Combative ex-spy chiefs cause permanent damage in anti-Trump crusade

Combative ex-spy chiefs cause permanent damage in anti-Trump crusade
© Greg Nash

There’s a lot to criticize in our intelligence community. Sometimes it gets very important things very wrong. It’s a vast and cumbersome bureaucracy with 17 agencies and hundreds of thousands of personnel (at least). But for all its mistakes and flaws, the underlying ethos of the intel rank and file has always been apolitical. Ultimately, all that mattered was the mission of protecting America, not political ideology or partisan affiliation.

Politicization among intelligence officers has traditionally been viewed with the kind of heightened professional disdain that authors and journalists feel for plagiarism. And the leadership of the intel agencies has long accepted that the American people pick their president, for better or worse. Once in office, the commander in chief shouldn’t have to engage in a partisan house cleaning for fear of partisan retribution from incumbent appointees or senior level civil servants.

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In the era of Trump, this is no longer the case.

 

Former CIA directors John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanRetired admiral resigned from Pentagon advisory committee after writing open letter to Trump Rand Paul ramps up his alliance with Trump Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law MORE and Michael Hayden, along with former Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperRetired admiral resigned from Pentagon advisory committee after writing open letter to Trump Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law Former NSA chief breaks with other ex-intel officials over Brennan letter MORE and former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyEXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency Russia docs order sets Trump on collision with intel community Dem lawmaker jabs Trump call for transparency by asking for his tax returns MORE (among many other officials) have deployed some of the most extreme rhetorical weapons imaginable to take down this president. They have capitalized on the public’s perception of their classified access to hammer Trump. In so doing, they’ve eradicated the long-held notion of intelligence agency chiefs as nonpartisan actors.

John Brennan has suggested — repeatedly — that the president of the United States is guilty of treason on behalf of Russia. Michael Hayden (whom I worked for years ago at the CIA) shared a photo of a Nazi concentration camp on Twitter and compared it to Trump’s border policy. James Clapper said that Russia likely “turned” the election for Trump. Comey said that “patriots need to stand up” to Trump.

None of these men have produced evidence to back up their most outrageous claims about Russia collusion, though each of them had access to the most sophisticated information collection systems on the planet in the run up to Trump’s election.

Instead, they’ve taken to the airwaves and the internet to make their case to the American people — not just that the president is wrong on policy, but that, in essence, he is not the President. In their eyes, Trump is illegitimate, either due to Russian election meddling or a character so lacking, it meets the standard of a clear and present danger to the Republic.

This is insane stuff, but it’s legal to say. The anti-Trump intel cabal does have a First Amendment right to criticize the president however they see fit now that they are private citizens. That’s not at issue here, though National Security Advisor John Bolton recently raised the prospect of classified information somehow getting misused or shared with the press in this process — which would be a crime.

What is unquestionably a problem is that former spy bosses like Brennan and Clapper are presumed to be drawing upon their formerly limitless access to classified information when they make these pronouncements. It is one thing to claim as a private citizen who is just reading the newspapers like everybody else that Trump is a flawed president.

It is quite another thing, however, to insinuate — wink wink — that as the former DNI or CIA director, you’re sure that any minute now, smoking gun evidence of collusion is going to emerge in the Mueller probe.  It’s unethical for a former senior intel officer to convince the public that the president of the United States is a traitor based on still secret evidence. It deeply undermines our institutions.

Timing also matters. Brennan, Clapper, Comey and the rest were the most recent men to hold those senior intel posts. The public’s assumption is that, until very recently, they had access the highest levels of sensitive information on all matters, including alleged Russia collusion. This gives extra gravitas to even their most obtuse assertions about Trump.

On the issue of Russia collusion, former spy chiefs like Brennan and Clapper are frequently on television giving their opinions on this highly sensitive matter despite the fact they were directly involved in it. These men helped create the narrative of Trump-Russia collusion while they were in high office, and now they are commenting about those highly contentious, politically charged issues as trusted experts in the media. It is charitable to call this unseemly.

Once he left office, President George W. Bush admirably stayed out of the political fray out of respect for his successor in the White House. Intelligence agency directors should take a page from his book. Intel professionals aren’t supposed to weaponize their high level classified access for partisan gain of any side on any issue.

That Brennan, Clapper and others have done so with such ferocity will mean that future presidents will be wary of any intel holdovers. The intel community chiefs should be a source of trusted advice for any commander in chief. Now they are a political liability, and America is worse off for it.

Buck Sexton (@BuckSexton) is co-host of Hill.TV's "Rising" and host of the nationally syndicated "The Buck Sexton Show” on radio and podcast. He is a former CIA analyst in the counterterrorism center and the Office of Iraq Analysis, and served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.