Ex-CIA Chief Brennan’s Broadsides Against Trump Only Help Putin

| Daniel Hoffman
Daniel Hoffman
Former CIA Chief of Station

Editor’s Note: The Cipher Brief reached out to former CIA Director John Brennan for a response to the published op-ed, but he declined to comment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has directed most of Russia’s military and intelligence resources against Russia’s “Main Enemy,” the United States, since he became prime minister in 1999. As a former KGB officer and director of its successor, the FSB, Putin’s weapons of choice for this covert campaign are espionage, and influence operations that target our political differences to weaken and divide us.

That’s why I was particularly upset when former CIA Director John Brennan delivered cringe worthy tweets excoriating President Donald Trump’s character and then “speculating” on MSNBC that Trump has not said anything negative about Putin because Trump “has something to serious to fear.” He insinuated Putin was in a position to blackmail the president. Brennan later explained to The New York Times that he was speculating, but damage was done. He played right into the hands of an adversary trying to widen the partisan divide.

As a trained intelligence officer who knows what makes our society tick, Putin understands the best way to soil our democratic process is to link it with a touch of conspiracy, i.e. to the Kremlin. He is acutely aware of the value to Russia of exacerbating the political tension that grips our country. Putin’s goal is to weaken our democratic institutions, including intelligence community agencies, which are responsible for countering Russia’s espionage onslaught on our country.

Putin purposely left a trail of breadcrumbs to the Kremlin in a series of discoverable influence operations: the three high-profile Russians with links to the Kremlin who attended the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting; and the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency that directed the election-related hacking carried a Kremlin return address.

From the Kremlin’s optic, these discoverable influence operations were more successful because they had the side benefit of transforming our intelligence community into partisan fodder. Putin can certainly take some credit for helping spark both the firings of the FBI director and deputy director, as well as increasingly intense partisan bickering in Congress. Having released dueling memos about the FBI’s surveillance of a Trump campaign official, the House Committee on Intelligence is deeply divided and risking collateral damage to its oversight mission and public trust.

But in Brennan’s comments, partisanship reached a new low – and they were shocking to intelligence officers, who expect former and sitting CIA directors to carefully parse their words, especially when speaking to the media.

Our intelligence community relies on foreign liaison partners to share intelligence, not just on Russia but other mutual enemies including terrorists and proliferators. I could imagine them being so disturbed by Brennan’s statements that they would seek reassurance from their U.S. counterparts that Trump and his administration would protect their sensitive intelligence. Spies operating behind enemy lines to steal secrets on our behalf must have been shocked and concerned over Brennan’s allegation.

If Brennan was genuinely concerned about the president’s trustworthiness, then he should have trusted the process and spoken privately with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Had he done so, Brennan would have avoided the collateral damage he risked by “speculating” about Putin’s hold on the president. Brennan’s public statements carry weight, and he was doing Putin’s bidding by driving divisive dialogue towards partisanship instead of helping to build consensus against Putin. Brennan is also fueling Trump’s suspicion that the Obama intelligence team was not treating him or his administration fairly.

Putin is still on the offensive. The attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain should be ringing alarm bells for all of Russia’s enemies, starting with NATO member countries including the United States. Putin deliberately chose the UK for the attack location because the Kremlin directed attacks there in the past, and he knew he would get an intense reaction from British Prime Minister Teresa May, who was Home Secretary during the British public inquiry that determined Litvinenko was assassinated. Putin wanted to whip up his electorate with anti-western rhetoric and in the wake of British expulsion action before Russia’s 18 March presidential election, portray Russia as a besieged fortress that only Putin could defend.

Putin is counting on his influence operations to plunge our politics deeper into chaos and weaken our institutions. Putin’s regime security is strengthened when the U.S. is so internally divided that we cannot with one voice counter the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy.

Democrats and Republicans regularly trade charges of collusion, conspiracy, and obstruction. We have yet to find the common ground necessary to defend against Russia’s espionage onslaught. Our elected leaders should call a time-out from partisan attacks on each other, which only serve Putin’s interests. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are the enemy. Both sides should aim their sights on the Kremlin.

The president could help, by practicing what he’s preached in the past. During an October 2015 interview with CNN, then-candidate Trump decried the House Intelligence Committee’s partisanship. Noting he had gotten along well with Democrats and Republicans, Trump said his presidency would result in an era of bipartisanship, and that he would be a “great unifier for our country.”

He could join Congress in focusing his ire on the Kremlin. He’s made a start, approving the expulsion of Russian officials, sanctions based on the Special Counsel’s indictment over 2016 election meddling, and provision of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.

