The astonishing allegations, if true—that Russian intelligence sought and obtained “kompromat” on President-elect Trump—may yet turn into a scandal of unprecedented magnitude. And that, presumably, would constitute a fatal blow for the Trump presidency.
But what if it’s just more mischief from the intelligence community? What if it’s a setup, an attempt to bring down the president-elect? That was certainly the goal of the “ops research” that culminated in the unflattering allegations. It was financed first by Republicans in the primary and then by Democrats in the general election. It may also be the intension of the elites who run the intelligence agencies.
John Brennan, the outgoing director of the CIA, could not contain his insubordination. He told Fox News, “I don’t think he [Trump] has a full understanding of Russian capabilities and the actions they are taking on the world.” Trump, of course, not a man to walk away from a fight, referenced Brennan’s remarks and countered on Twitter, “…Not good! Was this the leaker of Fake News?” Was Trump now accusing Brennan of leaking the stories about misconduct in Russia?
There is only one thing we know for certain about this whole sordid imbroglio—the intelligence community is not supposed to interfere with the orderly transfer of power in the U.S. political system.
So why, then, after 240 years of democracy, have the intelligence agencies inserted themselves into the election and the transition? Why did the FBI try to influence its outcome, and why did the IC release unsubstantiated assertions about the president-elect, attacking the legitimacy of the electoral process and his electoral victory?
Let’s start with the FBI, which is both a law enforcement and an intelligence agency. In an unprecedented intervention, its director, James Comey, lobbed a bombshell into the 2016 election, tarnishing the image of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary MORE, and quite possibly denying her victory. This is, of course, old news, even though no one yet understands why Comey wrote inflammatory letters to Congress in the first place. And why did he attempt to damage Clinton when the real target of the intelligence community is Trump? An investigation, just launched by the Justice Department, may provide some answers.
Comey’s arrogance pales compared to Act II, a full court press by the leaders of the intelligence agencies, both civilian and military, to destroy Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE. Just imagine it. The setting is Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan. Brennan, FBI Director James Comey, NSA Director Mike Rogers, and James Clapper, director of national intelligence—all confronting the president-elect over compromising material—allegedly collected when he was in Russia by the Russian intelligence services.
So how could this possibly happen? In an act of political defiance, the spymasters appended a two-page memo to the top-secret report ordered by President Obama on Russian hacking of the election. The memo summarized the “ops research” conducted by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele, who is now in hiding. It referenced the compromising material. But even more important, the appendix implicated members of the Trump campaign team in a conspiracy with Russian intelligence officials. Together, they sought to hack the computers of the Democratic National Committee, and to release derogatory material timed to damage the Clinton campaign.
The intelligence community could have controlled the top secret report, providing it only to the president and the president elect. But they chose, instead, to give copies, including the incendiary appendix, to the leadership in Congress as well. It was a reversal of roles: the intelligence agencies blabbed while the Washington press corps, which had known about the allegations for weeks or longer, remained silent. When the appendix was predictably leaked, it raged like wildfire into the media and in political circles across the globe. The Trump juggernaut staggered.
Clapper’s claim that he is "profoundly dismayed" by the leak is simply not credible. What did he think Congress would do with such politically explosive material? Let’s be clear, they have thrown a monkey wrench into the political machinery of the republic. As a result, Trump’s presidency will be plagued by innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations in the months ahead that could take much longer to go away.
This is much more than the stuff of spy novels.
It is a telling intrusion on the political coherence and continuity of the republic without precedent. It is an extraordinary arrogance of power, pure and simple, born in a culture of secrecy, which elected political authorities have been unable to resist. Since 9/11 the intelligence community has gained broad new powers. They have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to swell their ranks, build up secret intelligence infrastructure, implement expansive new surveillance programs, and insinuate their influence throughout the government. Their silent coup d’état has suddenly and unexpectedly burst onto the political stage.
So much for Obama’s attempts to promote a smooth transition—inviting the president-elect in the White House, and instructing his subordinates to cooperate with his transition team. Both he and Trump have been upstaged by the political machinations of an intelligence community that has forgotten the limits of its power in the context of democracy.”
William W. Keller worked as a security analyst for the U.S. Congress for 10 years, as executive director of the Center for International Studies at MIT and as professor and director of security centers at the Universities of Pittsburgh and Georgia. He is the author and editor of seven books and has written extensively about the FBI, defense technology, the intelligence community, and the arms trade. His latest book is "Democracy Betrayed: The Rise of the Surveillance Security State," from Counterpoint Press.
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