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2017: A Spy Odyssey

Can Trump control the CIA?

In this new period of high baroque weirdness, many Americans are attempting to preserve their peace of mind by tuning out the loud, crazy-making screeching coming from the foremost frontal orifice of our new president, Donald Trump. This response is not ostrich-like cowardice, but healthy self-care that should be understood and accepted, just like other methods of self-care such as smoking weed, drinking scotch, and screaming at the television.

Certainly we all have better things to do than give the whiny toddler-in-chief the attention he demands—sometimes through transparent pleading, and sometimes through red-faced surrogates sent to berate the White House press corps for showing insufficient enthusiasm for the new leader. So much negativity!

The millions of people who turned out for the largest worldwide mass mobilization since the protests against the imminent Iraq War in February of 2003, found what will continue to be the most productive way of tuning out Trump—getting together and shouting him down. Unlike anything Trump said in his first days in office, the demonstrations were profound, empowering, and worthy of our collective time. The Women’s Marchers proved themselves to be the true moral center of the nation at this trepidatious moment, with more political legitimacy than a new president tainted by innumerable corruption scandals, high-level allegations of foreign influence, and his own contemptible bigotry.

All that said, it is unwise to dismiss Trump’s words entirely. He said some things on Saturday afternoon that warrant a moment’s consideration from everyone who was busy occupying the town square on that day. Remarkable though it was, these particular comments were relatively subtle and thus buried by other headlines. Others may disagree, but I do believe Trump is capable of subtlety, particularly when making the kind of veiled threats favored by his numerous New York mafia associates.

“Sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted, and you’re going to get so much backing.”

Trump’s first official pit stop was Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There, Trump spoke before a memorial wall flecked with stars representing fallen spies. Most news coverage of this event focused on Trump’s ongoing and obsessive campaign to airbrush a record-setting crowd into the negative space that defined his inaugural ceremonies. For his first big parade, Trump reportedly had originally wanted to stage a Riefenstahlian spectacle complete with tanks on Pennsylvania Avenue, but for the time being the tanks stayed off the streets. Instead, he was met with row after row of almost-empty bleachers. And indeed, it was unnerving that Trump chose to vent disappointment to several hundred career CIA officers, many of whom—judging by the news over the past year—had grave questions about the president’s sanity, competence, and loyalty.

But the creepiest thing he said was not about the crowds.

I want to just let you know, I am so behind you. And I know maybe sometimes you haven’t gotten the backing that you’ve wanted, and you’re going to get so much backing. Maybe you’re going to say, “please don’t give us so much backing.” “Mr. President, please, we don’t need that much backing.” But you’re going to have that. And I think everybody in this room knows it.

Ha, ha? The joke here, such as it is, is that Trump promised he will be paying so much attention to the CIA that employees will wish he would go away. But he has no intention of going away, and “everybody in this room knows it.” One retired CIA analyst I spoke to interpreted the remarks differently. He thought that this was a reassertion of Trump’s campaign promise to revive the illegal torture program, which some agents opposed, albeit ineffectively, during the George W. Bush administration. Trump also casually mentioned he might reinvade Iraq to take the oil. Third time’s a charm!

Trump proceeded to make a pointed note of just how much support he has among the keepers of law and order in this country—in contrast to civilian intelligence agencies like the CIA, with which he was engaged in an open public relations war for weeks prior to the inauguration. (Determining the true measure of Trump’s support among law enforcement should be of great concern to activists, considering that federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., filed felony rioting charges against more than 200 people caught up in a police sweep after anarchists set a few fires on K Street on Inauguration Day.) And here comes the real mind-fuck:

We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military. And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did. But I would guarantee a big portion. Because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks. We’re all on the same wavelength, right? He knows. It took Brian about thirty seconds to figure that one out, right? Because we know. We’re on the same wavelength.

“Who is Brian?” is an interesting question, but probably not the first one that came to those who heard Trump speak. Bear in mind, Trump faced possibly the most paranoid audience on earth—several hundred professional spies, saboteurs, and killers. These are people who second-guess every assumption and look for the hidden subtext in every word. And here was the president telling them he didn’t need a show of hands to see who supported him, because he already knew “almost” everyone there voted for him. Implicit in that formulation: he knew that some of the people in that room opposed him. He also made clear he knew some people there by name. Hi, Brian! Who is Brian?

Imagine your office nemesis was just promoted to chief executive, and on his first day in charge, he held a meeting like this. You would get the message: “I expect slavish loyalty.” Now put on your tinfoil hat for a moment and consider how a spy, accustomed to ruthless covert subversion campaigns, might interpret Trump’s remarks. Even if Trump was merely making a careless joke in an attempt to break the ice, Trump still managed to put CIA employees on notice that they could expect loyalty tests and purges of the ranks.