As he plans for a summit with Putin, Mr. Trump has an opportunity to fulfill his promise to be a great unifier by leading a bipartisan strategy on Russia, whereby we find some areas like arms control on which to collaborate, while also making the Kremlin pay for Russia’s attacks on our homeland and allies. Doing so would dial down the partisan rhetoric on Russia and serve the liberal world order, which is under Russian siege.


This article was corrected on April 5, 2018, to note that British Prime Minister Theresa May was Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016, during which the 2015 public inquiry into the Litvinenko assassination took place.

The Author is Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Hoffman is a former Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of distinguished government service included high-level positions not only within the CIA, but also with the U.S. military, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Department of Commerce. Assignments included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union, Europe, and war zones in both the Middle East and South Asia. During this time, Hoffman developed substantive expertise on geopolitical and... Read More

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15 Replies to “Ex-CIA Chief Brennan’s Broadsides Against Trump Only Help Putin”
  1. With all due respect, the article is subjective on the part of the author. The problem I have with this kind of thinking -i.e. – ex station chief for the C.I.A., is due to said C.I.A. not being able to see the whole picture, instead only part, if that. How many times has this happened in the recent past, as in the war on terror? Iraq, being the most. Another on, that no one wants to take credit for, is the drug issues. What started out to be confined toward Russia in the beginning, has spread to the rest of the world in the form of an opioid epidemic, making Afghanistan into another Narco state producing 90%+.

    1. With all due respect, the article is subjective on the part of the author. The problem I have with this kind of thinking -i.e. – Democrat troll — is due to said Democrat Party being driven by its ambition and greed, instead of concern for the country. How many times has this happened in the recent past, as in its well known corruption? Hillary’s emails, being the most. Another on, that no one wants to take credit for, is the Benghazi lies. What started out to be confined to a video in the beginning, turned out to be the Obama administration creating yet another war, lying about it, and making Libya into another failed state, just like Syria.

    2. With regard to Eugene’s comments, the drug epidemic sweeping our country is now largely sourced from China and the Chinese Communist Party’s reluctance to truly address its newest U.S. export. Another point is intel given to those who actually make the decisions are often not used. These facts, along with the fact we only hear about intelligence failures and not its successes, should reflect more in Eugene’s comments.

      1. Terri. Good focus on Red Chinese involvement in the illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking business. It has been going on since the 1950’s if one goes back to read State Department and Republic of China – Taiwan intell reports and articles.l

        Here’s a little bunch of tidbits I picked up in So. Vietnam in the Fall, 1970 and then in Taiwan where I went to school during the summer of 1971. Re SVN, No. Vietnam was transporting heroin by train from Red China for distribution in SVN. After one of their trains got blasted by our planes, they switched to using smaller coastal boats for delivery to the South.

        When I was in Saigon in Oct./Nov. 1970, the street heroin had a potency of from 5-10%. It later reached nearly 90% purity, which could not be done in primitive Laotian labs despite what McCoy said in his book. It takes a lot of equipment to refine raw opium into really potent heroin and the natives just didn’t have the capacity to do it.

        While in Taiwan, I interviewed Ru Shu Wren, one of Mao’s bodyguards and former Red Guard activist, who defected in 1971 over the massive bloodshed going on in Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”. I asked him whether he saw poppy fields during his allowed (special pass) travels in southern China, esp. Yunnan Province. He confirmed that he saw miles and miles of poppy fields but did not get to see any heroin processing factories.

        However, he did go to a box factory that made elongated boxes that were exactly the type that both Hong Kong and Amsterdam police seized from Red Chinese vessels, that were used to transport heroin. Photographs of the “boxes” (the seized ones) were published in newspapers in both countries (Hong Kong still being a British protectorate at that time) as well as in ROC special reports (of which I have a few).

        Today, Red China is producing much of the illegal Fentanyl that is coming into the US, some coming in from Mexico but I’m willing to bet that, like in the old days, most is coming in through Vancouver, Canada, the traditional Red Chinese smuggling port, or even the ports of San Francisco, Long Beach, etc., wherever the reds are running our ports under contract.

        There are also small Red Chinese sympathizers groups in San Francisco and New York who used to be heroin smuggling centers so I would not be surprised if they were back in action, being protected by local politicians and possibly even a national one,Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), who was an old Maoist in the Communist Workers Party – (see information about her even from CWP publications at the website http://www.keywiki.org).

        Reports from friends in several cities have remarked on the growth of pro-Peking groups in traditionally anti-communist “Chinatowns” sections of several major US cities. They don’t exist to make “egg rolls”.

        Re Brennan. No body seems to know much about this man’s religious affiliations and some have speculated that he is a closet Moslem. Now in and off itself, a man’s religion may have no bearing on his work, but when he is the head of the CIA, it sure does.

