Intelligence Community pushes back against a White House it considers leaky, untruthful and penetrated by the Kremlin
In a recent column, I explained how the still-forming Trump administration is already doing serious harm to America’s longstanding global intelligence partnerships. In particular, fears that the White House is too friendly to Moscow are causing close allies to curtail some of their espionage relationships with Washington—a development with grave implications for international security, particularly in the all-important realm of counterterrorism.
Now those concerns are causing problems much closer to home—in fact, inside the Beltway itself. Our Intelligence Community is so worried by the unprecedented problems of the Trump administration—not only do senior officials possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, there are nagging questions about basic competence regarding Team Trump—that it is beginning to withhold intelligence from a White House which our spies do not trust.
That the IC has ample grounds for concern is demonstrated by almost daily revelations of major problems inside the White House, a mere three weeks after the inauguration. The president has repeatedly gone out of his way to antagonize our spies, mocking them and demeaning their work, and Trump’s personal national security guru can’t seem to keep his story straight on vital issues.
That’s Mike Flynn, the retired Army three-star general who now heads the National Security Council. Widely disliked in Washington for his brash personality and preference for conspiracy-theorizing over intelligence facts, Flynn was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency for managerial incompetence and poor judgment—flaws he has brought to the far more powerful and political NSC.
Flynn’s problems with the truth have been laid bare by the growing scandal about his dealings with Moscow. Strange ties to the Kremlin, including Vladimir Putin himself, have dogged Flynn since he left DIA, and concerns about his judgment have risen considerably since it was revealed that after the November 8 election, Flynn repeatedly called the Russian embassy in Washington to discuss the transition. The White House has denied that anything substantive came up in conversations between Flynn and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador.
That was a lie, as confirmed by an extensively sourced bombshell report in TheWashington Post, which makes clear that Flynn grossly misrepresented his numerous conversations with Kislyak—which turn out to have happened before the election too, part of a regular dialogue with the Russian embassy. To call such an arrangement highly unusual in American politics would be very charitable.
In particular, Flynn and Kislyak discussed the possible lifting of the sanctions President Obama placed on Russia and its intelligence services late last year in retaliation for the Kremlin’s meddling in our 2016 election. In public, Flynn repeatedly denied that any talk of sanctions occurred during his conversations with Russia’s ambassador. Worse, he apparently lied in private too, including to Vice President Mike Pence, who when this scandal broke last month publicly denied that Flynn conducted any sanctions talk with Kislyak. Pence and his staff are reported to be very upset with the national security adviser, who played the vice president for a fool.
It’s debatable whether Flynn broke any laws by conducting unofficial diplomacy with Moscow, then lying about it, and he has now adopted the customary Beltway dodge about the affair, ditching his previous denials in favor of professing he has “no recollection of discussing sanctions,” adding that he “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.” That’s not good enough anymore, since the IC knows exactly what Flynn and Kislyak discussed.
In pretty much every capital worldwide, embassies that provide sanctuary to hostile intelligence services are subject to counterintelligence surveillance, including monitoring phone calls. Our spy services conduct signals intelligence—SIGINT for short—against the Russian embassy in Washington, just as the Russians do against our embassy in Moscow. Ambassadors’ calls are always monitored: that’s how the SpyWar works, everywhere.
Ambassador Kislyak surely knew his conversations with Flynn were being intercepted, and it’s incomprehensible that a career military intelligence officer who once headed a major intelligence agency didn’t realize the same. Whether Flynn is monumentally stupid or monumentally arrogant is the big question that hangs over this increasingly strange affair.
Prominent Democrats in Congress are already calling for Flynn to be relieved over this scandal, which at best shows him to be dishonest about important issues. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has bluntly asked for the national security adviser’s ouster. Republicans on the Hill who would prefer that the White House stop lying to the public about its Kremlin links ought to get behind Schiff’s initiative before the scandal gets worse.
In truth, it may already be too late. A new report by CNN indicates that important parts of the infamous spy dossier that professed to shed light on President Trump’s shady Moscow ties have been corroborated by communications intercepts. In other words, SIGINT strikes again, providing key evidence that backs up some of the claims made in that 35-page report compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence official with extensive Russia experience.
As I’ve previously explained, that salacious dossier is raw intelligence, an explosive amalgam of fact and fantasy, including some disinformation planted by the Kremlin to obscure this already murky case. Now SIGINT confirms that some of the non-salacious parts of what Steele reported, in particular how senior Russian officials conspired to assist Trump in last year’s election, are substantially based in fact. This is bad news for the White House, which has already lashed out in angry panic, with Press Secretary Sean Spicer stating, “We continue to be disgusted by CNN’s fake news reporting.”
That is hardly a denial, of course, and I can confirm from my friends still serving in the IC that the SIGINT, which corroborates some of the Steele dossier, is damning for the administration. Our spies have had enough of these shady Russian connections—and they are starting to push back.
There are pervasive concerns that the president simply isn’t paying attention to intelligence.
How things are heating up between the White House and the spooks is evidenced by a new report that the CIA has denied a security clearance to one of Flynn’s acolytes. Rob Townley, a former Marine intelligence officer selected to head up the NSC’s Africa desk, was denied a clearance to see Sensitive Compartmented Information (which is required to have access to SIGINT in particular). Why Townley’s SCI was turned down isn’t clear—it could be over personal problems or foreign ties—but the CIA’s stand has been privately denounced by the White House, which views this as a vendetta against Flynn. That the Townley SCI denial was reportedly endorsed by Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director selected by Trump himself, only adds to the pain.
There is more consequential IC pushback happening, too. Our spies have never liked Trump’s lackadaisical attitude toward the President’s Daily Brief, the most sensitive of all IC documents, which the new commander-in-chief has received haphazardly. The president has frequently blown off the PDB altogether, tasking Flynn with condensing it into a one-page summary with no more than nine bullet-points. Some in the IC are relieved by this, but there are pervasive concerns that the president simply isn’t paying attention to intelligence.
In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.
Since NSA provides something like 80 percent of the actionable intelligence in our government, what’s being kept from the White House may be very significant indeed. However, such concerns are widely shared across the IC, and NSA doesn’t appear to be the only agency withholding intelligence from the administration out of security fears.
What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.
None of this has happened in Washington before. A White House with unsettling links to Moscow wasn’t something anybody in the Pentagon or the Intelligence Community even considered a possibility until a few months ago. Until Team Trump clarifies its strange relationship with the Kremlin, and starts working on its professional honesty, the IC will approach the administration with caution and concern.
I previously warned the Trump administration not to go to war with the nation’s spies, and here’s why. This is a risky situation, particularly since President Trump is prone to creating crises foreign and domestic with his incautious tweets. In the event of a serious international crisis of the sort which eventually befalls almost every administration, the White House will need the best intelligence possible to prevent war, possibly even nuclear war. It may not get the information it needs in that hour of crisis, and for that it has nobody to blame but itself.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.