For all the political tumult demanding – and exhausting – the attention of Americans – the overturning of Roe v. Wade, yet more children dying in gun violence, Russia’s brutal assault on civilians in Ukraine — the disturbing details emerging from the House January 6th hearings detailing former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election suggest the root danger to America is the risks posed to the integrity of its institutions. That may be especially true for the nation’s intelligence, law enforcement, and military communities. The threat is greater than the sum of its parts and looms even larger than the various partisan issues. And the continued handwringing, posturing, and inaction of those on both sides of the political aisle portends even graver consequences. The country’s future depends on a rallying for action in response to the revelations emerging from the January 6th investigations.
I’ve seen this play before, and it doesn’t tend to end well. I served for 34 years in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, fighting wars both hot and cold across largely autocratic landscapes of both adversaries and partners. In those missions, I spied on figures whose ideology often boiled down to the singular purpose of securing and maintaining power. I did so with hubris and sanctimonious certainty in America’s moral and political superiority. My confidence was bolstered by the positive ideals that America represented, a narrative that I wielded like a weapon with near religious zeal in suborning foreign agents and pressing foreign partners.
Today, however, we’re observing corrupt power-seeking behaviors practiced by Americans who had sworn the same oath to the Constitution that I had pledged. And while some actions are unquestionably insidious and mercenary, more disconcerting still is that many perpetrators justify their actions in ways that makes clear they believe just as ardently in the patriotic merit of their convictions.
A dictatorship depends on an ecosystem of control over the guns, cops, courts, spies, and cash providing it muscle, legitimacy, foresight, and finance. And that requires the complicity not only of individuals but of entire national institutions. The January 6th stories are all too familiar — ambitious ne’er-do-wells organized around a charismatic leader who serves as the lightening rod and can advance, or threaten, their personal interests. That leader must compromise and gain control over institutions that pose obstacles, and the most effective way is to seize them from within. Ironically, this is a feat accomplished best democratically, as Adolph Hitler did in 1930’s Germany, or by hijacking a popular revolt, as the clerics did in Iran in 1979 and the Muslim Brotherhood sought to do in Egypt during the Arab Spring.
Manipulating one’s target audience – in this case the public — with falsehoods and fear is a historically potent brew that stokes the resonating chords of victimization, racism, religious extremism, and nationalism. The formula has worked in the likes of Russia, Hungary, India, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, and Tunisia, to name only a few — countries with recent histories of popular movements that rattled the political equilibrium and challenged despots and autocracies, only to be passed up or stolen by still other autocratic leaders.
The Deliberate Clouding of Truth
The critical innovation defining the current generation is epitomized similarly by former President Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin: the subjectification of truth itself. And this has been enabled by the revolutionary changes technology has brought to the way humans communicate, arguably our generation’s greatest information challenge. The deliberate clouding of truth to serve political ends is an obstacle faced as well by intelligence professionals in understanding adversaries like Putin when the lie becomes the liar’s reality. The Russian leader’s flawed strategic calculus in Ukraine, for example, was likely due in part to believing his own propaganda.
If America’s freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution and by individuals in institutions who pledge to protect that Constitution, revelations coming from the January 6th investigation should prompt us to question the reliability of those institutions and their workforces. My own confidence that career public servants will remain steadfast to laws, values, and oaths is not what it was even when I left the CIA in 2019. My faith in U.S. institutions has run up against the reality that even right and wrong has been made increasingly opaque by political leaders. What began with the clumsy suggestion of “alternative facts” has evolved into a more insistent redefining of truth to persuade a willing and eager audience anxious to feel validated.
While it is appropriate for even a democratically elected chief executive to select loyalists to steer agencies in alignment with the electorate’s mandate, the Trump team’s primary agenda became reminiscent of autocracies: regime preservation at any cost, never mind the GOP’s political platform, let alone their institution’s integrity. And the Trump administration’s methodology for securing control over the state was to target the Justice Department, the military, federal law enforcement, and the Intelligence Community, a subversive model I expect to see replicated by those who wish to follow in his footsteps. Even other federal agencies are not immune. A recent New York Times investigation suggests the Internal Revenue Service’s “random” selection of former FBI Director James Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, for the most invasive type of audit might have been anything but random.
Other evidence further suggests that Trump and his closest associates prioritized control of the Justice Department, with its prosecutorial and investigative arms. His was a recipe that emulates foreign autocrats’ abuse of their Interior Ministries’ jurisprudence responsibilities, secret police, and internal spying capabilities. Not coincidentally, that has been the practice of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, as he and Trump have been quite public in their mutual admiration. According to former senior Justice Department officials, “the former president aggressively prodded his attorneys general to go after his enemies and protect his friends and his interests.” When in December 2020, the Justice Department reportedly resisted Trump’s pressure to support bogus claims of election fraud, his own team drafted an executive order directing the Defense Secretary to seize voting machines. The military, after all, has the guns to intervene when all else fails. But Trump’s White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, pushed back hard, and the draft order was never issued.
