CIA Lies Low, Waiting for Trump Storm to Pass

With Dan Coats’s job as director of national intelligence on the line, senior CIA officials avoid criticizing the president.

Then-Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel speaks at the Office of Strategic Services Society's annual William J. Donovan Award Dinner in 2017. (YouTube/The OSS Society)
Then-Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel speaks at the Office of Strategic Services Society's annual William J. Donovan Award Dinner in 2017. (YouTube/The OSS Society)

For most of his presidency, Donald Trump has waged a war on members of his own intelligence community, openly scorning their assessments and now reportedly weighing whether to fire Dan Coats as director of national intelligence for publicly opposing his views.

But current CIA Director Gina Haspel, despite her own quiet repudiation of the president’s rhetoric, appears to be safe in her post. And that may be in part because the agency and most of its former senior officials have avoided public criticism of Trump for fear of incurring his wrath and jeopardizing Haspel’s job as well as the institution, according to former agency officials. Indeed, the CIA is one of the few major government departments that has not been subjected to a Trump political appointee at its senior levels.

Many career intelligence professionals are privately shocked and appalled by Trump’s behavior, in particular his tendency to credit the statements of bad actors such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the assessments of the CIA. But with a few exceptions such as former CIA Director John Brennan, most of these career officials have remained silent, knowing that Trump typically focuses his ire on public agencies he considers disloyal.

“One of reasons why a number of former officials I’ve talked to have been a little reluctant to be vocally critical is that it will make her [Haspel’s] job harder,” one former senior CIA official said. “They’re concerned he [Trump] will take it out on them and send over a Fox News analyst as the next DNI.”

The former official added: “The one thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised at is that so far the intelligence community seems to be immune from getting their senior positions filled by political appointees. Gina’s been remarkably successful at filling all senior positions with career professionals.”

According to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, a onetime Trump critic who has been recovering from a stroke, “I think Gina is just trying to get out of the way and weather it. Trying to lie low maybe.”

Hayden and others pointed out that in recent congressional testimony, Haspel gave answers similar to those of Coats, whose rejection of White House assertions about North Korea, Iran, and the Islamic State was said to have incensed the president and caused him to question Coats’s loyalty. Afterward, Trump confidant Christopher Ruddy, publisher of the conservative Newsmax magazine, suggested the president was seeking to fire Coats. The Washington Post quoted a Trump “advisor” as saying the president was “enraged” and complaining that Coats, a former Republican senator from Indiana, was “not on the team.”

But Haspel has not been apparently targeted by the president. Last year, she also risked angering the president when she testified that the CIA believed Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, again contradicting Trump, who has said “we may never know” if the crown prince was guilty. “There’s not a smoking gun. There’s a smoking saw,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters after he heard Haspel’s account.

Career intelligence officials say they have been stunned by the outspokenness of Brennan, a frequent and fierce critic of Trump who lost his security clearance last August on orders from the president.

But the officials note that Brennan’s statements have been the exception rather than the rule, although former DNI James Clapper has also been vocal in criticizing the president. In a spate of tweets and remarks on television, Brennan—who was known as taciturn during his professional career—has called Trump “drunk on power” and unfit for office.

And after Trump erupted following Coats’s and Haspel’s testimony in late January—when they contradicted Trump by assessing that North Korea did not intend to surrender its nuclear weapons, that Iran was complying with its anti-nuclear commitments, and the Islamic State was still dangerous—Brennan blasted the president again. “Your refusal to accept the unanimous assessment of U.S. Intelligence on Iran, No. Korea, ISIS, Russia, & so much more shows the extent of your intellectual bankruptcy,” Brennan tweeted. “All Americans, especially members of Congress, need to understand the danger you pose to our national security.”

Opinions about Trump within the intelligence community are hardly uniform. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer who is now aligned with the right-leaning Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said that Brennan had been “strongly disliked” within the agency during his time as director, especially by the directorate of operations, of which he was never a part. Gerecht also said that, at least at the beginning of the Trump administration, the new president and his worldview were not a problem for many in the DO, which “has a big strain of realism running through its veins” and exhibits “a certain earthy courseness.” 

But “bureaucratically no organization likes to be discounted,” Gerecht added. “The agency likes to pride itself on its presidential access and clout. So Trump is denying it is pride of place. That is never liked, never appreciated.”

Still, he said, it’s just as likely that many former CIA officials are remaining quiet for selfish reasons. “I don’t think that many retired officers care about Gina Haspel. I think it’s that many of them are still on the gravy train. Contracting is a huge business now.”

The intelligence community, which includes many retired officials with security clearances, has not been completely silent. After Brennan’s clearance was revoked, 177 former national security officials, including many with the CIA, released a statement protesting the move. But they noted that their signatures “do not necessarily mean that we concur with the opinions expressed by former CIA Director Brennan or the way in which he expressed them.” Few of those officials have been heard from since.

Most of the former CIA officials interviewed for this article lived through the difficult run-up to the Iraq War, when the agency fell under severe pressure from the White House to tie al Qaeda to Iraq and trump up evidence of weapons of mass destruction. They acknowledge that, as the former CIA official said, “it’s not unusual for the intelligence community to find that its views are not embraced entirely by a sitting administration.”

Gerecht added that over the course of its history the agency’s threat assessments often have been “astoundingly inaccurate,” and presidents are right to question them.

But the career officials say Trump’s direct assault on their professionalism is without precedent. Some have insisted the agency will remain relevant in spite of a loss of morale, particularly since the Trump administration has increased the budget for its operations. According to Mary McCarthy, who worked as a CIA analyst and official in the inspector general’s office for more than two decades, the agency’s likely response will be to try to give Trump some of what he wants on smaller issues while holding firm to their assessments on major issues such as North Korea and Iran.

“You don’t want to produce intelligence that is going to poke him in the eye, so you pull your punches. On the humint [human intelligence] collection side, it’s the same thing,” she said. “For example, hypothetically there might be source that gives them some disparaging information on a leader he doesn’t like. Maybe it’s a report that Angela Merkel strangles puppies. So you get out little things like that at the edges. But for big things like North Korea, I don’t see them pulling punches.”

Even so, for a nation whose credibility was already badly damaged by the Iraq debacle and whose international rivals, such as Putin, are happily trumpeting Trump’s dismissal of U.S. intelligence, it remains a serious question whether the CIA’s reputation can long survive, much less Haspel herself. “If this goes on four more years, it will be really catastrophic,” Hayden said. 

The CIA did not immediately return a request for comment.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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