President Trump’s plan to question CIA officers who collected and analyzed intelligence relating to Russia’s sophisticated attack on the 2016 presidential election should send a chill down American spines. Trump’s premise has always been that any Russian attempts to increase the likelihood of his winning the election is a fairy tale, some hoax made up by his political enemies. “You want to know who won the election? I won the election!” he said at a recent rally. The words of a deeply insecure president, no doubt, but they reflect the dangerous reasoning behind his empowering Attorney General William Barr to investigate the investigators: This president keeps a Nixon-style enemies list, and his eagerness to act on it presents a severe and potentially lasting risk to national security.
It would make perfect sense for Barr’s Department of Justice to be looking at the CIA if the DOJ were trying to uncover a real crime. That in large part is what the DOJ does. If a CIA finance officer, for example, were embezzling from the government, that would be a crime and the DOJ would certainly investigate. But in the present instance, Americans should take no solace when the administration claims that there is no criminal investigation in the works; that the DOJ simply wants to chat with CIA counterintelligence officers and analysts involved in the Russia assessment. This claim should be viewed with the same skepticism that would be appropriate if a prosecutor or police officer showed up at your door saying, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong, I just want to ask you a few questions.”
If Trump wants more information on how and why the intelligence community assessed that Russia attacked American democracy leading up to the election in 2016, there are appropriate ways to do so. The CIA has an inspector general (as does the FBI, the same one who investigated Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, which ended with McCabe’s firing). There has already been fairly intense congressional oversight of the CIA and the intelligence community writ large, and these efforts have included inquiries asking questions very similar to what Trump wants to know. Perhaps most obviously, as president, Trump could simply ask CIA Director Gina Haspel or Director of National Security Dan Coats to brief him. This is routinely done on intelligence matters of great sensitivity.
And make no mistake about just how sensitive the issues the DOJ will be investigating are.
First, if the CIA obtained from a human source any information on the Russians’ operation to disrupt our elections in favor of Trump (as outlined in great detail in the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller), the new declassification power bestowed upon Barr by Trump could imperil that source. Trump has repeatedly made comments that must have made counterintelligence practitioners cringe. (Readers may recall the back-slapping meeting on May 10, 2017, between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Trump. The president revealed a piece of Israeli intelligence to the Russians — unbeknownst to our Israeli allies.) If Trump, using as an intermediary Barr or the man Barr tapped to oversee the investigation, John H. Durham, requested the identity or other compromising information about this specific source, then that source could be at mortal risk. While it is technically true that any president has the authority to require the CIA to provide such information, it would most definitely be the wrong thing to ask. Rarely if ever does a president need to know such dangerous information, nor does he want to know it — unless he hopes to use the information for political purposes, an unpardonable and egregious sin to most intelligence professionals.
Second, just as many prospective foreign sources have good reason to worry about the security of the information they provide to the CIA (and by extension their own longevity), foreign intelligence services will have similar concerns. If, for example, the DOJ demands to know not simply which of our foreign partners provided intelligence on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s active measures but also who their sources were and how they obtained the information, such demands will cause our allies to become much more circumspect than they already are about passing important information to us. This erodes the overall security of the United States on critical issues not limited to Russia but extending to China, Iran and North Korea, and possibly terrorism-related issues as well. While it is unlikely for any of our allies to actually withhold terrorist threat intelligence — information of an impending attack on the United States, for example — it would not be unreasonable for an ally to be so concerned with Trump’s loose lips that they might be less forthcoming on passing intelligence on Russia.
And third, imagine you are the CIA analyst or counterintelligence officer who gets the call from the DOJ to have that “chat.” Indeed, imagine that you are any CIA officer involved in collection or analysis on Russia, or Saudi Arabia, or President Duterte of the Philippines, or any of our more obvious adversaries previously mentioned. Wouldn’t you be more cautious if you were involved in intelligence matters on which you knew the president was focused? How comfortable would you feel writing an assessment of the Saudis’ knowledge of and involvement in the death of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi? Without worrying about the consequences, would you write a report from a source claiming that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was mocking the American president — especially after Trump’s pronouncement that he would not have allowed the CIA to recruit a family member of Kim’s, a half-brother who was assassinated? Might you not reasonably worry that one of Barr’s officers would show up at your door, just wanting to talk? Wouldn’t it be better to be safe than sorry? Is that the kind of intelligence service we want working to protect the security of the United States?
It is of course common practice in many countries ruled by authoritarian heads of state to quickly replace key leaders in the security, law enforcement and intelligence organizations, then use those levers of power to punish all political enemies. This usually does not end well for those critical of the new dictator, in that they often lose their jobs or worse. This approach has the attendant benefit of strengthening the dictator’s political position for the future, making it more likely he will be able to stay in power longer. It is not enough for a dictator to have won; he must also identify and punish anyone who did not support him. An extreme example of this can be seen in Vladimir Lenin’s infamous “Hanging Letter” of 1918. Lenin instructed his people to publicly hang opponents, take hostages, publish opponents’ names and to “do all this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks and that we will continue to do so.” As a postscript regarding soft-hearted skeptics of this policy, Lenin added: “Find tougher people.”
The CIA, as well as the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, has nothing to fear from legal oversight and does not fear legitimate inspection of how it conducts its business. Director Haspel understands the need for oversight; she has been directly involved in it before. But Trump is not a well-meaning president who has in the interest of honesty and transparency tasked his attorney general to investigate problems at the CIA. This is a president who, like dictators abroad, past and present, seeks to even the score and send a message to his enemies. What’s really going on here looks a little like a modern-day version of what Vladimir Lenin was doing back in 1918.