Politicizing Intelligence

Yet another violation of norms by the 45th President.

There is considerable hand-wringing over President Trump’s giving his Attorney General the power to selectively release intelligence documents relating to the Russia investigation.

WaPo’s Shane Harris:

President Trump’s new executive order giving the attorney general broad authority to declassify government secrets threatens to expose U.S. intelligence sources and could distort the FBI and CIA’s roles in investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections, current and former U.S. officials said.

On Thursday, Trump allowed Attorney General William P. Barr to declassify information he finds during his review of what the White House called “surveillance activities during the 2016 Presidential election.”

Trump has long complained that the U.S. government engaged in illegal “spying” on his campaign, alleging without evidence that his phones were tapped and that American officials conspired with British counterparts in an effort to undermine his bid for the White House.
It appeared unprecedented to give an official who is not in charge of an intelligence agency the power to reveal its secrets. Current and former intelligence officials said they were concerned that Barr could selectively declassify information that paints the intelligence agencies and the FBI in a bad light without giving a complete picture of their efforts in 2016.

Officials are also concerned about the possible compromise of intelligence sources, including those deep inside the Russian government.

Ordinarily, any review of intelligence activities would be done by the Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. But in giving that authority to Barr, the president has turned to someone he perceives as a loyalist and who has already said that he thinks the government spied on the Trump campaign.

“This is a complete slap in the face to the director of national intelligence,” said James Baker, the former FBI general counsel. “So why is the attorney general doing the investigation? Probably because the president trusts the attorney general more,” said Baker, now a director at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Trump has never considered Coats a close or effective adviser, and earlier this year administration officials said they thought the president might fire him.

Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, called it “potentially dangerous” to let Barr decide what to declassify, because “the DNI is in the best position to judge the damage to intelligence sources and methods.”

“This is yet another destruction of norms that weakens our intelligence community,” said Morell, now the host of the Intelligence Matters podcast. “It is yet another step that will raise questions among our allies and partners about whether to share sensitive intelligence with us.”
Trump told reporters Friday that the Russia probe was “an attempted coup or an attempted takedown of the president of the United States.” He said he hoped Barr would investigate several foreign countries, including two of the United States’ closest allies.

“Barr could expose secrets, politicize intelligence with review of Russia probe, current and former officials fear”

Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger of the NYT add:

President Trump’s order allowing Attorney General William P. Barr to declassify any intelligence that led to the Russia investigation sets up a potential confrontation with the C.I.A. It effectively strips the agency of its most critical power: choosing which secrets it shares and which ones remain hidden.

Mr. Trump said on Friday that he wanted Mr. Barr to “get to the bottom” of what the intelligence agencies knew about the investigation into his campaign. He promised, “We’re exposing everything.”

The president raised questions about C.I.A. involvement in the origins of the Russia investigation, and other officials said Mr. Barr wanted to learn more about sources in Russia, including a key informant who helped the C.I.A. conclude that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the intrusion on the 2016 election. Mr. Trump also invoked two close allies, Australia and Britain, telling reporters he wanted the attorney general to examine their roles in sharing intelligence about Russia’s interference.

The declassification order served as Mr. Trump’s counterpunch to the special counsel’s investigation. Since the release of the Mueller report, the president has been trying to focus attention on his accusations that the F.B.I. and intelligence agencies spied on his campaign. The new order, former officials said, could be intended to give more ammunition to that effort.

The intelligence agencies signaled on Friday that they would not easily give up their secrets. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, pledged to cooperate with the review but also warned that the secrets of the intelligence community, or I.C., must be protected.

“I am confident that the attorney general will work with the I.C. in accordance with the long-established standards to protect highly sensitive classified information that, if publicly released, would put our national security at risk,” Mr. Coats said in a statement.

Though the ultimate power to declassify documents rests with the president, Mr. Trump’s delegation of that power to Mr. Barr effectively stripped Mr. Coats and the C.I.A. of control of their secrets. The move could endanger the agencies’ ability to keep the identities of their sources secret, former intelligence officials said.

Mr. Coats and Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, will fight hard to ensure that their most valuable secrets — the identities of sources — are protected, former officials have said. Ms. Haspel has been described as a fierce political infighter, but she has also been careful to cultivate a strong working relationship with Mr. Barr, former officials said.
Traditionally, the C.I.A. has been effective at intramural governmental fights, in large measure because its power comes from its information and its closely guarded secrets. By taking that power from the intelligence agencies, Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr may have weakened the C.I.A.

The intelligence agencies already have a degree of unease over the Justice Department’s ability to keep the identity of sources secret. The name of the F.B.I. informant involved in the initial investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia was inadvertently made public.

