’s role in the election. The passing of classified information, depending on the circumstances, could be construed as a violation of the Espionage Act, the same law used to prosecute whistleblowers like Reality Winner and Edward Snowden. The former spy chiefs didn’t say it at the panel, but their body language betrayed the thought: Trump’s response to impeachment is likely to be indictments.
At the reception afterward, I asked Brennan if he felt the attorney general was conducting the Justice Department investigation in a fair-minded way. “Are we on the record?” he asked. I said yes. “I’m not going to comment,” he said.
“Are you at all concerned,” I asked, “about the agency’s growing profile in domestic politics?”
Brennan put a friendly finger on my chest. “The CIA is not involved in domestic politics,” he said. “Period. That’s on the record.”
This he asserted confidently, at an event where he had just spoken about about influence campaigns on swing voters and implied that Hillary Clinton might be right in calling U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard a Russian asset. Even seasoned analysts, it seems, have their blind spots.