“You take on the intelligence community and they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you,” said Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer to Rachel Maddow several weeks ago. “So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.”
Schumer’s candid comment was a rare admission of how things really work in Washington. If a president crosses a powerful agency, that agency’s officials can fight back with a varied playbook of “off-the-record” tactics. Weapons in the interagency wars include:
- Threats of prosecution;
- Bureaucratic sleight of hand;
- “Slow-walking” urgent directives.
NAKED POWER STRUGGLE
The point is that Schumer, like Trump, has abandoned the usual discretion surrounding the politics of the CIA in Washington. The norms that have governed the CIA-White House relationship for decades have evaporated, laying bare a clash between clandestine service and the commander in chief that is unprecedented in the 60-year history of the agency.
“The relationship is the worst of any incoming administration ever,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA official, in an interview. “You have to go back to Nixon to find a president with as strong negative views about the agency. But the agency did not get this kind of public disparagement from Nixon.”
The increasingly naked power struggle pits the incoming president who shows little respect for the traditions of the CIA-White House relationship and a $15 billion-a-year agency that depends on those traditions for its global influence and power.
WHAT WILL TRUMP DO
What Trump will actually do is anyone’s guess. Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, is a West Point graduate and Republican congressman from Kansas who favored conspiratorial interpretations of the Benghazi terror attack that were, to put it politely, unfounded in fact. (Pompeo admitted to the Daily Beast he had no “smoking gun proof” that Hillary Clinton was to blame.)
At his Senate confirmation hearings last week, Pompeo did not echo his boss’s disdain for the Agency. Indeed he seemed to go out of his way to affirm current CIA positions on torture (forbidden) and Russia (a threat) that conflict with Trump’s statements.
No surprise there. One of the un-sinister ways the CIA prevails in power struggles is to win over its adversaries with insider knowledge.
After President John F. Kennedy became disenchanted with the agency’s failed operation to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1961, he assigned his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy to ride herd on the agency. After a series of secret briefings, RFK became an enthusiastic supporter of the Agency’s secret operations in 1962 and 1963.
Perhaps the CIA leadership can win over Pompeo and Trump. Timely intelligence in a crisis can do wonders for a bad relationship. President Lyndon Johnson shut the CIA out of his deliberations for his first two and half years in office. Like Trump, LBJ saw Langley as a nest of reprehensible liberals out to undo him. After the CIA delivered a prescient forecast about the Israeli-Arab war of June 1967, Johnson lunched weekly with director Dick Helms for the rest of his term.
Trump may seek to diminish the CIA by reorganizing the intelligence community. More than a few people in Washington think the current position of Director of National Intelligence, which supposedly oversees the work of the CIA and 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, should either be strengthened or abolished. But when transition officials floated the reorganization idea, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer said “these reports are false.”
What seems certain is that the Trump-CIA struggle will continue both publicly and privately. On Sunday, outgoing CIA director John Brennan warned Trump about the folly of ignoring the agency’s work. Trump responded with another Twitter blast, accusing Brennan of leaking the wholly unverified dossier claiming Russia has compromising information on the president-elect.
As often happens, the Twitter persiflage covered a more substantive development: intelligence community leaks about the private phone conversations of Michael Flynn, Trump’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence.
As first reported by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, Flynn called Sergey Kislyak, Russian ambassador to the U.S., on December 29, the day President Obama announced sanctions on Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 campaign.
The accuracy of the leak was confirmed when the Trump transition team hastened to tell Ignatius that Flynn and Kislyak had spoken that day, but not about sanctions.
The day after Flynn and Kislyak chatted, Putin announced he would not retaliate, prompting Trump to tweet, “Great move on delay (by V.Putin). I always knew he was very smart!”
Last Friday (1/13), another shoe quietly dropped. From the Reuters bureau in Washington, Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed reported that three unnamed sources had told them Flynn had not one but five phone conversations with Kislyak on December 29. They noted:
The calls raised fresh questions among some U.S. officials about contacts between Trump’s advisers and Russian officials at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies contend that Moscow waged a multifaceted campaign of hacking and other actions to boost Republican Trump’s election chances against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The Reuters story has not been independently confirmed. But I don’t see reason to assume the Reuters reporters are pawns in a Clintonian game to blame her election loss on the Russians and stoke a new Cold War. Of course, reporters can be manipulated by unnamed sources. In this case, I find it more noteworthy that the Trump transition team did not comment on, or even deny their reporting.