President Obama first heard about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election from John Brennan, his CIA Director.
Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.
Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.
But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump…
But at the highest levels of government, among those responsible for managing the crisis, the first moment of true foreboding about Russia’s intentions arrived with that CIA intelligence…
It took time for other parts of the intelligence community to endorse the CIA’s view. Only in the administration’s final weeks in office did it tell the public, in a declassified report, what officials had learned from Brennan in August — that Putin was working to elect Trump.
We now know that the FBI began their investigation on July 31, 2016. But by early August of that year, Brennan had already completed a report, which he sent to the president, outlining not only Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election, but their goal of electing Donald Trump. It makes sense that information like this would initially come from the CIA, whose mandate is “to collect, analyze, evaluate, and disseminate foreign intelligence to assist the President and senior US government policymakers in making decisions relating to national security.” Unlike the FBI, their job is not to prepare a case for prosecution, but to inform government leaders.
That background is important to keep in mind as John Brennan steps up to be one of the most vocal critics of the current president. Before even hearing from Papadopoulos or Christopher Steele, he knew that a foreign adversary was meddling with our electoral system on behalf of the candidate of their choice. He very likely also had access to information about why Vladimir Putin would want Donald Trump to be president.
A recent op-ed by John McLaughlin, the deputy director of the CIA under George W. Bush, attempted to answer some questions about why intelligence officers are speaking up:
People frequently ask me why so many former intelligence officers are commenting these days on matters that seem essentially political. The question usually goes “Shouldn’t you stay neutral — above the fray? Isn’t that the tradition for intelligence professionals, both former and still serving?”
The short answer is yes, that is the tradition. Neutrality has certainly been our ethic on political issues, which gave us credibility when we gathered or delivered information that presidents might not want to hear. It goes against every instinct to wade into domestic politics by openly criticizing the president on personal actions or behavior. And make no mistake: Those of us who have chosen to speak out are outside our comfort zones.
What initially struck me was the way he framed the questions as being about “matters that seem essentially political.” It might have been clearer if he had substituted the word “partisan” for “political.” Here is a dictionary definition of politics: The activities associated with the governance of a country or area. The very mission of the CIA is to provide leaders with information to assist them “in making decisions relating to national security.” In other words, no one should have any problem with intelligence officials engaging in politics. Where they have typically drawn the line is in getting involved in partisanship.
The reason that is an important distinction to make is that the goal of Republicans and right wing news outlets has been to degrade our civic institutions as nothing more than arenas for partisan battles. One of the ways they do that is by convincing us that politics is, by definition, a partisan power game where facts and information are discarded and replaced with he said/she said battles designed for spin. To highlight that distortion, here is how President Obama talked about a “better politics” during his 2015 state of the union speech:
Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.
When Donald Trump and his enablers demonize our intelligence services, the FBI, and the entire Department of Justice, they are trying to convince people that the activities of those departments are nothing but partisan spin. For example, they say that John Brennan wasn’t bringing facts and information to the president about a foreign adversary attempting to influence our elections. He was engaging in partisan Democratic efforts to bring down Donald Trump, the Republican nominee.
In their efforts to create a post-truth world, the entire right wing ecosphere was created to make us believe that facts, data, information, and science don’t exist and that everything is partisan spin. They’ve been so successful that we now equate their form of he said/she said with the word “politics,” as if that is all the word means.
All of this isn’t just about defending Trump against charges of conspiring with Russia. It is a way to attack democracy and produce the same result Putin has achieved at home where, “if nothing is true, then anything is possible.”