There was audible laughter and applause as Trump spoke, but later reports made clear that the cheering and laughing came mostly from off-camera members of Trump’s entourage, not the CIA employees. One needn’t speculate how badly Trump’s speech went over with the rank and file. Almost immediately, the press was filled with anonymous comments from current and former agency employees describing Trump’s comments as inappropriate and “bizarre.”

Trump pulled the same stunt at the inaugural military ball, when he spoke to soldiers in Afghanistan via a live satellite feed. He asked four service members in a row to ask him a question.

“Go ahead, what question do you have? Don’t be like these people [the press], don’t be too tough on me.” One after another, the soldiers declined to ask anything approaching a question. Each, in turn, offered only their congratulations. “Such nice questions,” Trump said. “These are the nicest questions.”

“Such nice questions. These are the nicest questions.”

Whether the soldiers were Trump voters or not, the painfully obsequious performance resembled a forced confession in a hostage video. Reality is coming down hard and fast on the men and women in uniform. They are the ones who may be asked to die on the whim of a narcissistic, impulsive ignoramus. We have now witnessed that America’s spies and soldiers are afraid of this man, their new commander—and they should be. But we also know that Trump is afraid of them. And he should be. And we should be afraid, too, because this tension will only grow in the coming months. Trump’s unfitness for office will put low-ranking soldiers and top brass to the test. How does each one of them interpret the oath they swore to the Constitution? Any mutiny against Trump’s illegal demands may threaten fragile civilian control of government at a moment of extreme systemic stress. But for American soldiers and spies to carry out the Trumpist program of torture, deportation, and pillage would also constitute a betrayal of democracy.

Trump’s people know they do not have the full support of the security state, and this is why they are making early demands for loyalty. This high-stakes bureaucratic power struggle is what prompted Trump’s mouthpiece, Kellyanne Conway, to say on ABC’s This Week on Sunday that “it’s really time for [Trump] to put in his own security and intelligence community.” What did she mean by that, exactly? George Stephanopoulos, the host, did not follow up. But Trump already has his own private praetorean guard working in parallel to the Secret Service. No doubt validating his paranoia, the Washington Examiner reported on Jan. 24 that the Secret Service agent in charge of the Denver area, Kerry O’Grady, had posted on Facebook that she “would take jail time over a bullet” for Trump. The president is also reportedly being advised by the billionaire mercenary founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, whose sister, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s pick for Education Secretary. Trump’s “own” intelligence community may turn out to mean a group of people he literally owns—private employees who are not sworn to protect (the Constitution), but to collect (dollars).

In August, investigative reporter and critical Trump biographer David Cay Johnston went on Sam Seder’s podcast, the Majority Report, and discussed what might happen should some patriotic soldier try to prevent a future Trumpist atrocity:

Imagine that you’re a very senior U.S. military officer. You’re a guy who goes into the situation room, or a woman who goes into there. And Donald Trump then orders you to do something illegal—torture people, kill somebody we have no reason to kill, to use a nuclear weapon, to invade a country without any authorization from Congress. Your legal duty is to stand up and say, “Mr. President, that’s not a lawful order and I cannot under the law of military justice follow that.” Trump is the kind of guy who would find an officer somewhere where he’d say, “take care of him,” and shoot him, right in the room. That’s the kind of guy Donald is. Donald would never pull a trigger. But he wouldn’t have any trouble doing that and he’d say ‘you know, you were disloyal.’

Such conversations have been going on for months. They form the backdrop of the “CIA versus Trump” narrative that dogged Trump in the weeks before his inauguration, and culminated in the leaked dossier alleging, among other things, that Trump was filmed cavorting with prostitutes on a business trip to Russia. Conway on Sunday all but blamed Barack Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, for the leak of that dossier. Brennan denies that, but he almost certainly approved of other leaks intended to damage Trump since his election in November, and even before.

The earliest foreshadowing of such borderline insubordination came almost a year ago, in February 2016, when the former director of both the CIA and the NSA, Michael Hayden, appeared on Bill Maher’s HBO show and declared that American soldiers and spies should and would refuse any unlawful orders from Trump should he win the presidency. Given that Trump had campaigned on the promise of state-sponsored purges of religious and ethnic minorities, this was a welcome statement, and it was met with applause. Maher noted that it sounded like Hayden was talking about a coup. Hayden scarcely bothered to reject that characterization. “No coup—but I’m serious,” Hayden said. This was imprecise and perhaps disingenuous. To revolt against a lawful order would be mutiny. To refuse an unlawful order could be right and proper, but may still constitute, or precipitate, a coup. “I think it’s a coup that you said it,” Maher concluded, coyly but correctly. And that was that. Hardly anyone followed up.

Last March, with even less fanfare, Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes wondered on his Brookings-hosted Lawfare blog whether Trump’s election would pose an existential threat that must be neutralized by the small army of federal bureaucrats with security clearances. Addressing “national security” professionals who oversee covert surveillance programs, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, and so forth, Wittes concluded that “the relationship between our tools and tyranny is too intimate to allow demagogues anywhere near the decisions the national security apparatus has to make—or the machineries with which it makes them.” Translation: we must ensure Trump has no access to the actual instruments of state power. When I and others pointed out that this sounded like a preemptive endorsement of a coup, Brookings responded via Twitter that Wittes’s opinions were not the policy of the organization.