Trump’s hand-picked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, too, would surprise and disappoint his president. Shortly after the November 2020 election and just months after apologizing for taking part in Trump’s July walk across Lafayette Square for a photo op after the authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters, Milley sent a strong message to his troops – and anyone else listening — concerning the obligation of military service members to abstain from political intervention. “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator,” Milley noted in a speech at the dedication of an Army museum, “We do not take an oath to an individual.” Why remind them if there wasn’t cause?
Facilitating Trump’s Agenda
Within the intelligence community, I witnessed the eager politicization to facilitate Trump’s agenda, and it was a key factor driving my retirement. The departure of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats removed the top cover that personnel needed for speaking truth to power and exposed the community to the subsequent pressure descending from Trump political operatives, namely Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Richard Grenell and his successor, John Ratcliffe. The two replaced acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who was pushed out after Trump became irate that he had let ODNI Election Threats Executive Shelby Pierson advise Congress of the intelligence community’s belief that Russia was already taking steps to interfere in the 2020 election with the goal of helping Trump win.
Inside the CIA, my colleague, career Agency officer and then-Director Gina Haspel, reportedly intervened on Trump’s behalf concerning Russian intelligence products, an allegation not inconsistent with my first-hand impression of her micromanagement of material unlikely to sit well with the president. Further, she dismissed concerns among colleagues afflicted with Havana Syndrome that evidence pointed to Russia, and she filtered or otherwise obstructed efforts that negatively portrayed Putin to the president. The White House also made a point of publicizing her support for the problematic Jan. 3, 2020, U.S. missile strike that killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Commander Qassim Soleimani. The strike spurred an escalation that Haspel reportedly had predicted would not occur. The brinksmanship almost brought both countries to war, and Iran’s retaliatory missile attack left more than 100 U.S. service members with traumatic brain injuries.
At the end of the day, an organization’s rank and file ultimately determines its behavior, a phenomenon that is less a case of a “deep state” and more a bureaucratic reality, since they ultimately decide whether and how to follow directives, however right or wrong they may be. So, what might we expect of career public servants? According to what we know, at least 52 active or retired military, law enforcement, or other government employees were among the suspects at the January 6th Capitol attack, including five military service members. And at least 19 current or former police officers were charged, some for assaulting Capitol Police officers, and reporting emerged last year that some U.S. Secret Service agents cheered the January 6th rioters on social media.
At the same time, there were reports in the months thereafter suggesting the military was slow in pursuing charges or weeding out service members involved in radical causes. Looking at how the military was doing with this problem, the Center for Strategic and International Studies in April 2022 observed the Pentagon’s focus was on “better understanding the scope of the problem and identifying mechanisms to clarify or improve policy and training, rather than taking immediate action,” leading to a “slow and data-driven approach.” The study recommended a series of actions that might yield more expeditious impact.
The U.S. intelligence and special operations forces communities show similarly disturbing signs that the apolitical fabric of these elite organizations, trusted to conduct the country’s most sensitive covert activities and tell it like it is, might be vulnerable to disparate political inclinations. Evidence of extremist political leanings and hate speech across the U.S. Intelligence Community on official internal platforms and similarly pointed discussions among special operators showing support for the January 6th rioters and their cause is unfortunately consistent with developments I witnessed at the end of my career.
Former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn was hardly alone among military and intelligence veterans propagating falsehoods about the election and encouraging Trump to overturn it, in his case, from the Oval Office itself. Self-described former Senior CIA Operations Officer Brad Johnson was an outspoken proponent of the debunked QAnon-promoted conspiracy theory known as “Italygate,” which held that an Italian defense contractor, in coordination with senior CIA officials, used military satellites to switch votes from Trump to Biden that swung the 2020 election. Ridiculous as it was, the idea resonated sufficiently enough that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pursued it with Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen, and Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller raised it with Italian defense counterparts. There are other Michael Flynns and Brad Johnsons still in service across America’s military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities.
The scandalous behavior of Trump’s political appointees and his campaign to overturn the election results demands action before the cancer metastasizes throughout the government. Absent any consequences for Trump and his circle of minions or any GOP contrition that manifests into consensus and action to prevent future subversion of democracy, what happens the next time? Remove the partisan prism and ask the same question regardless of the party in power if nothing is done: will America’s public institutions and executive agencies remain the bedrock that protects our democracy, or will they be the instruments that unscrupulous politicians leverage to destroy it?