A week ago, Mother Jones lamented that everyone had mysteriously stopped talking about the “biggest election-related scandal since Watergate”: the U.S. intelligence agencies’ consensus that Russia meddled in the U.S. election in an attempt to help Donald Trump. By the end of the day, the Washington Post had published a story that led to — or perhaps just expedited — the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. And just as that news cycle was winding down on Tuesday, another story emerged alleging that members of the Trump campaign had extensive contact with Russia.
A New York Times report on Wednesday night shed some light on why members of the intelligence community might want such information to be public (aside from their alarm over the possibility of the U.S. government being compromised by Russia, and the chaos within the Trump administration). Administration officials tell the paper that President Trump is planning to put Cerberus Capital Management co-founder Stephen Feinberg — a billionaire Trump ally with no experience in national security matters — in charge of a broad review of the intelligence agencies.
This plan has been met with “fierce resistance” from the intelligence community, whose members are worried that this could “curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview,” according to the Times.
Feinberg’s job would be based in the White House, and he has close ties to two top Trump aides, Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner. They reportedly considered Feinberg for director of national intelligence or chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service — two roles that usually go to career intelligence officers — and some are worried that he’s being groomed to eventually take over a top intelligence position.
Reuters actually broke this news last Thursday, reporting that Feinberg was being considered to review the intelligence community and recommend ways to streamline the 17 agencies. The story drew little attention because it was published as the Post reported that nine current and former intelligence officials said intercepted communications showed Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Over the weekend, the controversy intensified as more details emerged about the calls and Flynn’s alleged mismanagement of the National Security Council. (The president transforming the Mar-a-Lago patio into an open-air situation room did not help matters.) On Monday evening, the Post reported that the Trump administration was warned that Flynn may be vulnerable to Russian blackmail, and a short time later the White House said he’d resigned.
Of course, President Trump’s issues with the intelligence community began long before Reuters revealed that a review was in the works. During a speech at CIA headquarters on his first full day in office, Trump accused the “dishonest” media of making “it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community.” As fact checkers noted, he’d actually spent months refusing to accept the intelligence community’s findings on Russian meddling in the U.S. election. When pressed on the matter, Trump suggested U.S. intelligence officials can’t be trusted because they were wrong about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, he appeared to side with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange against them, and he compared their tactics to those used by the Nazis.
Following Flynn’s firing, Trump lashed out at the intelligence community again, tweeting on Monday night, “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
The fears of leaking go both ways. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence officials have withheld sensitive information from the president because they are worried that it could be compromised. (Both the White House and the Office of Director of National Intelligence denied this.) Sources told the Journal that no key information about security threats has been withheld, but Trump may not get the full picture:
In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said. Those sources and methods could include, for instance, the means that an agency uses to spy on a foreign government.
It’s unclear if President Trump would want this information anyway. In keeping with his reported fondness for one-page memos with bullet points, the Journal says, “Intelligence agencies have been told to dramatically pare down the president’s daily intelligence briefing, both the number of topics and how much information is described under each topic.” And Ashley Dejean of Mother Jones obtained a classified memo explicitly instructing the staffers who prepare the daily briefing to do it in a very specific, straightforward way. “The guidance states that analysts should only include facts that support their analyses, and it explains that topics presented in the PDB will not be covered from different perspectives in separate briefings,” she writes. “That means that dissenting or conflicting views might not be presented to Trump.”
This lack of trust, including the withholding of information from the president and politically motivated leaks, should be concerning to everyone. The Trump administration may be the target now, but obviously misleading disclosures didn’t do Democrats any good before November 8. However, President Trump is trying to make his newfound concern about leaking — and not staggering allegations of Russian attempts to influence the U.S. election on his behalf — the sole takeaway from the Flynn debacle.
Some congressional Republicans are following President Trump’s lead. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte sent a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general on Wednesday demanding “an immediate investigation” into the leaks about Flynn, citing “serious concerns about the potential inadequate protection of classified information.”
But other members of Congress vowed that Flynn and other alleged ties between Russia and the Trump campaign will get a thorough investigation — even if those efforts fall short of the independent commission some Democrats were pushing for. The House and Senate intelligence committees are already investigating Russia’s alleged election interference, and the Post reports Democrats have settled for demanding that those probes are thorough and wide-ranging.
Democrats are also calling for the FBI to continue its investigation, and the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee have jointly requested a briefing on what led to Flynn’s resignation.
Thanks to the renewed attention from leaks in recent days, if someone were to try to curtail the intelligence agencies’ probes into Russia’s involvement with the Trump campaign, plenty of people would notice.
This post has been updated with new information.