I have mixed feelings about John Brennan’s decision to write an anti-Trump opinion piece for the Washington Post. On the one hand, I desperately want more officials and politicians to come out on the record and speak the truth as they see it about the president’s unsuitability for the office. And Brennan does this convincingly and without pulling any punches.
For more than three decades, I observed and analyzed the traits and tactics of corrupt, incompetent and narcissistic foreign officials who did whatever they thought was necessary to retain power. Exploiting the fears and concerns of their citizenry, these demagogues routinely relied on lies, deceit and suppression of political opposition to cast themselves as populist heroes and to mask self-serving priorities. By gaining control of intelligence and security services, stifling the independence of the judiciary and discrediting a free press, these authoritarian rulers followed a time-tested recipe for how to inhibit democracy’s development, retard individual freedoms and liberties, and reserve the spoils of corrupt governance for themselves and their ilk. It never dawned on me that we could face such a development in the United States.
On the other hand, having the former CIA director coming down this hard against the president helps bolster the impression that we’re witnessing less of a legitimate law enforcement investigation than a slow-moving Deep State coup. I think it ultimately helps Trump that he can point to examples like Brennan’s piece as proof that the intelligence agencies are out to get him and want him removed from power.
If I’m ambivalent about the effectiveness of Brennan’s piece, I’m more certain that it’s a dangerous precedent. If I saw the former head of intelligence of a foreign country railing against the government’s new leader, I’d consider it evidence of politicization or factionalism within their intelligence services with implications for a possible coup. I’m sure that Brennan feels that he’s a private citizen now with the same rights as any other citizen to speak out, and with a special responsibility to inform us what his unique experience tells him about our present dangers. In his mind, the current situation warrants a political response even if that response hurts the reputation of the intelligence community for partisan neutrality.
He could be right. I think he may be right. But I also know that long after Trump is gone the memory of how the former head of the CIA took such a strong stand against him will remain. The problem is compounded because Brennan is seen as being personally close to President Obama. There are other former high-ranking intelligence officers like Michael Hayden who are just as harsh but who have better credibility because they are associated with a Republican administration.
To be sure, it’s primarily the president who is doing damage to the prestige and reputation of the intelligence community. I don’t want to see a one-sided fight where Trump is free to use his megaphone but the people he attacks are restrained by norms from punching back. That’s why judging Brennan’s decision to do this piece is not an easy call.
Yet, I ultimately think it was a mistake. It will have limited impact in terms of influencing what eventually happens with Trump, and probably a net-negative one at that. But it will have a lasting impact on how the CIA is perceived.
While former directors should certainly be as free as any other citizen to voice their political opinions, they should probably stay out of big stakes politics to the greatest possible degree simply to preserve the reputation of neutrality for the intelligence community. The removal of a president is the highest stakes imaginable, and I’d prefer to see Brennan stay silent unless called as a witness to testify in front of the nation in an impeachment proceeding. And, even then, I’d prefer him to stick to the facts rather than offering up his personal assessment of the president’s character.
He did write a good opinion piece, though. I’ll give him that.