        His Obama administration tenure was marked with one failure after another, from Benghazi, Iraq and Syria to who knows where else. He was/is part of the “Deep State” that the Obama/Clinton above ground and underground organizations created to set up a parallel system to any Republican administration should Hillary have lost the 2016 election. Evidence today shows that these organizations do exist, even with the top ranks of the FBI and State Department.

        Don’t know how much rot there is in the CIA or NSA, but I’ve been around intelligence people nearly all my adult life (including the fact that I was an undercover FBI and Congressional operative/informant many years ago), and I was mentored by two of the greats re counter-intelligence, the late Herb “I Led Three Lives” Philbrick and the late Herbert Romerstein, as well as others whose books you read all the time.

        What I have seen in the past 8 years worries me more than anything I’ve ever seen in my life. The threat to our democracy is from “within”, not “the outside” even if it is based on ignorance, deliberate blindness (9/11, for example), or an attitude that the US had to be punished for being the leader of the Free World re things that happened in the Third World or among religious ideologies.

        I no longer trust Clapper, Brennan, any of the Obama/Hillary FBI clique, and much of the leftist media who have done Putin’s work in regards to turning Americans against each other through lies, disinformation, ignorance and/or political powerplays.

        As a card-carrying journalist during the Vietnam war, I long ago learned not to trust any leftist any time. I saw what they did to us in Vietnam and Cambodia, and it was not only unprofessional, unethical, and anti-American, it was often treasonous.

        That same attitude is being uncovered today in “Dossiergate”, “FBI-Gate”, “Fast and Furious”, the Benghazi Coverup, and the IRS scandals.

        I didn’t make this stuff up. I just try my best to report the truth. That’s my job as a journalist/writer/researcher with almost 50 years in the business.

        Brennan is only a symbol of what has gone wrong with our country. The question is, is there enough time to repair the severe damage our democracy has suffered from the Marxist/progressive Left, or has their poison gone too deep for any real treatment.

        I don’t know, and that’s what scares me too.

    3. It’s worse, the author is turning a blind eye to Trump’s actions re: making “political fodder” out of the IC.

      Trump has done nothing but denigrate and insinuate nefarious intent in our most dedicated security agencies whom he (correctly, now) views as his mortal enemy who will bring his house of cards crashing down. As others have correctly pointed out, the FBI did not invent any of the things Trump is being accused of more and more credibly as time goes on. Trump either did those things or he didn’t, but in firing multiple people in Nixonian fashion to shut down the investigation it’s now quite clear : he does have something to hide. America should not assume otherwise anymore, the man is a dangerous liar and egotist first and a public servant NEVER IN HIS LIFE.

      I have no idea why the column’s author wants to carry water for a provable liar who may also be a traitor and is now quite obviously obstructing justice in every capacity he can. Brennan isn’t at fault for pointing out faults.
      Certainly Trump’s actions have helped Putin more than anyone in recent American history, and the author chooses to ignore that to point fingers at Brennan for pointing at it? It’s just moronic, “with all due respect” and all that of course.

  2. While I appreciate the strong note of caution regarding Brennan’s (speculative) comments, which were indeed extraordinary, by dressing up a whole raft of (even plausible) speculation as certainty, Hoffman otherwise weakens his case to a point of nonexistence.

    Yes, Brennan’s comments were unhelpful, but they pale in comparison to the frankly bizarre actions of the current administration. Whatever the motivation, the current administration has shown a remarkable reluctance to criticize Russia; has questioned the NATO alliance in statements which cannot somehow be ‘unsaid.’; has encouraged malign actions toward the United States while campaigning for the presidency; has clearly misled the public, Congress, and the FBI about a whole host of contacts over several years with Russia.

    And though I personally doubt blackmail, in the case of Trump at least, the fact that none the administration’s actions apparently rise to the level of a couple of tweets by Brennan, in your view, suggests a lack of balance and useful perspective on your part, which hobble an otherwise valuable rejoinder.

  3. You should be standing shoulder to shoulder to Brennan. He is one of the few who is willing to speak truth to power.

    Trump refuses to admit we are under attack from Putin and your comments only assist the Kremlin.

    He is more interested in getting a permit from to build the Trump/Moscow hotel then protecting the government and its people.

    You should stand with those of us that are will to admit the Russians are attacking our liberty and the President seems not to care.

    Alan Cohan
    Washington DC

  4. With all due respect to your commentary of former CIA Chief Brennan; our American Citizen Family born/raised in Western PA and Veterans of every War since WWI that our History recorded disagree.

