On leaking intelligence reports and the intel community

WARNING: Another political rant forthcoming. Duck and cover if you prefer not to go down this rabbit hole. 

Apparently, the President is quite angry at all the leaks of intelligence information that ultimately led to the resignation of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn’s sin was that, according to many well-sourced news reports (i.e. not fake), he spoke to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about getting American sanctions removed.

In his anger, Trump has lashed out at both the news media for reporting on the leaks, calling it fake news, and at the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) for leaking sensitive information that, presumably, was not fake. Trump has also appointed an adviser to conduct a review of the IC to get to the bottom of the leaks.

I’ve been a reporter for The Associated Press, and I’ve done academic work on the IC (as well as a lot of research on it for my novels), so I thought I’d throw in my $0.02 here. Let’s break it down this way:

  • What did Michael Flynn do and why does it matter?
  • Where did the leaks come from and why does it matter?
  • What will Trump’s adviser do to plug the leaks, and why won’t it work?

Michael Flynn: Flynn is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant-general (three stars, for those counting) who formerly headed the Defense Intelligence Agency and was fired by the Obama Administration for, among other things, being a hothead. He’s very Islamophobic and pretty cozy with his opposite numbers in Russia. In fact, he was one of the first, if not the first, U.S. intelligence official to be welcomed into the headquarters of the GRU, the successor agency to the infamous KGB. He also had dinner with Putin and been on RT (Russia’s state-funded TV network) several times.

Yes, folks within the Trump campaign had ties to Russia, and there was contact between Russian intelligence and several campaign officials and Trump associates throughout 2016, according to this article in The New York Times. Naturally, colluding with foreign intel officers during a presidential campaign is…well, hell, it’s pretty bad.

But that’s not what got Flynn axed. See, Flynn had his conversation with the Russian ambassador after the election. And apparently, they were texting buddies and stuff. Nothing wrong with that, actually. The problem is that there are several law enforcement and intelligence reports that say Flynn talked sanctions. Why is that problematic? Because Flynn was still a private citizen, and he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the U.S. government — Obama was still president.

The bigger problem, though, was that Flynn allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was discussed. And possibly the President. And even FBI investigators — and lying to law enforcement is a straight-up crime. VP Pence was pissed because he went on TV and defended Flynn. Trump was…well, we’ve had numerous different reports on his opinion on the matter.

Anyway, none of this would’ve come to light without journalists working their sources and getting the information out there. It seems as though the Trump Administration might’ve kept Flynn on had the story not leaked. Which is weird.

Leaks: Indeed, Trump seems far angrier about the leaks in his ship than in Flynn’s falsehoods to the VP and possibly the FBI. He’s blaming the IC for leaking classified information to reporters, claiming it’s a political witch-hunt, etc. Very typical Trump bloviating.

Two things here: Did the IC actually leak this information? And is that a crime?

The vast majority of the IC — which consists of the CIA, NSA, DIA and any number of military and civilian agencies, as well as the FBI — consists of career intelligence officers. In many ways, they operate like a news agency, just with much, much better resources, like satellites and the ability to tap into communications around the globe. Their job is to gather information, analyze it, and present it to policymakers like the President and Congress.

That’s the key here: The IC has an audience. Those reports don’t simply stay put, or just land on the President’s desk. There are hundreds of mid- to high-level officials outside the IC who have clearance to view their reports. We’re talking folks at State, Justice, even the Energy Department. In addition, senators and congressmen — and some of their staffers! — likewise receive reports from the IC on a regular or ad hoc basis.

Even in Trump’s White House, there are competing factions — something Trump apparently has favored in his business dealings, because competition is good, apparently. (We can argue the merits of that some other time.) You have Pence and Reince Priebus, the former GOP chairman and now chief of staff, representing the Republican establishment, and guys like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller representing a bunch of God-awful populist neo-fascist BS. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is there, too, and seems to be more liberal than some. And Kellyanne Conway is in the mix for some reason, to promote shoes if nothing else.

In that cutthroat environment, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect some faction or another to go after Flynn, who tended to side with the Bannon/Miller reactionaries. There are members of Congress — many Democrats and more than a few disgruntled Republicans — who would likewise love to throw a wrench in the works. And tons of career civil servants who want nothing more than to wake up from the dystopian nightmares their jobs have become.