“If you compromise agents, lives can be lost. That is why this is so sensitive,” Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “It is important to be exceedingly careful in this area. That is my only concern, and I hope Mr. Barr realizes that.”

—“Potential Clash Over Secrets Looms Between Justice Dept. and C.I.A.”

I prefer Harris’ framing here. Indeed, if the question is merely whether the President or the CIA should decide which information remains secret, I would under ordinary circumstances say “The President, of course.”

In this case, however, we have a President who has repeatedly demonstrated that his only value is self-interest and an Attorney General who has made it clear he believes his only duty is to protect the President and that, in any case, the President is above the law. That rather changes the equation.

I have no doubt that the FBI and/or CIA investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible coordination with the Trump campaign. Indeed, we were repeatedly told during the campaign that multiple US intelligence agencies were sure Russia was illegally interfering, including by hacking into the computer systems of various Democratic operatives and leaking embarrassing information.

I’m not sure what the President hopes to gain by this investigation. Or why said investigation wasn’t launched two-plus years ago when the information was fresher and more salient.

Do I trust that Barr will oversee a fair investigation? Sadly, no.

Do I trust that he will do everything in his power to avoid compromising sources and methods? Sadly, no.

Do I think people are likely to get killed? Probably not.

Are our allies going to be as likely to trust us with their secrets? Definitely not.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Law and the Courts
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    Do I think people are likely to get killed? Probably not.

    I am not nearly so sanguine. From the NYT piece:

    The president raised questions about C.I.A. involvement in the origins of the Russia investigation, and other officials said Mr. Barr wanted to learn more about sources in Russia, including a key informant who helped the C.I.A. conclude that President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the intrusion on the 2016 election.

    It is 100% certain if that source is burned, he/she will die by Putin’s order.

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  2. JohnMcC says:

    You say ‘I’m really not sure what the President hopes to gain….’ But I bet if you gave it a little thought you could come up with a list. Start with the word PURGE at the top of the page and whachabet that firm political control of the entire Justice Dep’t including the FBI is right up there. And finding ways to prosecute — maybe? — James Comey.

    Seem far fetched? Are you thinking like Mr Trump?

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Are our allies going to be as likely to trust us? Definitely not.

    FTFY James.

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  4. Moosebreath says:

    “I’m not sure what the President hopes to gain by this investigation.”

    An investigation which selectively uses the declassified information to show that the Deep State improperly “spied” on the Trump’s campaign. As Trump has said has happened numerous times.

    “Or why said investigation wasn’t launched two-plus years ago when the information was fresher and more salient.”

    Because he did not have Barr as Attorney General, who has shown that he has no compunctions against writing reports based upon selective reading of information designed to make Trump look good in the short run, even though it fails to stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. They can count on the so-called liberal media to breathlessly report Barr’s conclusions as fact and then take a “both sides differ on the shape of the Earth” approach when fuller information comes out which lets the Administration claim exoneration.

    You know, just as we saw in the last couple of months with the Mueller report.

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  5. Bob@Youngstown says:

    He (said Friday), “We’re exposing everything.”

    If the “everything” includes covert assets, then that’s too bad (for the asset and their usefulness)…It would seem that national security interests takes a backseat to Trump’s perception interests.

    This president is becoming more dangerous, what would he compromise next to protect his image?

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  6. I’m not sure what the President hopes to gain by this investigation.

    He clearly thinks like a vindictive child. “They investigated me? Well, I am going to investigate them!”

    This is for base support and he will pick and choose whatever is found as evidence not only of further “complete exoneration” but also of a plot against him.

    And Barr has been a disgrace.

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  7. Kathy says:

    The real problem is that much of the damage Dennison is doing to US political and government structures won’t become apparent until later. By then it will be too late to fix much of it.

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  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    Is it really so far-fetched to think that somehow Trump will “let slip” information about sources in Russa to Putin? He already did that for sources in Syria. We thought it was because he’s a dumbass, but what if that’s not it. What if he’s scratching the back of a friend, with whom he’s set to make a lot of money? I don’t find this crazy.

    We’re quite clear that Putin is willing to assassinate people, aren’t we? At some point it doesn’t matter whether they had “the conversation” about how they are going to do evil deeds together, since Trump does the best possible things he can do for Putin on a regular basis.

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  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Are our allies going to be as likely to trust us with their secrets? Definitely not.

    If I were an ally, I would already not be likely to trust “us” with “my” secrets. Ancient proverb attributed to the Chinese:

    Two can keep a secret if one is dead,.

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  10. JKB says:

    I like how everyone commenting on this is trying to gin up drama over speculative declassifications. The real genius of this move, prompted by Barr, a career DC bureaucrat who was teethed in the CIA and had access to our deepest secreted at the FBI, during the Cold War, is that it gives Barr unfettered access. He’s the classifying authority now so agency creepers hiding information is obstruction of justice. Barr understands how the administrative state hides its bad acts and is having none of it.

