The Return of McCarthyism

This time the intelligence community is the target.

When I was in college and, later, as a young diplomat, I’d meet State Department old timers who related horrifying tales of the communist witch-hunt era of the 1950s, when Joseph McCarthy, an amoral and alcohol-sodden senator, rode a wave of nationwide anti-communist hysteria to root out mythical “traitors” inside the federal government. Prized on his hit list were career diplomats. As a compliant Congress stood by, the best of the State Department’s China hands were purged for allegedly having “lost China” to Mao Zedong’s communist forces. Their careers were destroyed, leaving a huge talent gap as well as a years-long fear among diplomats to stick their necks out.

Their real crime? Speaking truth to power in their honest reporting from the field. It took many years for the department to recover.

I fear our intelligence agencies may become the next targets of a political witch-hunt, stoked by another amoral politician: President Donald Trump. The attacks by Trump and his surrogates against the intelligence community (IC) have been frequent and harsh, echoing the baseless tirades during the McCarthy era.

“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” tweeted the president following Gen. Michael Flynn’s dismissal as national security advisor. The term “un-American” suffused Joe McCarthy’s verbal attacks against his targets in the ‘50s. Perhaps no other politician today so closely channels McCarthy as Congressman Steve King, the firebrand Trump loyalist who has urged the president to “purge Leftists from the executive branch before disloyal, illegal and treasonist [sic] acts sink us.” He added, “People [in the IC] need to be rooted out.”

What’s especially mysterious, as well as troubling, is why Trump has it out for the intelligence community, a constellation of 17 agencies that serves as a linchpin in the nation’s defense. He has repeatedly blamed the intelligence agencies for leaks, and even likened the IC to Nazis. In a previous article, I speculated whether Donald Trump actually might be either a witting or unwitting Russian intel asset; his erratic actions and bromance with Vladimir Putin put the nation’s security at grave risk.

Reports circulated recently that President Trump planned to name a Wall Street crony, Stephen Feinberg, to “review” the intelligence community. Many feared this was a euphemism for acting as a hatchet man against the CIA and the other intelligence agencies of the U.S. government. After pushback from intelligence officials, the president has since stepped back from this plan, which he conjured up even before Senator Dan Coats was confirmed as director of national intelligence, the position created after 9/11 to oversee and coordinate all intelligence agencies. What is going on?

Some pundits surmise Trump hates the intelligence agencies for the same reason he detests the news media: they are purveyors of the truth, something a pathological liar like Trump just can’t tolerate.

I believe it goes deeper than this. I believe Trump has something to hide — specifically, yet-to-be revealed ties to the Russian government. Be they financial transactions going back years, or collusion between Trump campaign staff and Putin’s intelligence services, or a deep-seated paranoia that the nation’s intelligence agencies are out to delegitimize his presidency, or a combination of these, our president demonstrably has it as his mission to undercut and damage these agencies. Steve Bannon, his personal Rasputin, feeds the president’s paranoia about a mythical “deep state” embedded in the IC bent on undercutting the White House. In none of the political thrillers I’ve written have I conjured up such an almost inconceivable plot scenario. But truth indeed is sometimes stranger than fiction.

“Trump fears the IC because their findings have the greatest potential for delegitimizing his election victory. This accounts for his knee-jerk attacks against the IC,” Steven Hall, a 30-year veteran CIA operations officer, told me. Should ongoing investigations reveal involvement by any of Trump’s operatives in Moscow’s scheme, the validity of his presidency could be called into question.

“Part of maintaining control is controlling the narrative,” said another former officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. “In such a scenario, facts can be dangerous. It is in the White House’s interest to get Breitbart and InfoWars to present whatever narrative it wants, rather than let real verified facts from the IC shape a different narrative that may be at odds with the president’s agenda,” she added. The intel community therefore is seen as a threat.

Relations between the White House and the IC hinge upon the findings of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.Former intelligence officers have told me one of their top fears is that Trump and his team will use the pretense of leak investigations to launch attacks against and weaken the IC. “As the Russia story heats up, they will attack these agencies even more,” said the former CIA operations directorate officer. “The erosion to institutions can do real long-term damage,” and undercut public trust in them, she said. A senior ex-NSA official added, “basic paranoia feeds Trump’s hostility. His advisors need to bring in experts who can explain what the IC does and its value.” He noted that “most IC employees are concerned because of Trump’s unpredictable actions. CIA has the most to be concerned about.”

