The IC Is Not a Murky Cabal Pulling the Strings in Washington

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A recent narrative has taken hold among journalists and pundits that a “deep state” is behind the recent flood of leaks embarrassing the Trump Administration.  It is a notion that the Administration and its supporters have firmly embraced.  The claim is that Obama holdovers in the Intelligence Community (IC) are sabotaging the Trump Administration by leaking sensitive material to make the White House look bad.  The downfall of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is held up as an example of this practice. 

This concept is nonsense.

First, there is no such thing as a deep state – certainly not one that is unified and has a distinct ideological bent.  It is a handy device, of course, since there is no real way to disprove its existence.  If there is a dominant culture among those in our intelligence services, it is neither Democratic nor Republican-leaning but focused on professional service to the United States and our Constitution.  The one thing that binds intelligence officers together is the notion of apolitical service.  I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with friends for many years all around the world and had no sense of their political leanings (until I retired and joined their Facebook feeds).  Intelligence officers are believers in our system and institutions, and are focused almost exclusively on collecting intelligence and disseminating it to the White House, no matter the occupant.   

Admittedly, this characterization is far more boring than the notion of a murky cabal pulling the strings in Washington.  It would be news to the diverse array of agencies and personalities that they are thought capable of coming together and agreeing to leak the same material that they are sworn to protect.  It wasn’t long ago that the 9/11 Commissioners complained about the exact opposite problem – that the various agencies did not talk to each other.  Even if they had the means to collude, it is not clear to me why anyone would assume that they have a liberal agenda.  I recall articles over the years making the opposite assertion – that those in intelligence, the military, and law enforcement were conservative in attitude.

From my experience, the great majority of Washington leaks come from the White House and Congress, not from inside the Intelligence Community.  As legendary journalist James Reston famously commented, the government is “the only known vessel that leaks from the top.”  The assumption that those who collect the information are those who leak it seems to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of how intelligence flows in our system.  Those of us who collect intelligence do not own the information, and in fact, it is not intelligence until we share it.  Those with access to secrets are a far larger population than those who collect and process the information.  As an intelligence officer in the clandestine service, I was not allowed to be in contact with journalists and was required to report any contact.  I could lose my job if I failed to do so.  On the other hand, there is an army of consumers who receive intelligence reports, and many have both regular access to journalists and specific political agendas to hawk.

Furthermore, to do my job well, I had to do everything in my power to protect my sources and would be the last person to endanger those brave patriots.  That does not mean leaks never happen, but the IC is not the first place I would look.

The other side of this story is the allegation that the deep state is also withholding sensitive intelligence from the White House.  I also believe this to be extremely unlikely.  Personally, I cannot imagine any leader in the Intelligence Community deciding to withhold information.  It goes against all professional standards.  All raw reports are already disseminated to seniors in the National Security Council with source protection in mind.  It would take an orchestrated and visible effort to change the long-standing dissemination procedures.

From my experience, I suspect that this much-reported battle with the IC only goes in one direction.  If it is a feud, it is a one-sided feud fueled by the White House.  I am certain that people in the IC are just trying to do their jobs and are perplexed by all the noise and commentary about their supposed agenda.  I worked for Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama, and the mission and day-to-day work was largely the same under each.  To have labeled me and my colleagues Clinton hold-overs during the Bush years would have made no sense.  It still doesn’t.  The sooner the White House realizes that these are professionals who work for the President, not political partisans, the better for everyone.

Perhaps of most importance, the White House’s embrace of this narrative erodes the trust necessary to the healthy functioning of our national security institutions.  There is a cost to lashing out at those who serve.  At my present company, we provide collaboration software and preach the principles that trust, empowering those closest to the problem, and the radical sharing of contextual information form the foundation of high functioning organizations.  It is simple stuff but is extremely hard to build and fragile to maintain.  An enterprise with high degrees of trust and robust communication mechanisms can move quickly, effectively, and adapt to face rapidly changing environments. 

While it might serve immediate tactical political purposes to blame public servants, making enemies of our national security institutions only serves to destroy the trust necessary to collaborate and succeed when real crises inevitably emerge.

I consider the leaking of sensitive information a criminal act, almost never warranted.   To those who take joy in damaging the present occupant of the White House, I would warn that the leaks may backfire and hurt their case in the long term.  The leaks make it harder for the professional investigators in the FBI to follow the leads that might determine once-and-for-all whether the Trump campaign was in collusion with the Russians. 

For those who care about the health of our system and institutions, it is important to be skeptical of this deep state narrative.  It reminds me of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to build up the U.S. as a straw man to demonize and blame, to deflect criticism from his failing economy.  The attack against the fictitious deep state appears part and parcel of a calculated effort to attack and delegitimize the very institutions that can hold the powerful accountable – the FBI, Intelligence Community, press, and judiciary.  We could pay a long-term price for short-term partisan gain.

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