Attorney General Bill Barr seems to be wrapping up his investigation of the investigation of Russian interference in 2016. Yet the whole episode, combined with Republicans’ line of questioning in the impeachment inquiry, seems like a political ploy to supply a counter-narrative to the U.S. Intelligence Community’s unanimous conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential elections. Instead, that “hoax” or “witch hunt” is a conspiracy developed by the so-called “Deep State”—namely the CIA and FBI—to delegitimize President Donald Trump’s presidency and frame his campaign as a criminal enterprise. In this parallel universe, it was the Democrats who colluded with Ukrainian officials to leak damaging information about Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort. And yet, despite this supposed effort to help Democrats, Ukraine, simultaneously, hacked the Democratic National Committee’s server in order to leak embarrassing emails. In this version of events, for which there is no actual evidence, Trump never could have colluded with Russia, because Russia never did anything wrong.
In order for this counter-narrative to stick, however, Trump and his associates need to destroy all trust in the Intelligence Community. That means making false allegations and stoking suspicions about those pesky civil servants who concluded that Russia mounted a massive influence campaign in 2016 aimed at, in part, helping Trump win.
Last month, media outlets reported that Barr’s investigation had become a criminal one. Whether true or not, the claim—much like the public attacks from Trump, Republicans, and the conservative media ecosystem– seemed like a clear signal to civil servants – whether in the FBI, the CIA or the NSA — to tread very carefully if they planned to take any actions that came anywhere near the Russia-Trump nexus again.
But, this was not the first threatening message sent to the intelligence and law enforcement community. Trump and his supporters have already released several shots across the bow.
The original cast of characters who first began investigating the Russian interference operation in 2016, and whether Trump or his associates had any connection to it, have all faced intimidation and retribution from the president and his supporters. Former FBI Director James Comey was fired after Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Trump’s then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI who spent a large part of his early career fighting Russian organized crime in New York City, was fired one day before he was set to retire, putting part of his pension in jeopardy. Trump has repeatedly attacked FBI investigators Peter Stzrok and Lisa Page on Twitter and elsewhere, with particularly prurient and unsettling comments. Trump and his supporters also attacked Bruce Ohr, who’s spent much of his career at the Justice Department fighting Russian organized crime; and his wife, Nellie Ohr—who works at Fusion GPS, the firm that hired Christopher Steele, and who’s done her own research on Russian organized crime. Congressman Mark Meadows even sent a criminal referral about Nellie Ohr to the Justice Department. Former general counsel at the FBI Jim Baker was also fired after Trump and others attacked him.
The CIA has not fared much better. The president threatened to take away John Brennan’s security clearance as a consequence for the former CIA director’s public criticism of Trump. The White House also threatened to pull those of former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director Michael Hayden for their candid commentary. One of Mike Pompeo’s first actions when he became head of the CIA was to interrogate the analysts who had written the report concluding that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election and had aimed to help Trump win. More recently, Barr traveled to both the United Kingdom and Italy to meet with intelligence officials in those countries. While there, he asked those foreign governments about the actions of his compatriot American intelligence officers. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, also gallivanted around Europe chasing conspiracy theories with the help of Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Both Parnas and Giuliani have helped push the Ukraine counter-narrative.
The situation has not improved as the Russia investigation has morphed into the Ukraine investigation (with Manafort casting his shadow over both). Trump tweeted a disparaging message about former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch while she was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee last week about how Giuliani waged a smear campaign against her with the help of a corrupt prosecutor in Ukraine. This came after Yovanovitch testified she had been told to take the next plane out of Kyiv because her security was at risk. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, wearing his U.S. Army uniform (which is military protocol for appearances on Capitol Hill) and decorated with a Purple Heart, faced Republican lawmakers who questioned his loyalty to America. The Army is reportedly providing him security as needed. And, of course, Trump and his supporters have repeatedly attacked the person who set the impeachment inquiry in motion: the whistleblower, whom some media outlets have reported is a CIA analyst. Republican lawmakers are agitating daily to have his identity revealed while right-wing media outlets have been circulating a name for weeks of the person they believe is the whistleblower, putting a target on that person’s back. The Washington Post reported the whistleblower has a security detail. The lawyers representing the whistleblower have been smeared in the right-wing media and have received death threats.
For all the legends about cunning spies, tough FBI officers, and skilled diplomats, it can be easy to forget these officials are human beings. They have children, wives, husbands, mortgages, bills to pay, families to care for, and jobs that provide their livelihoods. Putting all that at risk is scary.
As such, we must ask: What deterrent do the Trump team’s intimidation tactics, including Barr’s now criminal investigation, create for those still gunning for the truth? Knowing the personal risks involved in pursuing the collection of intelligence or the investigation of topics that might lead to Trump, are our civil servants doing it anyway? If a case officer gets a Russia lead, does he or she pursue it? If the FBI believes the president or one of his associates is a counterintelligence risk, do they open the investigation? Or is bad behavior going to go unchecked this time because people are afraid to act, fearful of the personal consequences involved?
In turn, what effect does this have on our national security? If our intelligence community becomes reticent to chase down counterintelligence leads because the president or his associates might be involved or have an interest in how they play out, how vulnerable does the country become?
The good news is, these civil servants seem like they won’t be cowed. Yovanovitch and a slew of other officials are willingly testifying before Congress, and the original whistleblower’s complaint has reportedly been followed by others. From an operational perspective, any officers running intelligence operations that might touch on these subjects would be sure to set up solid compartmentation, so that only a very strict and small list of people with a need to know had access to the information.
It is true that many people have chosen, instead, to leave these agencies. The State Department has suffered from high departure numbers, losing 12 percent of its foreign affairs specialists in the first few months of Trump’s presidency alone. Employment numbers for the intelligence community are classified, but it seems likely it has seen a similar trend.
But for those who choose to stay, they seem ready and willing to carry on the pursuit of truth in service of protecting the country, despite the risks of reprisals from their own government. When Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney asked Vindman why, knowing he faced retribution from the most powerful person in the world – the president of the United States — did he choose to come forward and discuss what he saw as wrongdoing, Vindman replied, “Because this is America. This is the country that I have served and defended. All of my brothers have served. And, here, right matters.”
Indeed, the Washington Post reported that the original whistleblower continues to go to work daily.
Image: President Donald Trump with Attorney General William Barr on July 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images