The Memo: Trump era flips script on views of intelligence agencies

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The Trump era has utterly scrambled views of the FBI and the intelligence community.

Republicans — historically the strongest defenders of the national security apparatus — complain about abuse of power and the malignant influence of a so-called deep state.

Democrats — traditionally more skeptical of the intelligence community — insist that the agencies are virtually beyond reproach.

On Monday, President Trump retweeted someone who called the FBI and the media “a criminal organization” and “tyrants.” 

The president added an approving “Wow!”

At a rally in Pennsylvania last week, Trump called FBI agents who investigated his presidential campaign “scum.”

Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and others in his party have sought to minimize the criticisms of the bureau contained in a recent report by Michael Horowitz, the inspector general (IG) of the Justice Department.

Horowitz found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” made by the bureau as it investigated allegations of collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia, though he also cleared the FBI of having acted out of political malice or bias.

In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Schiff expressed confidence that “corrective steps will be taken” and emphasized that the IG’s report “debunked the claims … of this deep state conspiracy.”

Beyond the specifics, the broader picture — Democrats as defenders of the intelligence community, and Republicans as the critics — is startling for those who recall the responses splitting along very different lines in earlier eras. 

Democrats were more skeptical of the conduct of intelligence agencies during the so-called war on terror that began in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

Liberals and the left have also been far more eager than those on the right to highlight earlier FBI abuses including attempts to subvert black organizations in the 1960s and 1970s.

In one particularly infamous example in 1964, the FBI sent a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King pressuring him to kill himself rather than have personal peccadilloes exposed. 

The bureau was also involved in other deeply shady episodes, including the killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton in Chicago almost exactly 50 years ago.

In the worlds of politics and the media, it sometimes seems as if figures often derided as mavericks, from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to journalist Glenn Greenwald, have been more consistent than many of their peers. Both have been long-standing skeptics of the intelligence community.

Paul declined to be interviewed by The Hill on the topic but provided a statement via email. 

“My hope is that we can take something that is very partisan, such as these impeachment hearings, and from it create reform that is bipartisan to prevent further abuse by some within the intelligence community and protect Americans,” the Kentucky senator said.

In a recent story on The Intercept, Greenwald labeled the security services “out-of-control, virtually unlimited police state factions that lie, abuse their spying and law enforcement powers, and subvert democracy and civic and political freedoms as a matter of course.”

But, since Trump was elected, he contended: “The strategy of Democrats and liberals — particularly their cable outlets and news sites — has been to venerate and elevate security state agents as the noble truth-tellers of U.S. democracy.”

The dramatic shifts elsewhere on the political and media spectrum leaves some intelligence veterans scratching their heads.

“The teams are the same but they have certainly switched jerseys,” said James Gagliano, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who was a supervisory special agent at the time of his retirement. 

“It’s just totally ironic to see the Republicans so, so so imbued with this sense that government, the intelligence community and their surveillance techniques are not above suspicion anymore.”

He added, “It is also deliciously ironic to witness the Democrats, who are the ones who normally push back on the Patriot Act, and who are generally suspicious of any type of intelligence intrusions, just being so utterly supportive and accepting of those intrusions.”

The shifts among the political class are reflected among the general public.

A Gallup study in May found that there had been significant shifts in views of the FBI among partisans, even as the overall approval of the agency had not shifted dramatically.

The difference was especially pronounced among Republicans. 

In 2014, just 7 percent of GOP-leaning voters believed the FBI was doing a “poor” job. By this year, that figure had jumped to 28 percent. 

Over the same period, the share of Republicans who believed the bureau was doing an “excellent” or “good” job declined 11 points, from 59 percent to 48 percent.

Supporters of the intelligence community, as well as its critics, are struck by how the ground has shifted.

“I was a conservative and a Republican for a good piece of my career,” said Malcolm Nance, an erstwhile Navy intelligence officer who has written several books warning that Trump is a danger to national security. 

“Now I’m with [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell. We’re considered on the far-left because we believe that the national security apparatus is made up of good people who do a thankless job day-in and day-out.”

Nance asserted that the attacks on the intelligence community from Trump and his allies were cynical, tactical ploys, motivated purely by self-interest.

“Donald Trump, for whatever personal reason, decided that he needed to damage any component of the United States government that could find out what he was doing and why he was doing it,” said Nance. 

Referring to Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James Comey and his more recent criticism of incumbent Christopher Wray, Nance added: “He’s looking for a capo, not a director.”

Trump’s criticisms of Wray, and his broader jabs against the FBI and the “deep state,” have also drawn criticism from William Webster, the only person to have served as director of both the FBI and the CIA.

In a New York Times op-ed published Monday, Webster lamented “the integrity of the institutions that protect our civil order is, tragically, under assault from too many people whose job it should be to protect them.” 

In a follow-up appearance on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on Tuesday, Mitchell asked Webster about Trump’s reference to some FBI agents as “scum.”

“I hate to use that term. I was shocked to hear he had used it. So inappropriate,” Webster said.

But others, including in Trump’s orbit, take a vastly different view. 

Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump friend who was investigated by Congress over the Russia matter but not charged with any wrongdoing, asserted that “a good portion of the American people have lost faith in our country’s national security agencies. If someone doesn’t publicly pay for what has been done, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the CIA won’t recover their reputation for decades.”

Caputo, a lifelong conservative, called for a new commission along the lines of the Church Committee of the 1970s, which investigated abuses by intelligence agencies.

But to even hear such calls from such quarters — or to hear the most vigorous defense of the security services by Democrats — leaves veterans like Gagliano bemused.

“The script has been flipped,” he said. “It is utter tribalism.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Tags Adam Schiff Christopher Wray CIA Colin Powell Donald Trump FBI James Comey NSA Rand Paul
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