Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The House of Representatives voted to formalize impeachment proceedings on Thursday, and they have a heavy slate of witnesses scheduled for testimony this week. Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has indicated he will release transcripts of recent closed-door witness depositions, which means the country – and the rest of the world – will get a look at the inner workings of our government.
This comes after President Donald Trump and his supporters have pilloried House Democrats for not doing more of their investigatory work in public. But they may want to be careful about what they wish for. While this newfound transparency is an important part of the impeachment process, it won’t be cost-free. In fact, it comes with additional security risks, as our enemies will likely follow these developments – hoping to glean insights into potential White House weaknesses.
Our enemies have already learned a lot from the whistleblower complaint, written statements and leaks that have emerged from the closed-door depositions. Intimate details have been revealed about how the US government works – including who works on call readouts, who listens to classified presidential phone calls, how classified servers are used to store and transmit material and how dysfunctional US bureaucracy has become under this President.
Throw in public hearings and the release of deposition transcripts – and there are significant additional risks. Think about it this way – it’s not like we have Kremlin officials testifying about how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s communications work, or which advisers and personal staff he directs to implement his dirty work.
New information that will be revealed to the public over the course of the impeachment proceedings will be prime fodder for manipulation by foreign powers. The US intelligence community assessed that Russia is intent on using information warfare to undermine the credibility of our institutions – the presidency likely being one of them. Detailed accounts that may reveal how the President, or perhaps his staff, misused their roles will just add fuel to the fire that Russia, and likely other adversaries, are intent on stoking through information warfare and their cadre of bots, trolls and fake personas. Trump continues to deny any wrongdoing.
While transcripts from past depositions could go public as early as this week and public hearings could begin next week, this week’s depositions will continue behind closed doors. And the deposition schedule is jam packed with White House officials and Office of Management Budget staffers who may have firsthand experiences to share about the President’s intentions and motivations regarding Ukraine.
State Departments officials (both career official Undersecretary David Hale, and a political appointee, Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl) are also on the schedule. But it’s unclear who will actually show up.
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has already said he’ll buck his call to testify, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Charles Kupperman has responded to a subpoena from the House Intelligence Committee by filing a lawsuit against both the House and the President – leaving it up to the court to decide how he should proceed. His former boss, John Bolton, is slated to testify on Thursday, and while his deposition could broaden the scope of the inquiry significantly, his lawyer said he will not testify voluntarily. It’s unclear whether he’ll show up even if he is subpoenaed.
Some of the most valuable testimony could end up coming from National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg, who is scheduled to testify on Monday. Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who testified last week, said that he listened in on the infamous July 25 Trump-Zelensky phone call, and shared his concerns with Eisenberg, who told him not to discuss the call, a source familiar with the testimony told CNN. Then, Eisenberg and other NSC lawyers allegedly decided the July 25 call readout would be moved to a codeword server.
NSC lawyers report to the white house counsel and typically also take direction from the national security adviser. While John Bolton, the national security adviser at the time of the call, is no longer at the White House, White House Counsel Paul Cipollone still is. And Cipollone has been the team captain for Trump’s anti-impeachment inquiry efforts, penning a letter to House leadership in which he said the President wouldn’t comply with the inquiry.
While NSC lawyers may try to indicate that they didn’t see anything wrong with what he said on the call or in advising US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland to tell the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens, they’ll likely be pressed on who was aware of their efforts in the White House Counsel’s office and whether the White House Counsel shared any concerns or updates directly with the President.
While it is important to uncover whether Trump abused his office and withheld aid to Ukraine in exchange for foreign election assistance, the impeachment proceedings are a massive resource drain on government officials who have to focus on responding to the inquiry rather than just doing their day jobs. This creates an opportunity for our adversaries to strike while the impeachment iron is hot and to try to push their own agendas.
And the perception that the national security team is distracted has been buttressed lately. Former NSC Senior Adviser Tim Morrison’s testimony indicated that he spent time fact checking Sondland’s claims about the President’s wishes rather than doing his actual day job, and he’s since resigned. Vindman said that he’s been shut out of important work on Ukraine and other countries in his portfolio since the impeachment inquiry began. And many other officials working on Ukraine have had to testify or are having to spend time with counsel coming up with ways to avoid appearing or providing documents.
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When it comes to a country like Ukraine, this could have seriously adverse implications. Russia and Ukraine are still engaged in armed conflict, not to mention contentious energy negotiations. Our special representative for Ukraine negotiations, Ambassador Kurt Volker, resigned at the outset of impeachment proceedings. And, as for the Ukrainians, they probably assume that any work they do with US officials could end up part of a public deposition or hearing going forward.
In short, while the US national security team has to deal with the consequences of Trump’s actions, other countries can continue their own business as usual.
Our distraction is our enemies’ opportunity.