Intelligence Report Leak Damages Trump, Just as FBI ‘Hit Job’ Hurt Hillary Clinton
As it turns out, the U.S. intelligence community, which includes federal law enforcement and spy agencies, was the big winner in the 2016 election and afterward.
The United States Intelligence Community is its formal name, consisting of 16 federal agencies, the best-known being the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency. Edward Snowden worked for a contractor for the NSA, analyzing the inner workings of the internet.
I hope I don’t sound too off-the-wall in writing this. The mass of news engulfing us as Donald Trump takes over the presidency is confusing. The murky world of spying, smears and dirty tricks is hard to follow. Nobody, including me, has made sense of it. But looking back on what happened during and after the presidential race, two points are clear: The intelligence community, in the form of the FBI, did a successful hit job on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. And now the community seems to be doing another on Donald Trump.
FBI Director James Comey devastated Clinton’s campaign by telling Congress 11 days before the election that his agency was looking into whether there were previously unrevealed Clinton emails. He made the matter worse by saying, just before the election, that there was nothing of interest on the emails, reminding America of his first inflammatory statement, in case anyone had forgotten.
The result was clear. Comey played a big part in Clinton’s loss. What’s still not clear was his motive. Why did he care who won? He was given the job on the condition that he would be above politics. We didn’t want another J. Edgar Hoover. Perhaps more light will be shed on his motives by the Justice Department inspector general’s investigation of the FBI’s conduct before the election.
Even harder to figure out is the leak of a report by Christopher Steele, a retired British MI6 intelligence agent whose firm was employed last year by opposition researchers—“oppo research,” they’re called in the trade—trying to bring down Trump. Among the report’s finding was an allegation that Trump engaged in weird sexual conduct in Moscow several years ago. The report also said Russians offered Trump real estate deals and help with his campaign.
This is a great spy story, reminiscent of John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.” After a long and successful career as a spy, Steele marketed his extensive knowledge of Russia. Now, according to Nick Hopkins and Luke Harding of The Guardian, he is in hiding, “having fled his home in the south-east of England.”
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
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Former colleagues rallied to defend him. One described him as “very credible”—a sober, cautious and meticulous professional with a formidable record.
The former Foreign Office official who has known Steele for 25 years and considers him a friend said: “The idea his work is fake or a cowboy operation is false—completely untrue. Chris is an experienced and highly regarded professional. He’s not the sort of person who will simply pass on gossip.
The official added: “If he puts something in a report, he believes there’s sufficient credibility in it for it to be worth considering. Chris is a very straight guy. He could not have survived in the job he was in if he had been prone to flights of fancy or doing things in an ill-considered way.”
That is the way the CIA and the FBI, not to mention the British government, regarded him, too.
Throughout the campaign, Trump showed high regard for the Russians, a quality that may have raised the suspicions of intelligence veterans of the Cold War. In July, Trump invited Russian intelligence to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and give them to the media. Trump repeatedly praised Putin during NBC’s “Commander-In-Chief Forum” for presidential candidates. “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him,” Trump said. He called Putin “a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
After his victory, Trump lashed out at any implication that Russian propaganda helped him win.
Meanwhile, Steele’s report fell into many hands of Washington’s political and media elites. Journalists declined to publish or broadcast the material because it was unsubstantiated. Last week, the four top intelligence chiefs met with Trump and reported that they had uncovered enough information to convince them that the Kremlin was trying to influence the presidential election. That was not what Trump wanted to hear. Their briefing included a two-page summary of Steele’s report. Were the chiefs merely informing Trump or trying to scare him?
Steele’s report finally reached the public. It first came out in a vague account on CNN. The network said it was going with the story because the Steele report had been included in the intelligence agencies’ briefing for Trump, President Barack Obama and congressional leaders. Then BuzzFeed published the specifics.
Trump was furious and blamed the intelligence agencies for leaking the story. “I think it was disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information [out] that turned out to be so false and fake,” Trump said at his news conference Wednesday. “That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did.” James Clapper, director of national intelligence, denied that the intelligence community had leaked it.
With so many copies of the Steele report floating around Washington, nobody has found the leaker. But it’s reasonable to suspect someone in the huge intelligence bureaucracy. The result is clear—Trump has been damaged just as he is about to assume the presidency and take command of the intelligence agencies, just as Clinton was damaged during her campaign.
The losers are the journalists following the intelligence agencies, which have led the way. When Comey unleashed his hit against Clinton at a crucial time, it generally was reported uncritically, just as the entire Clinton email story had been. When the spooks wanted to dump on Trump, they did it at a time and place of their choosing, in Washington, just days before the inauguration. The news media have been reduced to bystanders while the intelligence agencies run the show.
What can the media do about it? This story demonstrates the power of the intelligence community. It’s hard to beat. Reporters could refuse to accept leaks, but that would be self-defeating and might deprive the public of information it should have. And I don’t think picketing outside CIA headquarters at Langley would help.
But here’s a way the media could show its independence and courage. Start with Trump, whose constant denigrations of journalists are weakening them. Symbolism is important. The next time he treats a reporter with contempt at a news conference, as he did to CNN’s Jim Acosta, all the other reporters should walk out in protest of him and the administration he will be leading, including the intelligence community.
That would be a story.