In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, reports continued to flow in from multiple press outlets regarding the contacts that had occurred between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and its proxies. In January 2017, the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) was published, which was the comprehensive all-source report that announced the unanimous view of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) that Russia and its intelligence services had interfered in the 2016 election. Taken together, these events were highly alarming. There was clearly a grave threat to our democratic processes. America was under attack.
At the CIA, as we watched all of this unfold, we issued an informal manifesto to the workforce aptly titled “A Call to Arms.” We understood that the Russian threat was as serious as the national security challenge faced on Sept. 12, 2001. Many of us had been on the front lines after 9/11 and we were deliberately moved into positions to work on Russia, specifically because of our previous expertise in the Middle East and the counterterrorism arena. As such, we envisioned a clear path ahead with a playbook taken from the days of the Counterterrorism Center in late 2001. This meant moving quickly and thinking offensively, out-of-the-box, and focused on the fact that we could not afford to lose this fight.
The Call to Arms required a whole-of-agency effort to counter the Kremlin. It involved moving resources and personnel inside CIA. Most importantly, it required a change in mindset, similar to what occurred within the Intelligence Community after 9/11, that an “all-hands-on-deck” approach was required, and that this would be another “Great War of our Time,” borrowing a phrase from former acting CIA Director Michael Morrell in his description of the post-9/11 battle against al-Qaeda. We had the support of senior leadership and key allies in the Department of Defense, the FBI, and the Department of State.
The wild card was sitting in the Oval Office. With President Donald Trump’s puzzling admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, it was not clear that he had accepted and internalized the Intelligence Community’s conclusions of Kremlin malfeasance and incessant desire to harm the United States. If anything, the president repeatedly questioned the findings of the IC, preferring instead to accept Putin’s denials.
Yet inside the National Security Council (NSC), successive National Security Advisers, including H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, viewed Putin in the same light that we did at CIA. As such, the NSC would coordinate the U.S. government’s counter-Russia efforts. Both McMaster and Bolton and their NSC staff accomplished this task with strength and conviction.
Many viewed Putin as overseeing an outlaw regime. In addition to interfering in U.S. elections, the Kremlin was attempting to kill dissidents abroad, fomenting unrest across the democracies of Europe, and pursuing a zero-sum policy when it comes to the United States, meaning anything that hurt the U.S. and its allies was good for Russia. Plus, the Russian military had committed scores of human rights atrocities in Syria that only now are coming to light, to include the systematic bombing of purely civilian areas, including hospitals, in northern Syria that have killed hundreds if not thousands of innocent Syrians.
This was the adversary that we faced and we were obliged to counter it in every corner of the globe. Despite the politics that consumed Washington regarding the Mueller Report, by the spring of 2019, the CIA was in fact in a very strong position to push back against the Russian threat. This remains one of the great paradoxes of the Trump administration; that President Trump could have such a clear affinity for Putin and was publicly unwilling to fully accept the results of the ICA, yet his national security team, acting under his authority, was united in countering Russian malfeasance around the world.
Yet, since my retirement in June, two events have given me significant pause that our counter-Russia campaign faces new and even greater challenges. This concern is not due to the dedicated efforts of the U.S. national security establishment, nor the will of our allies across the globe, who also face an insidious threat from the Kremlin. My fear stems primarily from the president, who has, in a matter of several months, quite overtly set back the overall U.S. government effort with his unfortunate meddling in Ukraine, as well as the pullback of U.S. troops from Syria. Trump has provided Putin a massive gift on both fronts.
In Ukraine – ground zero in our fight with Moscow – there is a brutal cold war in the west on the streets of Kiev, while a hot war rages in the east. Unfortunately, the president inserted U.S. domestic politics into an arena where we need the Ukrainian government laser-focused on the Russian threat while their military and security services are actively battling Russian separatists. Instead, the Ukrainians are distracted and likely fearful of Trump’s potential reprisals.
In Syria, the president had, over the course of a single week, reversed decades of successful U.S. government efforts — which I participated in on the ground in multiple Middle Eastern countries as an operations officer—to remove Russia as a major player in the Middle East. Not since the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt has Russia seen such a spectacular resurgence in the region. The video of Russian contractors several weeks ago entering a former U.S. military facility in Syria was a reflection of not only Russian resurgence, but also the total public humiliation of the U.S. government. Russian propaganda organs celebrated this picture, understanding too well how far the U.S. has fallen.
All is not lost, however, as the Call to Arms remains a valid battle cry. In particular, Congress now has a responsibility to ensure that the U.S. government remains fully focused on the counter Russia effort. This should not be a Democrat vs Republican campaign issue. Political ideology should not be a factor at play. Instead, it will require sustained pressure from both sides of the political aisle on the White House due to a president whose affinity for Putin has now been weaponized in the debacles in both Ukraine and Syria.
I very reluctantly compare Trump’s continued dalliance with Putin to an imagined scenario after 9/11 in which then-President George W. Bush would have somehow forgiven Osama bin Laden for the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans on 9/11. That scenario is frankly impossible to comprehend knowing President Bush’s zeal to punish and destroy al- Qaeda, but it is in fact quite similar to what Trump has done with Putin. One may recall a May 2017 Oval Office meeting in which according to press accounts and the Mueller Report, Trump mocked former FBI Director James Comey and the Russia investigation in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and former Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. To say this was inappropriate is an understatement. This was just the first of several high-level engagements, some with Putin himself, in which Trump’s coziness with the Russian leadership was on full display.
Dedicated intelligence, diplomatic, and military institutions can only go so far in countering the Russian threat across the globe. That threat is real and ongoing, and we need to acknowledge the disconnect between this clear national security threat and our president whose affinity for Putin has never been so clear as it is now, especially as it has been translated into two damaging foreign policy mishaps that have hurt our country. Our national security institutions cannot fight with an arm tied behind their backs. Congress—both Democrats and Republicans alike— must hold this president accountable and ensure we counter the Kremlin on a global scale, not ceding an inch. After all, the 2020 presidential election —with the Russian security services poised to act once again — is just around the corner.