Steven Hall, the former CIA case officer, described a wait-and-see attitude. “Agency employees are optimistic about DCI Mike Pompeo, but the jury is still out,” he said. “He knows the intel business and has the political grounding to know how to work his masters.” The other ex-clandestine service officer echoed this sentiment. “Officers know they must simply keep moving forward, put their heads down, and just keep plugging away. They are professionals,” she said.

Relations between the White House and the IC hinge upon the findings of the FBI investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The key question is whether connecting the dots will reveal collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to steer the electoral results in the president’s favor. Pundits such as Rachel Maddow are spinning webs of possible complex connections involving Russian oligarchs, Putin’s intelligence services and the Trump camp. No solid evidence has yet turned up; the FBI’s examination of Trump’s computer server has yielded no red flags.

House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “There is circumstantial evidence of collusion. There is direct evidence, I think, of deception.” FBI Director James Comey walks a political tightrope as he briefs Congress on his bureau’s ongoing investigation.

Looking at the worst-case scenario, which actors are in the best position to blunt an all-out political and bureaucratic war against this country’s intelligence agencies by the president of the United States?

It is questionable whether Congress would intervene. The Republican majorities in both houses thus far have shielded Trump from fallout resulting from his own political shenanigans. House Republicans have sought to keep the investigative focus on government leaks while the Democrats try to steer such efforts toward possible Russian-Trump collusion. The House committee’s investigation is now stalled over partisan differences. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and ranking Democrat Mark Warner pledged at a joint news conference this week that they would cooperate in their investigation. Congress stood by for years as Senator McCarthy was given free sway to pursue his damaging witch hunts. It is capable again of committing dereliction of duty.

I queried Senators Burr and Warner on what each would do in response to an attack by President Trump on the IC. Burr’s office did not respond. In his response, Warner said, “I believe that the President’s comments disparaging and denigrating the intelligence community have affected the morale of these dedicated men and women, and that those attitudes will have a real impact on recruitment and retention of talented individuals willing to serve their country.” Warner added that he wishes that the president would show “trust and respect for the intelligence community, because they do a good job for us, and we have to have their backs.”

CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are new in their jobs and untested in their commitment to the IC, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has so far displayed little commitment to defending the agency he runs. Pompeo’s active participation in the prolonged Benghazi inquisition in his previous role as a member of Congress furthermore has raised questions in the minds of many intelligence professionals.

This leaves the news media. Print and broadcast media did not distinguish themselves during the McCarthy years. They dwelt on the sensational, and failed to investigate the Wisconsin senator’s claimed lists of communists in government and the entertainment sector. McCarthy, moreover, was masterful in manipulating the media, much as Donald Trump has shown himself today. But the elevation of investigative reporting since Watergate and the proliferation of news organizations in the digital era enhance the fourth estate’s ability to hold politicians accountable. Major publications have been adding investigative reporters to their staffs and the range of news organizations burrowing into Trump’s past activities in business and government is impressive. What the press lacks in subpoena power, it compensates in doggedness in pursuit of the truth.

A key mentor of Donald Trump as a young, budding New York real estate mogul — as it happens — was Senator Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man, lawyer Roy Cohn, an unprincipled attack dog and relentless self-promoter, whose egregious violations of legal ethics got him disbarred shortly before his death in 1986. Cohn reportedly counseled Trump, “Never apologize, never back down, never admit you were wrong, and use every means possible toward achieving your ends.” This has proven to be Donald Trump’s creed. Such tactics may prove successful in the short run, but usually result in failure in the longer term.

The mission of our intelligence agencies is to protect the United States from its enemies. They constitute one leg in our military-diplomatic-intelligence national security apparatus. The patriotic and apolitical professionals who collect the secrets and fight the shadow wars to keep this country safe deserve our respect and support, especially as our political leadership fails us.

James Bruno

James Bruno is a writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.