Steven L. Hall: There is no doubt that leaking classified information is a serious offense
However, Hall writes, Trump is likely focusing on leaks to avoid investigation of his campaign's alleged contact with Russia
Editor’s Note: Steven L. Hall retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2015 after 30 years of running and managing intelligence operations in Eurasia and Latin America. He finished his career as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, the small cadre of officers who are the senior-most leaders of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Let’s start with what we can all agree on: Leaking is serious and illegal, and leaking classified information can endanger national security. All leaks must therefore be thoroughly investigated. Even former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged as much in his Feb. 16 statement.
But people diverge over the role the intelligence community has played in recent leaks. Take, for example, the ouster of Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s short-lived national security advisor. Some have argued recent leaks of classified information, assumedly emanating from inside the intelligence community, resulted in his swift removal from office.
The assertion here is that leakers in the executive branch effectively sabotaged the President’s pick for the job, and in doing so exercised undue control over the West Wing itself. Even worse, some fear this pattern may continue with other nominees and policies of the Trump administration.
The idea of a “deep state,” a murky coalition of mostly national security and intelligence officials who are attempting to subvert the President, has begun circulating.
Others suggest that Trump’s own actions have brought about this state of affairs. After all, the President compared the intelligence community to Nazis and reminded them of their mistake regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So perhaps the CIA, NSA and others are just getting even, or maybe getting a little revenge against the new President.
Nonsense. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why this argument – while beguiling in a “Game of Thrones” sort of way – doesn’t hold up well to serious scrutiny. First, those most likely to leak information inside the intelligence community are personnel in the various public affairs offices in the suspect agencies. These officials, who hold “seventh floor” jobs in the CIA – literally and figuratively close to the levers of political power at the agency – meet with the press and know how to contact them.
But more importantly, these kind of personnel can and normally are replaced when a new administration arrives, and surely new CIA Director Mike Pompeo has ensured his team is on the same page. If not, Trump could easily stock these offices with people of his choice.
Second, while CIA officers have leaked information in the past, it has been a rare occurrence. One reason for this is that career intelligence officers are not political animals. They usually pride themselves on being apolitical, able to provide unbiased intelligence to presidents from any party. Many have served under multiple administrations. Leaking classified information is also no small risk to their careers, not to mention the possible legal implications.
Lastly, most intelligence officers have been instructed to avoid the press, lest clandestine operations or intelligence be divulged. They subsequently maintain a healthy skepticism of reporters and do their best to keep their distance.
But what makes this whole “scandal” even more bizarre is that leaking in Washington is a common political sport. What president has not complained about leaks, and especially when they damage an administration’s initiatives?
So what are we really being asked to believe, and is it the most likely explanation for recent events, including the resignation of Flynn? On the one hand, yes, it’s theoretically possible that a group of rogue civil servants, probably concentrated in the intelligence community, have conspired to leak sensitive information to oust Flynn – a man not terribly popular when he was a leader at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Perhaps these rogues will continue to undermine Trump further whenever they disagree with him, say, for example, on Russia policy – or, more importantly, on the question of whether the Trump campaign had contact with the Russian government prior to the election. The administration could be thwarted at every turn from those in Deep Government, and something would have to be done.
Or, more likely, Flynn was fatally flawed from the outset. His integrity problems, coupled with an abrasive management style and an overly cozy relationship with Moscow, simply made him a bad choice for the job.
But getting an answer from the President on this is like asking a teenager why they missed curfew: Flynn is a good man, but he lied; the press has been unfair to him, and he did nothing wrong, but I fired him, and the FBI is still investigating.
Is it not more likely that President Trump is throwing out as much chaff as he can to distract from that which worries him the most? Trump’s greatest insecurity is whether or not the results of the election were valid given reported collusion between his campaign and Russia to discredit his opponent.
Perhaps the administration is using every storyline it can think up to save face. The current story is that rogue anti-Trump Democratic holdovers in the government are undermining Trump by leaking, and the “fake press” is creating false stories from those leaks. And Trump’s administration, of course, is asserting this in order to avoid a full investigation of his campaign’s alleged contact with Russia.
It took three reporters in the recent press conference asking the same question, “Did your campaign have any contact with the Russian government during the campaign?” before the President answered, “Not to my knowledge.” Remember, this is a President who, when confronted with a false statement he made about the size of his margin of victory in the election, responded “Well, that’s just what I was told.”
So which is it? A vast, dark government conspiracy exerting unconstitutional control over the President and his policies using leaks? Or a White House in disarray and a President who desperately fears an investigation into his campaign’s contact with Russia – something that could undermine that which is most dear to him, his presidency?
I know where I’d put my money.