    Our family voted for Democrat Conor Lamb, as Republicans, and the entire family will vote against the Russian influence in our White House and Corrupt Cabinet. Our Family wants a check of this abuse of power and corrupt White House. Republicans have failed their oversight responsibilities in Congress.

    The only danger from Mr Putin is what the man in our White House brought from his coordination to cheat and perform treasonous acts against our Nation before and during and continuing from USA Presidential Election.

    Our entire family is awaiting the only Patriot at the Top Levels of our Justice System; Mr Robert Mueller


    Independent Voter, Veteran and American Citizen

  5. I take the following counterpoint: we know that in 2016 among other things Brennan was given tapes and recordings on conversations between the Trump campaign and Russians. The head of GCHQ flew to Washington alarmed to warn Brennan, and members of allied intelligence agencies across Europe and from the Five Eyes community gave him what they had on the President’s campaign. The content of those materials has never become public. So Director Brennan could be speaking without any fear of being wrong.

    There is nothing partisan about the truth. And it would frankly be irresponsible and much decried if the person or persons who had the knowledge didn’t warn the public in advance. Also, his attitude has been echoed from people like Director Clapper who would’ve also had access to the information. The only calculation these people have to make then is of course not whether they’re right or not, but whether the truth will come out or not.

  6. Concerning the alleged problem of Chinese pot growers, that could be solved if America legalized pot more. Why outsource to Chinese, what Americans could grow?

    Concerning the alleged problem of China producing opioids, the main problem is with legally produced and legally prescribed opioids. Why not remove the FDA listing for oxycodone? Natural opium is preferable to synthetic, opium need not be produced because the poppy pods could be smoked and this is currently legal. Highly ironic to criticize China on this issue, considering that Britain waged war with China over the issue of British selling them opium.

    China should not be demonized, why not cooperate with them to combat terrorism, the single biggest threat.

  7. The author appears to assume Russia’s guilt on multiple issues.

    Concerning the alleged hacking, Daniel is smart enough to realize the obvious clues leading to Russia are bread crumbs deliberately placed there. But his imagined Putin would be too clever by half. Why would Putin want people to blame Russia? Wouldn’t sanctions hurt Russian economy? Wouldn’t that unite Americans against Putin? Seems to me that Daniels assumes Putin’s guilt, and tries to fit the facts into his a-priori Procrustean bed.

    Concerning the Skipal poisoning, if Russia wanted him dead, why is he now recovered? Wouldn’t that be a miracle? British intelligence has a history of posing as Russian. The victim is an associate of Christopher Steele. More likely, British intelligence is trying to divide Americans, and is never-Trump.

  8. Trump called Brennan and the CIA, perhaps the entire IC, “Nazis” and repeatedly accused President Obama of illegal wiretapping. Yet the author (and others on this comment thread) criticize Brennan for calling a spade a spade and replying to the moron in the White House? I hope you all get the jobs for which you’re tongue bathing Trump.

  9. “Democrats and Republicans regularly trade charges of collusion, conspiracy, and obstruction.”

    I think the author fails to notice the “charges” against Trump’s admin and staff are now ACTUAL CHARGES. They tried to set up secret back-channel communications with the Kremlin; that itself collusion – and treasonous in time of declared war. There’s really no way to continue to sugarcoat that as if it’s normal political activity. Then all the lies about involvement and communication with Russia while actively pursuing TT there, lying about that… the list is truly endless. The author however fails to notice and hold responsible the main US actor somehow? How is that?

    I don’t know how a former CIA officer can overlook that or outrage to it as “partisan politics” in any sense. I find it absurd that he’s blaming Brennan for pointing out Trump is lying constantly, as if that itself undermines the faith in the IC more than Trump does by promoting conspiracy theories and lies? Mueller and Comey are somehow called partisan (Republican?) “lying slime balls” and not a peep from this author? How is that?

    “As he plans for a summit with Putin, Mr. Trump has an opportunity to fulfill his promise to be a great unifier ”

    No sir. You do not lie, lie, lie and thumb your nose at Americas traditions and institutions of justice and veritas, and then suddenly by giving the Pentagon the green light you’re off the hook if it works out. That’s ridiculous even by CIA standards. The limited missile strike a day ago now was not “Mission Accomplished” and those who do not remember (or even acknowledge extant) the blunders of the past will be forced to repeat them verbatim.

    Is Russia deterred? No. Is Iran? No. They are talking about reciprocity and now have Trump making promises and taking actions without even consulting Congress for authority or peer-pillar review. And he did so using a legal argument EVEN CONGRESS IS NOT BEING ALLOWED TO SEE, NOW. What is that?


    This is the great unifier? Ridiculous, sir.