What John Brennan left out

What John Brennan left out
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In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanBrennan shreds 'misleading & highly politicized' Barr memo Attorney General Barr puts former intel bosses on notice Iranian president: 'Situation is not suitable for talks' with US MORE wrote: “Many have condemned my public criticism of Mr. Trump, arguing that as a former CIA director, I should bite my tongue. My criticisms, however, are not political; I have never been and will never be a partisan.”

Brennan is correct that his tweets excoriating a sitting president’s character appear unseemly and partisan to many of his fellow citizens. Coming from a retired CIA director, they certainly are norm-breaking.

But there is something more disconcerting from the perspective of national security about some of Brennan’s public statements, which he did not address in his op-ed.


He speculated in a March 21 appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program that President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE had not said anything negative about Russian President Putin because Trump “has something to fear.” Brennan insinuated that Putin could blackmail Trump.

The Kremlin long has considered the United States as its glavniy protivnik, or “Main Enemy.” Russian intelligence officers are the arrows in Vladimir Putin’s national security quiver. Having spent his formative years in the KGB and served as director of its successor agency, the FSB, Putin is a sophisticated practitioner and advocate for espionage. He is intensely focused on destabilizing the U.S. internally, driving a wedge between the United States and its NATO allies, and enhancing control over Russia’s regional sphere of influence.

The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) relies on foreign government partners to share intelligence, not just on Russia but on other enemies, including terrorists and weapons proliferators. Those governments very well may have been so disturbed by Brennan’s statements that they would need reassurance from their U.S. counterparts that Trump and his administration would protect their sensitive intelligence. Spies operating behind enemy lines to steal secrets on behalf of U.S. national security interests must have been shocked by and concerned about Brennan’s speculation, even if he offered no concrete proof.  

I know all this from having spent much of my 30-year government career —including years with the CIA, and serving in leadership positions in in Central Eurasia, as well as Middle East and South Asia conflict zones — and throughout observing Soviet and, later, Russian intelligence operations.

If Brennan was genuinely alarmed about the president’s trustworthiness, then he should have spoken privately with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions Trump: Democrats just want Mueller to testify for a 'do-over' Graham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' MORE. Had he done so, Brennan would have avoided the collateral damage he risked by speculating about Putin’s hold on the president.

Brennan’s public statements carry weight, and forcing such a self-inflicted wound on our national security — at a time when we are already under siege from the Kremlin’s onslaught — only serves, unwittingly, to help further Putin’s ambitions.

Responding directly to criticism of his attacks on President Trump on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” on National Public Radio and, most recently, in his op-ed, Brennan made no mention of his blackmail speculation. Instead, he framed the widespread, grave criticism of his comments as nothing but an effort to curtail his right to free speech against President Trump.  

This, obviously, is a straw-man argument. No one is claiming Brennan does not enjoy the same right as anyone else to criticize the president. That is indeed what separates our country from so much of the world, where such freedoms do not exist. Moreover, Brennan has the advantage of being a retired CIA director with a bully pulpit for messaging to our citizens and to the world.

However, to the detriment of the honest discourse in which he claims the president does not engage, Brennan has repeatedly and deliberately mischaracterized the motives and substance of critiques aimed his way.  

For U.S. allies and enemies alike, the nuance of Brennan’s caveat about his statements being simple “speculation” would be lost; they would assume he was speaking from a position of authority. From his long career at the CIA and in the Obama White House, Brennan should know that intelligence officers deal in facts and only engage in speculation at their own peril.

Brennan should consider taking a Hippocratic-like oath to “abstain from doing harm” to our national security when exercising his freedom of speech. He might find that his criticism of the president carries more weight if he acts to support our democratic institutions, rather than acting in a manner that inadvertently but ultimately helps Vladimir Putin to achieve his aims.

Daniel Hoffman is a former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA.