I was struck by the way the Washington establishment is responding to the way that Donald Trump is dismissing the leaks from the CIA that the Russian government has been manipulating US elections. Take these comments from Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democratic party in the US senate.
“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 last weekend. “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 may fight back with a diverse playbook of “off-the-record” tactics. Weapons in the interagency wars include leaks, threats of prosecution, bureaucratic sleight of hand, and “slow-walking” urgent directives.
What sometimes gets confused in the discussion of Trump and the CIA are two different but related issues.
Is the CIA a law-breaking agency with an undemocratic history? And: do the president and U.S. policymakers need an intelligence service to deliver timely and accurate information on which to base their decisions?
The answer to both questions, in my opinion, is yes.
Whether an ignorant president or a runaway CIA is the greater danger to American democracy will be a central issue of the Trump presidency.
We have long had a government that uses national security as a cloak of secrecy to hide all the wrong things it is doing. This raises an interesting issue concerning transparency in government and whistleblowers and leakers in general. It is undoubtedly the case that whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou and others, like Daniel Ellsberg a long time ago, have done the nation a service by exposing the lies and wrongdoings of government. But we have to distinguish between leaks that are done by lower level people in government who have little to gain and a lot to lose by revealing information, and leaks at the highest levels by those who are pursuing ideological, bureaucratic, or personal agendas.
We know that the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was using its information on politicians to blackmail them into agreeing with his ideological agenda as well as his personal goal of staying in office and increasing the resources of his agency. Any leaks that came from him were not in the public interest but to serve his own ends. Where do the CIA leaks fall in this this spectrum? At present, we do not have enough information to judge. If some people in the CIA are leaking information because they think that the president is doing something that is harmful to the public interest that is one thing. But if the leaks are being used to somehow coerce the president to kowtow to the agency or to advance the CIA’s bureaucratic agenda or if they are doing it because they think it harms the military-industrial-national security apparatus of which they are a part and which benefits greatly from ramping up the Cold War against Russia, then that is self-serving and needs to be deplored.
A rough, but not infallible, rule of thumb is that the lower the level of the leaker in the government bureaucracy and the greater the personal risks they are taking to get the information out, the more likely it is that they are driven by some form of altruism and need to be supported and protected. The temptation for the many people who abhor Trump is, like Schumer, to take what seems to be a benign view of the CIA leadership’s power to make life difficult for the president, irrespective of the motive. Would he have said the same thing about Hoover’s power over presidents? Because giving the CIA that power is a double-edged sword. That excellent British mini-series A Very British Coup (1988) that lasts just a total of just 150 minutes that I reviewed some time ago, while fictional, showed how the British intelligence agencies tried to control and even bring down a popularly elected working class and progressive prime minister by a series of clandestine actions and leaks. Here is a key scene between the prime minister and the head of the intelligence services. Just watching the clip, and its brilliantly written plotting and dialogue, made we want to see the show once again and I will do so.