    Coats is a career politician/diplomat. Even assuming he’d want to seek out the bad actors, he doesn’t have the experience that Barr has in digging into the career bureaucrats’ secrets.

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  11. @JKB: I am sorry, but your comment is gibberish.

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    Even if sources aren’t burned, people will be hurt, careers have already been ruined, and valuable resources have been driven out of government service. One of the hateful things about GOPs is their self righteous willingness to ruin lives to hold power. In this case just to create a smoke screen by bolstering paranoid fantasies.

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  13. Douglas Campbell says:

    The left weaponized our intelligence services for domestic politics unrelated to any security interest of the United States. I love how they are now scurrying for the baseboards as the President who was targeted by this stuff targets them with the light of day.

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  14. WALTER ADAMS says:

    “The president used various agencies of the govt for political purposes and the AG backstopped him”
    Are we talking about Obama or Trump here?
    I realize that your outragometer switches on and off depending on the party in the WH but it’s confusing to us Deplorables.

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  15. Bart DePalma says:

    Let me get this straight…

    Trump is “politicizing intelligence” by declassifying the Obama administration’s political weaponization of law enforcement and intelligence gathering to spy on the opposition candidate for POTUS?

    Really?

    How precisely will this disclose any sources and methods apart from those used to illegally spy on the Trump campaign?

    Yes, spy operation. A law enforcement investigation without evidence of a crime is by definitions a spy operation. This is the kind of thing Hoover used to do against anyone he considered a subversive. This is the kind of thing Democrat used to oppose when directed against folks like MLK.

    You are not sure what Trump gains by exposing the crimes committed against him and his campaign?

    Based on currently public information, this former Army intelligence officer and current criminal defense attorney can see prima facie cases for the following felonies: perjury to the FISA court concerning the reliability of sources, perjury to and obstruction of justice against Congress, denial of honest services, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit all of the above. I suspect there will be a great deal of future obstruction of justice against Barr during this investigation.

    And these crimes reach up to one level short of President Obama. Do they go further?

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  16. Jeffrey Pace says:

    Aren’t you people the least bit curious about possible Obama administration involvement in the Trump surveillance? The dozens of un-maskings, by the UN ambassador and others? The source of the leaks of classified intercepts to damage Flynn? The true origin of the ridiculous dossier? The apparent collaboration of our counter intel functionaries to get Trump? The insurance policy? Brennan’s role in the above?

    Beyond this is the odd behavior of the DOJ and FBI. No curiosity about the evident misuse of the FISA process? No reason to wonder about the DNC-Fusion GPS-Steele-Russian sources of possible disinformation? Why no defensive briefing?

    None of the above, from the comments. Why, this is the least curious group I’ve ever run into. Dead certain we should use any means necessary to get rid of a duly elected President, even if those means involve the very thing the author of this article is worried about, the politicization of our intelligence agencies. How ironic.

    So, we are in agreement about one thing, such politicization is a very bad thing, but it seems highly likely, obviously so, that the politicizing was done by the Obama administration and by left over insiders after Trump’s election. That’s why this must be investigated with a vengeance, so that (Trump is exactly right here) no president is subjected to such again.

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  17. AlinVA says:

    Michael Morell, a former CIA deputy director, called it “potentially dangerous” to let Barr decide what to declassify, because “the DNI is in the best position to judge the damage to intelligence sources and methods.”

    This is probably true, but I don’t think one can claim that the DNI is in the best position to judge law-breaking activity of inappropriate political activity by the intelligence community. That’s why we turn to outside, independent sources.

  18. steve says:

    “So, we are in agreement about one thing, such politicization is a very bad thing, but it seems highly likely, obviously so, that the politicizing was done by the Obama administration and by left over insiders after Trump’s election. ”

    Only in right wing world does such stuff seem likely. But, baby all means lets investigate, but how about we have some independent party investigate, not Trump’s personal attorney, Barr. Since the tis almost impossible lets settle for competing investigations.

    Steve

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  19. @steve: Indeed, I have no problem with a legitimate investigation. Indeed, if it really is as serious as claimed, appoint an independent counsel.

    But letting Barr have unfettered declassification authority is not appropriate.

    And, if memory serves, there is already an IG investigation underway and an outside inquiry that was recently named.

    And, for that matter, there was nothing stopping Barr from investigating his own subordinates (the FBI reports to him).

  20. Barry says:

    @Mikey:

    Dismantle large chunks of our HUMINT network in Russia.
    Make sure that anybody thinking of giving us information won’t, for fear that the US government will out them.
    Shut down all real intelligence sharing between the
    USA and all of our (remaining) allies.