Such vague, heavily coded discussions carried on, haltingly and on the sidelines, throughout the 2016 campaign, and they form the backdrop for the current drama over Russian electoral interference. After Trump’s election, in November, Brennan sat for a lengthy on-camera interview with the British Broadcast Corporation and cast doubt on Trump’s judgment. For a sitting CIA director to give an on-camera interview to a foreign news service to answer questions about the incoming president is, if not unprecedented, highly unusual. And Brennan, of course, went on to give many more interviews prior to his dismissal on January 20. After Trump’s speech at Langley, Brennan released a statement saying he was “deeply saddened and angered at Donald Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement.” Trump, Brennan said, “should be ashamed of himself.”

He is not the only senior spy or soldier to be waving a red flag and screaming at full volume. The concerns have moved beyond alleged Russian interference—full and persuasive evidence of which has yet to be produced—to fears over Trump’s competence and sanity.

“This nagging voice in the back of our heads says, ‘We know where it’s going, it’s going towards tyranny.’”

Colin Powell’s longtime chief of staff, retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, gave an interview to Ian Masters’s Pacifica show, Background Briefing, on Sunday. Wilkerson considered the possibility that Trump doesn’t want to be president and will, before the end of the year, give up and let Vice President Mike Pence take over. But Wilkerson said he was leaning toward a second possibility, that “we are somehow, surreally, in a 1933 situation . . . We’re all sitting back . . . and wondering where this is going and yet there’s this nagging voice in the back of our heads that says, ‘we know where it’s going, it’s going towards tyranny,’” Wilkerson said. He went on:

You’ve got all kinds of little power centers in the Congress, Senate and House, that are going to fight Trump tooth and nail . . . There’s two ways he can deal with that. He can just say, “This is too tough, I’m going home to New York, you’ve got it, Pence.” Or he can say, “I’m going to defy these people.” And his performance in front of the Wall of Heroes at the CIA and other things he’s done leads me to believe there’s a high propensity for that scenario to unfold—that he is going to become a tyrant.

Wilkerson seemed to think that the “feckless” and “useless” Congress would not be able to effectively stand up to Trump should he opt for a clampdown.

[John] McCain can scream, [Lindsey] Graham can scream, [Mitch] McConnell can scream, all of these people can scream. They’re cowards when it comes down to it. When it comes down to the root causes of what needs to be done in this country and the challenges we’re confronting, they’re all a bunch of cowards.

If they’re going to challenge this guy, I want to see it—I think what he’s going to do is he’s going to become a tyrant. If he really does want power, if he really does relish the prospect of being king, then we’re going to see a Congress kowtow to him.

If Congress won’t stop Trump, who will? Those brave men and women in uniform who, on given the opportunity to question the new commander in chief, said, “congratulations . . . congratulations . . . congratulations . . . congratulations”?

After the inauguration, CNN was still going live at 2 a.m. EST, so very few people saw it when retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling came on, along with former CIA officer Bob Baer, and spoke grimly and soberly about the concerns their active duty colleagues had shared about the imminent catastrophes Trump could unleash on the nation and the world. Hertling said to “watch for a crisis” in the next month or two. Everyone else on the panel looked really freaked out. Hertling had identified the real danger of the moment.

Through sheer recklessness—or as a gambit to rally Congressional Republicans and stave off impeachment—Trump and his advisers could easily provoke a crisis that would effectively cement their power. The relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would do the trick if, as expected, it kicked off another Palestinian intifada. Or there could be a terrorist attack. Should Trump use such a security threat to accelerate his unconstitutional plans for mass deportations and so forth, Congress and the national security establishment may need to make a fast judgment call on Trump’s mental well-being. In Washington, D.C., of late, there has been much subdued discussion around Amendment 25, Section 4 of the Constitution, which provides for the removal of a president without a drawn-out, uncertain impeachment process should he prove “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

And then what? Should mass protests continue around the country, we may hear echoes of Tahrir Square, where the Egyptian revolutionaries cried, “The people and the Army are one hand!” And indeed, the anti-Trump establishment, both liberal and conservative, may still hold out hope that some James Bonds will save the world from Donald Trump. But this is not an Ian Fleming novel we are living through in America. It’s a Stanley Kubrick picture. We don’t need James Bond. We need Spartacus, and Spartacus, and Spartacus, and Spartacus, and Spartacus. We need mass displays of united resistance, not just one weekend, but every weekend—maybe every day—if we are to save ourselves from the dark future facing us, a life sentence inside the torture chamber that is Trump’s twisted mind, or else an indefinite period of rule by some other old white man whom nobody voted for.