So yeah. You can’t straight-up blame the IC for this one. There are literally dozens, perhaps a couple hundred, people outside the IC who conceivably would’ve heard about Flynn — including former acting Attorney General and goddamn American hero Sally Yates, who first brought Flynn’s lies to the attention of the White House and — hey, surprise — was fired a few days later for declining to defend Trump’s travel ban in court.

Second question: Is this a crime? The answer is: possibly. Depends on whether the information was officially deemed classified or not. Given that the Flynn investigation likely was centered within the FBI — which is responsible for domestic counterintelligence and regularly monitors foreign officials’ phones — it might not have been officially classified.

In the end, blaming the IC for the leaks — while convenient in terms of scapegoating — really doesn’t hold water.

Plugging the leaks: So check this out. Trump has appointed a gentleman by the name of Stephen Feinberg (what’s with all the Stephens in this administration?) to conduct a review of the IC. This is a pretty big job, and you’d expect someone taking that on to have a ton of experience in either intelligence work or law enforcement — someone with investigatory experience and deep knowledge of how the IC works.

Stephen Feinberg is a billionaire private equity investor.

According to the linked story, he’s invested in private security contractors — among hundreds of other companies that have nothing to do with government. He learned how to shoot big guns at a Blackwater compound back in 2005. And…that’s it. That’s his experience. And yet he’s doing this, and apparently, he’s been wanting a role in the IC for a while now. Basically, we have a billionaire who wants to play spy games.

Kind of like a millionaire who wants to be President for some reason.

Needless to say, the IC is pretty angry at this. The last time a private businessman with no political or intel experience had a leadership role in the IC — Max Hugel, a Reagan campaign contributor who was named DCIA  — the guy resigned in six months amid accusations of politicization of the CIA. Even Trump’s DCIA and his DNI nominee are said to be irked at this move. And why shouldn’t they be? Once again, you have Trump lining up a bunch of competitors to fight it out over who daddy loves more.

This will not end well.

The career professionals at CIA, NSA and throughout the IC strive very hard to keep politics out of their work, because it’s their job to give the President and other policymakers the unvarnished facts and objective analyses. There is a massive amount of professional pride there, and rightly so — every single person in the IC could be making tons more money in the private sector. They’re not doing it for the money. They’re doing it because they believe in the mission.

Whether or not the IC leaked the Flynn information is, at this point, moot. Because of this boneheaded review ploy, you can bet any amount of money that there are folks within the IC who will make damned sure that every bit of information about Trump’s Russia ties make it out to the folks who can put it to good use. That means Congress. That means allies in other areas of the government. And yes, that means the press.

And I’m amused — as no doubt they are — to think that Feinberg is gonna come in and figure out who leaked what and when. The folks in the IC invented spycraft. If they want to get information out to someone, you know damn well they will. And even if Feinberg wants to assemble a team of actual experts to investigate these leaks, that’ll take time — and if anybody in the IC is committed to putting out the truth on Trump and Russia, they’ll be working extra hard to get that done before the investigators arrive.

Conclusion: The near-toxic levels of stupid in all this are crazy. Flynn should’ve known not to talk sanctions with the Russian ambassador. He should’ve known the calls would be monitored, because he’s a former intelligence head! And he certainly shouldn’t have lied to Pence and Trump and others about it. He’s screwed and, if he lied to law enforcement, he may have committed a crime.

Trump should not have blamed the IC for this, but let’s face it — he knows squat about how the IC actually works, and probably doesn’t realize how quickly sensitive information spreads around Washington, especially with regard to political figures like Flynn. And of course, Trump is not exactly careful in choosing his words. Trump has plenty of enemies in Washington without having to blame the IC — the same IC he sucked up to the day after the inauguration, in fact.

Appointing a special adviser to look into IC leaks is incredibly stupid, especially someone with the lack of intel and investigatory experience that Feinberg has. This effort will lead to very, very little in the way of solid results. It will make an annoyed IC positively furious at the administration. And I got $20 that says it’ll speed up the investigations into Trump’s Russia ties, and the dissemination of that information to the world at large.

And finally, the press is gonna eat this up. There’s blood in the water now — they bagged a top White House official just 24 days into the Trump Administration, and the President himself is doubling down on “fake news” instead of directly answering questions about any ties to Russia. The more Trump evades and doesn’t answer questions, the more the press is gonna poke at it. And now they have a potential bonanza of sources to help them out.

At this point, we can only hope that if there really is a smoking gun in all this Trump-Russia nonsense, Flynn’s departure and Trump’s idiotic reactions to the leaks will bring it to the surface even faster.

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