The foundations of American national security are under assault. The battle lines are drawn. On one side stand the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency. On the other: the commander-in-chief of the United States.
Donald Trump’s appalling performance in Helsinki was a subversive act. He rejected the conclusion of American intelligence that his election was aided by a hydra-headed act of political warfare controlled by the Kremlin. He did so with a wink and a smile for the smirking autocrat who led the attack.
Trump called the investigation of the Russian operation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller “a disaster for our country.” He accepted Vladimir Putin’s denial that anything of the kind ever happened. Trump likewise leapt at and embraced Putin’s cynical and empty proposal to cooperate with Mueller – “an incredible offer,” he said. The likelihood of Moscow’s spies willingly sharing secrets with the FBI is nil.
The display of fealty to Moscow was indelible. Then Trump tried to erase it. Back in the White House on Tuesday, he said he didn’t say what he meant or mean what he said.
In Helsinki it was “President Putin… said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Disavowing himself, reading from a script the day after, Trump demurred: “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’” Rather like a groom at the altar saying: “I don’t.”
It was an utterly unconvincing excuse. Trump consistently has denied everything about the “Russia hoax” and attacked the institutions and individuals investigating the conspiracy to subvert American democracy – in particular, the American intelligence community. He has compared intelligence officers to Nazis and derided FBI agents as corrupt.
But they have the power to strike back. For two years now, high-ranking veterans of American intelligence have sounded the alarm about Trump in the starkest language possible.
In August 2016 the former acting CIA director Mike Morell wrote this in a New York Times op-ed: “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” Five days before the election, writing in the Washington Post, former CIA and NSA chief Mike Hayden used a Russian term: polezni durak, a useful fool, “manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited.” Hours after Helsinki, former CIA director John Brennan described Trump’s performance as “nothing short of treasonous.” Former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired in May 2017, tweeted: “All who believe in this country’s values must vote for Democrats this fall. “
Intelligence officers already have provided reams of information to Mueller under the ambit of the law. In little more than a year, Mueller has brought to court overwhelming evidence that Russian military intelligence carried out the covert operation. While Trump emphatically denies “collusion,” signs suggest that Mueller can and will show that the Russians were aided and abetted by Americans.
Mueller has won guilty pleas and cooperation from Trump’s first national security adviser and his deputy campaign manager. In coming months, a noose around Trump – whose lawyers keep setting new conditions for an interview with the president – will likely tighten as the special counsel closes in on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
These cases never could have been made without the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA. If the House of Representatives flips from Republican to Democrat in November, impeachment hearings may open in January. Again, American intelligence officials will provide the information fueling these investigations.
But there is yet another way that the empire of American intelligence can wound the president.
Trump is haunted by the fear that a cabal of national-security officers is conspiring in secret to overthrow him. For nine months, he has been fulminating and tweeting about the “deep state” – sometimes the “Criminal Deep State” – hurling most of his thunderbolts at the FBI, his political paranoia annotated and amplified by Fox News.
I’ve been reporting and writing about intelligence and national security for three decades. I’m convinced that the threat of an American “deep state” died with J. Edgar Hoover. The former FBI director died six weeks before the June 1972 Watergate break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters – the 20th-century precursor of the Russia hack. But I’m mindful that Hoover’s death, and President Nixon’s attempt to obstruct the Watergate investigation, with the connivance of Hoover’s successor, gave rise to “Deep Throat” – Hoover’s deputy, Mark Felt, who leaked deep secrets about the case to the press.
Does another “Deep Throat” exist today? Likely so. Shortly after Trump took office, the Washington Post and the New York Times published stories about national security adviser Flynn’s secret telephone talks with the Russian ambassador. These stories, which led directly to Flynn’s resignation and his devastating guilty plea for lying to the FBI, clearly came from intelligence intercepts. The source was probably someone with access to top-secret information tightly held by the FBI and the NSA – which would make it a rare leak. Intelligence intercepts, or their gist, hit the front page about as often as presidents are accused of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Even paranoids have enemies, and Trump has made real enemies in the realm of American national security. He has struck blows against their empire. One way or another, the empire will strike back.
Tim Weiner has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for reporting and writing on American intelligence.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.